When the Berlin Wall came down

On the evening of November 9 1989, East Germans began to walk through the Berlin Wall. Now, with hindsight, it seems inevitable that their story would end happily, that East and West Germany would reunite, that Berlin would become one city as it is so triumphantly today. But nothing seemed obvious at the time, and nobody was at all sure of that happy ending. On the contrary, the Berlin I remember was darker and stranger than any of the “vintage” footage you’ll see replayed this weekend. So many things could have gone wrong, and so many nearly did.
Some of this I saw because I arrived a day late, after the television cameras were gone: I drove to Berlin from Warsaw on November 10, in the company of two Polish journalists I knew slightly. Back in that now impossibly distant era of fuel shortages and pointless regulations, it was not so easy to drive a car across an Eastern Bloc border. We had to buy special insurance stamps, and acquire cans of extra petrol. When we finally started driving, we made slow progress along the crowded two-lane road that then connected Berlin and Warsaw, so different from the motorway that exists today.
By the time we arrived, it was after midnight. The eastern half of the city was mostly dark, lit by eerie, orangey streetlights, and mostly silent. Without a map, we drove straight to the city centre, right up to Checkpoint Charlie. The guard stopped us: Checkpoint Charlie was for military personnel only. We leaned out of the windows and shouted that he should let us through: “The Wall’s open, who cares about the rules?” The guard looked at us, shrugged, and opened the barrier.
We kept driving, all the way up to Brandenburg Gate – and suddenly there were bright lights and a big crowd. But this wasn’t a happy, celebrating crowd: by the time we arrived, the champagne corks had all been popped, and the mood had turned distinctly ugly. People were sitting on the Wall, and we climbed up to join them – an unthinkable act only a couple of days earlier.
Below us stood the East German guards, still dressed in riot gear. The crowd was taunting them. Some people shouted out insults, or 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, too. This wasn’t a cheerful game: the established order had broken down, men with guns – and without clear orders – faced a hostile crowd.
All of us felt that this was the moment when something violent could happen. And, as I learnt a few years ago from a German historian who has seen the archives, we were right. Not far away from the Brandenburg Gate, as we were sitting on the Wall, the men of the East German Politburo were debating what to do about the unruly crowd teasing the guards. Among other options, they considered shooting at the mob to make it disperse.
But they did not shoot. Nor had they chosen to shoot in Leipzig, the city where huge anti-communist demonstrations had taken place a few weeks earlier – although the hospitals were cleared and blood plasma was prepared for an attack that never came.
The history of Europe would have been far more tragic if either one of those decisions had been different. But by 1989, the East German leadership no longer believed in its own propaganda. Nobody – not the guard who let the first people through the Wall, and not the men who ran the country – wanted to kill their fellow citizens for something they didn’t believe in. This was why the demonstrations across eastern Germany mattered: they didn’t bring down the regime, but they demoralised it. Once politicians understood that society opposed them utterly, they lost the will to impose their system by force.
At dawn, we left the Brandenburg Gate. One of the Poles said goodbye, and went off to meet friends. I wandered around the Western half of the city with the other. Thousands of East Germans were also wandering the streets of West Berlin, afraid to return home because the Wall might be closed again. McDonald’s was mobbed with East Berliners in fake leather jackets. Dozens of people were sleeping on the floor of one of the small shopping malls in the heart of West Berlin. And this was another moment when things could have gone wrong: what if thousands of penniless East Berliners had started rioting outside the fancy shops of the Kurfürstendamm?
But in a few places, the Easterners were already lining up silently outside makeshift kiosks, waiting to receive the few deutsche marks of “welcome money” that West German chancellor Helmut Kohl had promised them. For Kohl had not only guessed that violence would be in the air, he was also determined, from those very first days, to see Germany reunified. This was far from inevitable: François Mitterrand was dubious about reunification and Margaret Thatcher was positively against it. So were many Germans: a lot of people were very comfortable with the Bonn republic and its modest institutions.
But Kohl welcomed the East Germans, and not only with deutsche marks. He pushed, cajoled and made emotional speeches at the Wall. Eventually, he and his colleagues plucked a sum of money from the air and offered it to Mikhail Gorbachev in exchange for removing Soviet soldiers from their German bases. Had Kohl hesitated, the story might have ended differently. Within months of reunification, the mood went sour in the Soviet Union. A coup was plotted against Gorbachev; power shifted. If unified Germany had not already become an established fact by then, it might never have come to be at all.
If the East Germans were swayed by their lack of faith in their system, Kohl was driven by his faith in his system. Indeed, the events of 1989 are an argument for why ideas matter. Of course economics shape events, and so do armies. But when a vacuum suddenly opened up in Berlin in November 1989, when all of the rules changed overnight, the future was shaped by a few individuals who were acting out of belief in an idea – or failing to act for the lack of one.
Although the Polish journalist and I had scarcely slept – everyone in Berlin in those days seemed to stay up all night – we had deadlines to meet back in Warsaw. I can’t remember much about the return trip, except the moment I almost fell asleep at the wheel. There was the smell of burning coal in the air, flat fields and a grey sky. At one point, we pulled the car over to the side of the road, slept for a couple of hours, and then kept driving. Twenty-five years later, we’re still married: So many things could have gone wrong, but not everything did.