Blinded By What We Saw At the Wall

November 7th, 1999

On the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In my mind, I have two distinct images of the fall of the Berlin Wall. One is the televised event that is ingrained in public memory: champagne corks popping, people dancing and cheering, politicians making weepy speeches.

The other, which I saw a day later with my own eyes, is bleaker, weirder and more threatening: aggressive crowds, angry soldiers and silent, confused East Berliners. So striking is the discrepancy between these images that it has forever changed the way I watch television and read newspapers. I no longer see a filmed scene of cheering or rioting crowds without wondering what happened just before, what might happen next, and what else was going on at the same time, just outside the camera’s field of vision.

This is not to say that there were no champagne corks in Berlin. I might well have seen a few if I’d arrived in the first few hours. But those exultant moments were short-lived.

It was the news, late in the evening of Nov. 9, 1989, of those first few triumphant steps through the checkpoints that prompted us–myself and two Polish journalists–to leave Warsaw and go see for ourselves. The next morning, we scrambled to buy extra cans of gasoline, arrange insurance, do the umpteen things that had to be done before crossing a border in that era of fuel shortages and pointless regulations. Finally leaving in the evening, we drove through the night in a tiny car along thecrowded, two-lane roads that crossed Poland and East Germany, past the Russian trucks spewing black smoke, past the sputtering Trabis.

It was a long way to go without stopping, but I don’t remember being tired. We cheered when we crossed the border into Germany; we cheered when we saw the signs to Berlin; and we cheered in the middle of the night when the guard at Checkpoint Charlie let us through even though it was technically illegal. Who cared? Who knew what the rules were now? We didn’t. And we were pretty certain that the enormous crowd gathered at the Wall would be cheering, too.

It wasn’t. Driving through a spooky, deserted East Berlin, we could see the lights around the Brandenburg Gate, but the noise was little more than a murmur. Although I spent the subsequent 48 hours roaming through East and West Berlin, and was awake for almost all of them, I did not once hear a crowd cheer. For what few people realize is that the fall of the Berlin Wall wasn’t–if you were there–a wholly cheerful event.

I would even say that by the time we arrived, the mood of the crowd had turned distinctly ugly. People were awake all right, and they were certainly sitting on the Wall–an act that would have earned them a bullet in the chest only a week earlier. But once they got up there, they didn’t know what to do next, because they didn’t know what was going to happen next. Below them stood East German guards, still dressed in riot gear and still carrying automatic weapons.

After a time, the temptation to tease the guards became irresistible. At first, people simply taunted them a bit, and threw down the odd bottle. Then, a man sitting near me began to play a game. He stood up–and jumped, off the Wall, from the west to the east.

Immediately, the guards rushed over, picked him up and threw him back over. The crowd hissed. Then, farther along, someone else did the same thing; the guards tossed the new intruder back. This happened quite a few more times, and it occurs to me now that this might have been the moment for the shooting to begin. The established order had broken down, men with guns and without clear orders faced a hostile crowd.

And the hostile crowd was getting angrier. At this point, people began chipping away at the Wall, first with whatever they had–we used a pocket knife–then with hammers and chisels. This was not the nakedly commercial activity that it became later, when entrepreneurs began selling chunks of its concrete to tourists, but an act of aggression. I remember a bearded man beside me rhythmically pounding away at the section of Wall he sat on, and equally rhythmically shouting Teutonic curses.

Elsewhere in Berlin, the atmosphere was no less peculiar. At dawn, we left the Brandenburg Gate and walked around the Western half of the city. Thousands of East Germans had already rushed over, convinced the Wall would close up again at any moment. McDonald’s was mobbed with East Berliners in nylon jackets. Dozens were sleeping on the floor of one of the small shopping malls just off the Kurfurstendamm in the heart of West Berlin. One man lay outside an electronics shop wrapped in an American flag. To my eternal regret, I didn’t have a camera and couldn’t take one of those poignant fall-of-the-Wall photographs.

In a few places, the Easterners lined up silently outside makeshift kiosks, waiting to receive the few deutsche marks of “welcome money” that West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl had promised them. In retrospect, its distribution was an astounding organizational achievement, and a stroke of genius: Who knows what would have happened if thousands of penniless East Berliners had started rioting outside the fancy shops of West Berlin? Kohl must have guessed that violence was in the air.

He was correct. Now, with hindsight, it seems inevitable that the story would end happily, that East and West Germany would reunite, that Berlin would become the unified city that it is, rather triumphantly, today. But nothing seemed obvious at the time. The wall had only opened, after all, because Gunter Schabowsky, a clumsy East German Politburo member, was asked about its future at a press conference and mumbled something unclear in response. Within hours, East Berliners had begun turningup at checkpoints across the city, to the bewilderment of the guards who let them through.

It is now known that only the timely persuasion of the West Germans prevented the Eastern border guards from firing on the huge crowds gathered at the Brandenburg Gate, right about the time we were sitting there. In Leipzig, the East German city where huge anti-communist demonstrations had been taking place a few weeks earlier, the hospitals were at one point cleared of non-emergency patients, and blood plasma was prepared for the crackdown that never came. Members of the East German army were angry (and probably still are) that things had been allowed to go so far.

What if they had acted on their anger? The whole history of the fall of the Wall would be quite different–and far more tragic. Nothing was inevitable, nothing had to happen the way it did–and nothing was quite the way it later seemed on television. Modern media tend to iron out the weirdness, to focus on the cliche, to omit the bizarre events happening at the edges. And, in a sense, those joyous TV pictures might even be blamed for some of the disillusion with reunification that set in soon afterward in East Germany. How many East Berliners sat at home, watched the festivities on their TVs, and couldn’t understand why they felt left out, confused instead of happy? Those pictures may also underlie the inability of many West Germans to understand or anticipate that disillusion.

This is not to say, in any way, that the collapse of the Wall was a bad thing. On the contrary, most of the problems–political, social, economic, environmental–that still plague the eastern half of Germany (and indeed the eastern half of Europe) are the direct result of the stupid policies of communist regimes. Nor is it to say that the East Germans did not want the Wall to be taken down. They most emphatically did.

A vacuum suddenly opened up in Berlin on the night of Nov. 9, 1989: All of the rules changed. But not all the mixed emotions that people felt as a result–happiness, confusion, alarm, disorientation–were easy to explain, easy to describe or easy to portray on the evening news. Being part of history is very different, I now know, from looking back and recalling history, or even from watching history unfold on camera. When you are there, the uncertainty can be far more confusing than anybodyis able to report, the atmosphere far stranger than most of us remember afterward.