The Bornholmer Strasse border barrier was raised at twenty past nine pm on the 9th of November. To know how the Berlin Wall began to crumple, we have to back up a couple of hours.
Earlier that evening, government spokesman Günter Schabowski had announced — prematurely, as it happened — that new regulations would let east Germans travel to the west freely, as of now.
The news spread like a wildfire. Ordinary Berliners swarmed the Wall. The guards had not been told ahead of time, and at first it was touch and go, them trying to keep order, using water cannon, for example. Some scenes were comical.
A former opponent of the Communist regime, Ralf Hirsch reminds us that the events of that night took everyone in the German Democratic Republic by surprise:
“There were many fears. The first concern was that a border guard would shoot someone. We knew there had been a firing order, had been deaths on the Wall, and if someone had over-reacted and perhaps fired off his weapon, the outcome would have been quite different. That peaceful revolution, that opening of the wall… nobody automatically assumed it would be like that.”
In 1989 the Cold War was still on. The Iron Curtain dividing Europe into blocs was still up, just not for much longer. It just beggared belief, people still remember today.
Berliner Rainer Mellink tells us: “I was at home working on the house and didn’t realize what was happening. When I sat down in front of the TV and saw the border opened, I actually thought it was a fictional movie. I couldn’t believe it. I kept wondering, ‘how did they film that?! What an exciting movie!’ But when I switched channels, it was always the same, and that didn’t make sense. I only realized it had really happened the next day.”
The most hardline of Soviet satellite states transformed as if shot from a catapult. Where a people had been ringed by the Wall and its bunkers and search lights, and spied on from within by the hated Stasi secret police, despair gave way to joy.
Eyewitness Isolde Nedbal recalls: “Back then we had a Trabi. We drove off in the car with the kids to see what was happening. It still brings tears to my eyes when I think about it today.”
Within less than a year of the Wall coming down, open elections had been held, borders were redrawn, the GDR was dissolved, and East and West Germany declared themselves to be one country again.