In the last five days of a divided Berlin, upwards of half a million demonstrators gathered on the eastern side demanding more and faster reforms, notably freedom of expression.
Ruling Central Committee member Günter Schabowski, spokesman for the east German government, was holding an evening press conference and gave some information before he should have: people could travel privately without proof of eligibility or family ties, effective immediately.
Journalists like Jochen Sprentzel flew into overdrive.
Sprentzel said: “I was already preparing for the programme, make-up, lights, and so on, when suddenly the producer told me, ‘prepare yourself, the Wall is open, and the mayor, Momper at the time, will be coming to the studio.’ Then they showed Schabowski making his statement, and the scenes of celebration about being allowed to travel freely. I had the wind knocked out of me. We’d had a totally different broadcast planned. We did not believe that something this important could happen. That half-hour programme was improvised in haste after the Schabowski declaration. This is also important for our grandchildren. It’s something that is still, for me as a Berliner, the absolute highlight of my career.”
Things didn’t usually go so fast. Vyacheslav Mostovoy, a former Soviet correspondent in Berlin remembers how one person galloping out of Schabowski’s session became a stampede. This had ‘scoop!’ all over it.
Mostovoy tells us: “It was nearly the end of the press conference. He’d started talking about things going on, then at the end he said, ‘by the way, we took the decision today to open up the border’. The whole room went silent. And then, behind us, someone shot out of his seat and left at a run. For those of us who knew the principles of German politics, it was quite unexpected.”
Journalists from Moscow were already used to increasing openness in the Soviet Union and restructuring reform — glasnost and perestroika. So, old hands in Berlin knew the authorities there still had a tight grip and a heavy hand, but not those just passing through.
Mostovoy says: “My colleague Alexander Masliakov, a famous TV anchor from Russia, came to Berlin. We wanted to shoot things for his programme. We headed out with the cameraman for the Brandeburg Gate, and started filming. There were several people sitting on a bench on Unter den Linden street; two people came up to us and asked if we had permission to film, and told us we couldn’t. My colleague was very surprised.”
The border guards were surprised, too. They hadn’t been given advance instructions. They started stamping a few passports, but as midnight approached there was such a crush that they raised some barriers without official orders, and later at crossing points across the city.
Mostovoy remembers: “I was at the wheel and we had the car roof open. The cameraman was up and filming and it was unforgettable. People around us were cheering us on, shouting, ‘hooray!’ It didn’t matter who was in the car, people were so elated that they were applauding anyone who crossed the border, and crying.”
It was a tonic for Sprentzel: “Two days earlier, I had fractured my ankle jogging. I showed up on crutches and my leg in a cast, to present the broadcast. It was a slog. Thank god I could stay sitting down and we couldn’t see my leg. Then I went home. I told my wife now we can turn the TV on, and she said, ‘forget the TV, we’re going! Cast or no cast, get your crutches and let’s go!’ And it really was the thing to do. It was like rush hour the whole night in Berlin. There were so many people, and we saw the first Trabants [East German car]. It was like a fun fair on both sides. We saw people dancing on the Wall. It was incredible. And even 25 years later it’s hard to describe how it was.”