Reflections on the Fall of the Berlin Wall
November 10, 2014
Between 2009 and 2011, journalist Philip Winslow offered us a dozen of his insightful “Observation Posts,” pieces which opened our eyes to international issues with original reporting. Over a career that has spanned more than thirty years, Winslow has reported on world events for the Christian Science Monitor, the Toronto Star, Maclean’s magazine, ABC radio news, CTV News, and CBC radio. He also served in two United Nations peacekeeping missions and worked for the UN in the West Bank for nearly three years. He is the author of two of our books: Victory For Us Is to See You Suffer: In the West Bank with the Palestinians and the Israelis and Sowing the Dragon’s Teeth: Land Mines and the Global Legacy of War. He has been living and working in Asia for several years. I’m delighted to welcome him back to Beacon Broadside with this remarkable remembrance of one of the most significant events of the past decades.
Reporters will recall few “news conferences” during their careers that yielded anything like exciting news. The ritualistic event commonly is staged to drum up publicity for one of these: a revelation everyone already knows (the latest iPhone); denial of wrongdoing (desperate celeb); confession of wrongdoing with weepy apology (ditto); or imminent government crackdown on something or other.
The short-notice summons to reporters by the rump government of the German Democratic Republic on the evening of November 9, 1989 was not mistaken for one of those. As dull as GDR routine news conferences could be, no Berlin-based correspondent was going to skip this one. But no one I knew predicted the drama that was about to unfold.
Tension had been high across Eastern Europe for months. East Germans had had enough of the walls, electrified wire, soldiers and death zones that had confined them since August 1961. Backing them now was Mikhail Gorbachev, who was ending aid to Moscow’s East Bloc client states and brusquely telling off Erich Honecker, the GDR’s stubborn and unloved head of state.
In September Communist Hungary had opened its border with Austria. Hungarian soldiers stood by as East Germans flooded through and headed for West Germany. Gorbachev, visiting Berlin for the GDR’s 40th anniversary in October, was cheered by demonstrators, who were left alone by police. Honecker soon resigned, citing health reasons after gall bladder surgery. A month later the rest of the government and most of the Politburo followed. The end of the Cold War was not far off.
The press conference, which got underway at 7 p.m. in East Berlin’s International Press Centre, was a bit of a muddle. Only at the end did Politburo spokesman Günter Schabowski casually read out a note he’d been handed earlier. The note said, vaguely, that East Germans would be allowed to cross the border into the West. A German reporter asked when this would take effect. With a shrug, Schabowski replied that as far as he knew it was “Sofort, unverzüglich”—from now, immediately. It was an assumption: He had not been briefed.
The hall erupted in bedlam. Reporters stampeded for the doors in search of payphones or their drivers. This was before cell phones were ubiquitous, and the press tumult looked like a scene out of an old film.
The news went out on German broadcasts at 8 p.m., and Ossies—East Germans—pouring through Checkpoint Charlie in their thousands nearly beat me back to the Kurfürstendamm in West Berlin. By midnight the glittering Ku’damm was a sea of people—wide-eyed Ossies ogling the brightly-lit shop windows, just wandering in the West most of them had never seen, still wondering if arrest and deportation were not imminent.
Those not tasting Ku’damm pastries and chugging wine out of the bottle flocked to the Potsdamer Platz and the Pariser Platz with the Brandenburg Gate to hammer and chisel away at the Wall, and just to take it all in.
Around two in the morning I phoned my news desk in Toronto and said, “Here’s the story.” I held the phone out of the window to the raucous cheering and honking on the street below.
The euphoria was contagious, and hard to damp down. Standing by the battered colorful wall in coming days I thought that—just maybe—this heady November signaled peace in our time. I did not levitate as freely as a Daily Mirror headline: “TOGETHER AT LAST, on the day the world became a better, braver place.”
At street level, at least then, German reunification was instantaneous. Wessies, who by comparison looked well fed and rich, embraced bewildered Ossies, while noting that many of their eastern cousins looked scrawny and spoke bad German.
