Walter Momper was mayor of West Berlin when the Wall came down almost twenty years ago. In the autumn of 1989 city authorities had been preparing for the arrival of East German citizens. Then on November 9, events took an unexpected twist when Günter Schabowski of the East German Politburo announced travel restrictions were to be lifted immediately. Momper spoke to Euronews about the day the Wall came down.
Euronews: Walter Momper, did you contribute to the fall of the Berlin Wall? Let us imagine that through an error you end up in hell. There are two guys sitting on a long table, one is wearing a moustache and his first name is Adolf, the other one also has a moustache and his first names are Iosif Vissarionowich. They find you guilty. What would you reply? Walter Momper: Well, I’m not guilty. On the contrary, I helped pave the way for the opening of the Berlin Wall and with it I made a small contribution to the reunification of Germany and Berlin and Europe – so there is nothing one could be guilty for. On the contrary, Germans are still happy about it today and I am very proud of it. I have no reason to explain myself. Euronews: Did November 9 start like any other day? Walter Momper: It was a normal day. But one has to say that every day in the second half of 1989 was connected with a lot of change, first of all in the German Democratic Republic: the civil rights movement, the liberation movement. All these things were on the way. The situation became relatively dramatic because of the increasing numbers of people escaping from the GDR via Hungary and Budapest. One suspected something would happen. We thought there would be a run on the wall, that people wouldn’t accept any longer to leave via Prague or via Budapest. Why not via the border crossings? Euronews: When and where did you hear that Günter Schabowski, a top-level civil servant in the GDR politburo, announced in a press conference that everybody was allowed to travel, to cross the borders? Walter Momper: I was in the Springer building (publishing company) where I was attending an awards ceremony when my driver told me to return to the town hall, Schöneberg, the seat of the government. He told me it was urgent. Then the chief editor of a Berlin newspaper, the “Berliner Morgenpost,” said that he had a video tape of the whole press conference which lasted about two hours. At the end of the conference Schabowski read a slip of paper about the new travel normalisation. I saw the video and said “that’s what Schabowski already told as in a meeting we had on October 29.” Then he announced that they were planning a travel normalisation and that they intended to offer people freedom of travel. I was aware that we had to work quickly or he could change his mind. He could have said half an hour later that it was a mistake, or that he was reading from the wrong slip of paper or something like that. Euronews: Being mayor of Berlin, how did you react at that very moment? Walter Momper: Well, I went to our broadcast station Freies Berlin, the city broadcaster, where the local evening news was on air. Because at that time private broadcast stations didn’t exist, about 75 percent of the residents from the East and the West watched this news broadcast. And I intervened in that evening to say: “This is the day we’ve been waiting for for 28 years, this is an historic day! We are happy and everybody from Berlin and the German Democratic Republic can come and visit us! Please remember that if you can come now you also can come in four days or in four weeks!” And I also said in this news broadcast: “To everybody who will come: we are happy that you are coming, you are welcome but please leave your ‘Trabant’ and your ‘Wartburg’ cars at home, please use the subway and commuter trains. Euronews And did they? Walter Momper Yes, most of them. Of course not all of them; it was like a deluge, like a flash flood that evening and the next day because many came in their cars. But as a result of this news bulletin so many people went at about eight o’ clock in the evening to the border crossings. There they started to argue with the border guards saying: “Look, Schabowski said we are allowed to pass and we want to pass now!” The guards asked: “Do you have a visa? If you don’t have a visa you aren’t allowed!” But people insisted saying: “Momper said it too!” – in other words a Western politician with more credibility. Over the course of the evening more and more people gathered. Then shortly after eleven o’clock the pressure of about 3,000 to 4,000 people gathered at the Bornholmer Straße crossing became so great that the border was opened. Euronews: Did you realise the full significance of this decision? Were you aware that the fall of the Berlin Wall would be the end of this unjust state, the GDR? Walter Momper: Well, how things would develop, with or without reunification, we didn’t know at that time. But it was obvious that it would be the end of – as you said – this injust state. Because the GDR was like a prison, nobody could leave it, people who tried were shot dead or were dragged back. All that came to an end and it was obvious that the civil rights movement and the freedom movement had no more obstacles in their path. The GDR lost its repressive character. But at that time we couldn’t foresee that and we didn’t realise how things would develop and that in less than a year reunification would happen. Euronews: Today the fall of the Berlin Wall is a symbol of the end of the communist dictatorships of Central and Eastern Europe and a symbol of the end of a divided Europe. How do you consider these events? Walter Momper: It’s beautiful that we regained Europe’s unity, that the communist and Soviet domination is over and that Russia is a more-or-less democratic country. It’s obvious that the nations from Central and Eastern Europe, who suffered a lot under Soviet occupation, have really come back to life: the Baltic States, Hungary, Poland, the Czechs and the Slovaks. It’s a brilliant development that a free Europe was reborn and that the biggest part of it joined the NATO and the European Union and I’m really happy about it. Euronews: Was it a gradual change or peaceful revolution? Walter Momper: It is amazing for Germany that firstly the revolution was so successful and secondly that it was so peaceful. It’s quite rare. Big social changes, also in other countries, are mostly linked with bloodshed or violence – but in this case fortunately none of this things happened. I would say we, the Germans, are a lucky nation because we achieved our unity and freedom for the other part of the country so peacefully. Euronews: What was the message of the time? Walter Momper: The message of the time was spoken out by one of the top-level functionaries of the GDR, I think it was Sindermann. He said they were prepared for protesters to come with weapons but they were not prepared for demonstrators to come with candles! And that is in fact the message: if one is united and if one agrees to do it peacefully it’s possible to change the world and to hold revolutions with candles in one’s hands!
More on the Berlin Wall: www.euronews.net/1989-2009