The fall of the Berlin Wall
A most joyous day, exactly thirty years ago
Before I describe how we experienced this wonderful day, let me provide a little background. For much of my early adult life I had one standing fear: a Soviet tank or nuclear attack on my hometown, Hamburg, less than fifty miles from the border to the Soviet-controlled East Germany — the German Democratic Republic (GDR), as it was ironically called. The little red line at the top of the map will give you an impression of how close we were to enemy forces who wanted nothing more than the destruction of our way of life. And they had the military power to do the job. Shiver, shiver.
Between us and the extremely well-secured border, the East Germans had built fences and called it the “Anti-fascist protection”. What a terrible lie. In reality it was not to keep “fascist” out, but to keep the population of the “workers’ paradise” in, to keep the population imprisoned, preventing them from fleeing to the evil West in their thousands.
Sometimes the border was a river, like in the above picture. On an outing to this former border area near Hamburg, in 2002, I was deeply impressed by the luscious, untouched nature we encountered — I even picked up baby grass snakes in the forest. The region was pristine— the result of making it illegal, under pain of death, to go anywhere near the border, for forty years. Animal life loved it and thrived.
At the time I was active, to a small degree, in criticizing and alleviating the border injustice. I travelled through the GDR a few times and experienced the repressive checks you had to undergo — the border police even flipped through my books, in case they contained “subversive” material.
At the time I had an activist friend named Ines, who was engaged in smuggling people out of the GDR. At some stage Ines asked me if she could buy my passport — and use it to help someone leave the country. She offered a fair amount for it. I gave it to her for free, and reported it as lost. I do not know how the passport was used, but I assume it helped someone escape from the prison-state.
At Ines’s home I met Michael Gartenschläger, a former East German political prisoner who had moved to the West some years before. When he was seventeen he had been arrested for protesting the construction of the Berlin Wall and, in a show trial, condemned to life in prison — solitary confinement and hard labour. In 1971 the Federal Republic (West Germany) bought Michael Gartenschläger’s freedom, for DM 40,000, and he moved to Hamburg, where I met him a few times — and listened to his harrowing stories.
Michael had started clandestinely dismantling SM-70 anti-personnel mines (Splitterminen) that were specifically designed to combat defection from East Germany (“Republikflucht” — fleeing the Republic), killing people trying to cross the “death strip”, as we called it. In 1976 he was betrayed — inadvertently — by the West German secret service, and in a deadly ambush, he was killed by an East German security police commando squad on the border. They used military attack rifles to bring him down, examined the victim, found him to be still alive, and fired again at the prostrate Gartenschläger. The border units had been given the order to “arrest or destroy” anyone violating the border.
After the slaying of Gartenschläger I tried to convince the news organisation Der Spiegel to do a dramatic film on the man. We started to write the script, but in the end the project did not materialize. I have discovered, fifteen years later, that they did do a report on the activist. You can watch it here. It’s in German, though, but thoroughly gripping stuff.
During this time the GDR started to construct the Berlin Wall (above) to secure the part of the former German capital that the West had retained. Berlin was in the middle of East Germany and West Berlin had to be surrounded by a robust “defensive wall.” Well over 300 people were killed, trying to cross from East to West Germany, the wall in the city claimed at least 140 lives. People tried to escape from buildings that skirted the border — like 58-year-old Ida Siekmann, who in August 1961 jumped from a third-storey window in the Bernauer Straße — or swim across the river, like 24-year-old Günter Litfin, who was machine-gunned in the waters of the inner-city docks. Here’s a horrifying report on a refugee trying to escape the country across the Berlin Wall.
We had learned to live with all of this, but were rooting for change. In 1987 I attended a dinner in honour of the young and charismatic World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov, whom I had recently befriended. Present was a room-full of industrial captains and technology leaders. In a public interview Garry was asked about the political situation between East and West, and he said: “Within five years the Berlin Wall will come down, East and West Germany will be reunited, and the Communist regime in the Soviet Union — and the state itself will collapse.” In the audience I heard some people whisper: “Such a great chess player, but absolutely no understanding of politics!” I myself thought Garry was being far too optimistic. Events proved that his statement was indeed inaccurate: it did not take five years, just two!