German commerce was lightning quick off the mark, offering everything that was good for the brain’s pleasure centre and bad for the body—booze, tobacco, fatty snacks, coupons for this and that, and political party hacks promising prospective voters a bright future. Wagons appeared handing out beer and packets of West cigarettes. Everyone on the Ku’damm was drinking, smoking or eating, sometimes all at once.
When the sun came up, one man from the East, wearing a cheap leather jacket, appeared to be somewhere between stunned and enraptured. Someone had given him a bouquet of lilies, iris, carnation and roses and he stood staring up at people leaning out of a building’s upper windows. Everyone around him was smiling too. The man’s smile said everything that needed to be said about the Cold War, oppression and dictatorship. I took his picture and should have spoken to him but didn’t. Wherever I went, asking Wessies and Ossies the standard and exceedingly dopey question “How do you feel?” the word “free” came back in one form or another. There were no curmudgeons on the streets of West Berlin.
Overnight, signs sprouted in shop windows. In a shoe store display near my apartment little lettered placards read: Herzlich wilkommen liebe Landsleute aus der DDR (A heartfelt welcome to our dear compatriots from the GDR). But shoes behind the glass likely would stay behind the glass: their prices put them beyond the reach of most Ossies, whose net monthly salaries were half of salaries in the West.
Wall chippers were of two types: tourists who wanted a piece of Die Mauer as a souvenir, and Germans who wanted to vent their disdain for a 28-year-old monstrosity that had caused so much separation and grief. If the night was quiet, blocks away from the wall you could hear the ring and tap of hammers and cold chisels, or mighty bangs from men sledgehammering the wall to pieces to open new crossing points.
It became a small industry. Enterprising Germans, West and East, quickly set up street tables selling the concrete chips in plastic bags, the brightly painted lumps fetching higher prices than the plain. Eventually, some pieces were sold embedded in acrylic plastic, like insects preserved in amber.
Small-business people who hadn’t been able to obtain the real McCoy were undeterred: non-Wall concrete was hastily acquired from other sources, scuffed up and daubed with paint. At one street table, red paint on the concrete shards rubbed off on my fingers.
The diminishing wall began to move around the world piecemeal. When one fellow flying out of West Berlin put his unusually heavy luggage through the airport scanner, the screen showed large dense patches. An officer spread out several plastic bags filled with all shapes and sizes of the Wall: about 25 kilograms of the genuine article. “This is okay, but what on earth are you going to do with all of it?” the bemused officer asked. Give them away, the traveler said, slightly embarrassed.
November’s party mood gave way to hangover and more pressing matters. Most Ossies went back East to live and work, content that they were free and there was nothing other than ready funds to stop them going any place they wanted. Wessies and Ossies began discussing how much German reunification was going to cost. Some comments on the West side could be less than flattering about their underprivileged Landsleute. A few were unsettled by the rapid change, but Germans were glad the Wall—the Anti-Fascist Protection Barrier (Antifaschistischer Schutzwall), as the socialist regime had called it—was history. It really was over.
On one of my last nights in Berlin before flying back to Prague, I was jolted out of sleep by deep-throated, booming voices and the sound of hard heels on cobblestones. Couldn’t be, I thought, turning over. It was three in the morning. The chant continued, echoing off building facades on the small side street: Sieg Heil! Seig Heil! (Hail Victory!), the old Nazi party chant. I got up to look but by the time I got the window open the side street was empty and the deep voices and marching boots faded into the night.
Twenty-five years on is a good time to reflect on what can happen when global leaders—the smart ones who have both vision and a sense of history—remember to listen to the people who put them in office, or who remember the fate of those who seized office without asking the people. Today’s leaders, such as we have, might benefit from recalling what Gorbachev sternly told the East German Politburo in November 1989. His press secretary neatly modified the phrase into this:
“Life punishes those who come too late!”
Philip C. Winslow has been a journalist and foreign correspondent for more than twenty years; he has worked for the Christian Science Monitor, the Toronto Star, Maclean's magazine, ABC radio news, CTV News, and CBC radio. He also served in two United Nations peacekeeping missions and spent nearly three years living in the West Bank. He is the author of Victory For Us Is to See You Suffer and Sowing the Dragon’s Teeth.