On the 9th of November 1989, during dinner at home, my family had news running in the background in the adjacent room. Suddenly we went: “What did they say??” We hadn’t caught the completely improbable news we thought we had heard. On the hour we congregated into the living room to watch the news attentively.
And there we saw East German spokesman Günther Schabowski holding a press conference, during which he said, almost as an aside: “A decision was made today, as far as I know [he looked toward his colleagues for confirmation] a recommendation from the Politbüro was taken that … regulates permanent exit, leaving the Republic. We have decided today (um) to implement a regulation that allows every citizen of the German Democratic Republic (um) to (um) leave the GDR through any of the border crossings.” Questioned by incredulous reporters: “Without a passport? When does that go into effect?” Schabowski, after a few seconds’ pause, said: “As far as I know — effective immediately, without delay.” (German: Das tritt nach meiner Kenntnis … ist das sofort … unverzüglich.)
We sat glued to the TV set for many hours, many hours after midnight. TV reporters had rushed to the official border crossings to see if anyone was actually making it. You can see some of what we experienced in the rest of the above video.
The East German border guards had not been properly briefed and were turning some of the people away. At one stage a camera crew encountered a small group of people and asked them: “Do you know what is going on? The guards are turning them back, right?” And the answer: “We are ‘them’! We are from East Germany. They let us through without any problems.” And then more East Germans came, and more and more and more. Just watching it, we were in tears — just like the people who for the first time in their lives were experiencing freedom. Watch it in the final quarter of the above video. Or watch this informative five-minute video on the Berlin Wall.
The next morning, after three hours of sleep, we got into the car started driving towards Berlin. We had to see all this happening ourselves, with our own eyes. After fifteen minutes on the highway we turned back and returned home. Why?
Because on radio traffic the police told us: “Whatever you are planning: do not try to drive to Berlin and the border. There are a million cars on the road. You will never make it.”
So it was back to the TV set, where we could watch the end of the separation of the two German states. And watch all the things that were happening on this momentous day. For instance, we saw people bringing welcome gifts and handing them to the guests from the East. Even big companies chipped in. One drove a truck to the border and handed out a few tons of bananas and citrus fruit, things you couldn’t get in the East. It was all deeply moving, we watched all day.
Last year we were in Berlin, on the 9th of November, and I started writing this article. But then I though: the 29th anniversary? No, I’ll wait a year.
One of the things you notice about Berlin is that the streets are much wider than in other German towns. It is easily the biggest city in the country — and you still feel it is two cities merged into one. There are e-bikes everywhere which you can rent and ride around. Just go there and do it — you will not regret! The town has become very beautiful, decaying monumental buildings have been fully restored, everything is spacious and clean.
There is one more story to tell: in early 1990 I was on a flight over Berlin and looking down over the city. Next to me sat a lady whose accent identified her as an East German. “We are all one now,” I said jubilantly, “all unified!” Then I noticed a tear roll down her cheek. “What’s the matter?” I asked. It turns out that she and her family had spent many years trying to escape to the West. Some members had succeeded, and the others faced severe reprisals. In 1989 this lady had tried to flee to Hungary with her little daughter. But the government had closed the border, so they went to Prague instead, scaled the fence of the West German embassy there, and spent weeks in the emergency tents set up for the asylum seekers.
There were thousands of refugees on the grounds of the West German embassy, all in abject fear of getting expelled and being arrested. Then, in the first week of October 1989, the lady and her daughter at last became part of a group of 13,000 East German citizens that were able to travel by train from Prague through East Germany to the West.
“It was so horrible — we sat there shivering in the train, thinking we could at any time be torn out and arrested. But we made it: after a full decade of suffering, freedom at last! And then, a month later, you could simply walk across!” Everyone was free — the wall had come tumbling down.