Summary: I was in Berlin the weekend the Berlin Wall was torn down. This is the only written personal account of the Fall of the Berlin Wall.
This account has been published in Grammar for Writing: Complete Course, by Phyllis Goldenberg, et al (Sadlier-Oxford, 1999); The Berlin Wall, Cindy Mur (Greenhaven Press, 2003); Writing and Grammar , Wayne King et al (Bob Jones University Press. 3rd. ed., 2009); World Cultures and Geography (McDougal Littell, 2008); The Cold War: Chronicles of America’s Wars, by Josepha Sherman (Lerner Publications, 2003); published by Maskew Miller Longman (South Africa, 2013). The author has been interviewed by the BBC and ITN in the UK and NPR in the USA.
I earned my Master’s degree at the University of Heidelberg (Germany), where my minor was in Political Science with a focus on 20th-century history and German politics.
Berlin, 11th and 12th of November, 1989: On Thursday, the 9th of November, 1989, and Friday the 10th, the TV and radio in Denmark was filled with news about the events in Berlin. The Berlin Wall was about to fall. On Saturday morning, the 11th of November, I heard on the radio that East Germany was collapsing. At the spur of the moment, I suggested to Karen, my Danish wife, and two Danish friends, Rolf Reitan and Nana Kleist, that we should go to Berlin. We talked about what one should take to a revolution: it was a very cold, dry November day. We settled on a dozen boiled eggs, a thermos pot of coffee, extra warm clothes, sleeping bags, and a battery-powered radio. The four of us packed into my 25-year old Volkswagen bug and we drove off.
It’s normally an eight hour drive from Aarhus, Denmark, to Berlin. We took the Autobahn down to Hamburg and then across one of the transit routes to Berlin. Berlin is in the center of East Germany. There are only three highways which allow access from West Germany. At the border city of Braunschweig (Brunswick), on the German side, we began to see the first Trabants. These are small East German cars. They don’t just look like toy cars, they look like Donald Duck’s car. It was designed by a famous East German industrial designer during the 50s and it never changed. It’s the only car in the world with tail fins. It has cheap, thin metal that rusts easily. The two-stroke engine buzzes like a lawn mower and pumps out clouds of smoke. God help you if you’re standing near one. Trabants, which Germans call Trabis, have a top speed of about 50 miles an hour.
After a pizza in Braunschweig, we drove towards the German/German border. It was about 11 p.m. at night now. The traffic began to slow down. Soon there was very heavy traffic. In the distance there was a tremendous cloud of light. No one knew what was going on. On the radio, reports followed one another, contradicting each other. Soon, we began to pass cars that were parked along both sides of the Autobahn. People were walking along, all heading towards the border.
We finally reached the border just after midnight. The East Germanborder was always a serious place. Armed guards kept you in your car,watching for attempts at escapes. Tonight was a different country. Over20,000 East and West Germans were gathered there in a huge party: as eachTrabi came through, people cheered and clapped. East Germans drove throughthe applause, grinning, dazed, as thousands of flashbulbs went off. Thetraffic jam was spectacular. The cloud of light turned out to be theheadlights of tens of thousands of cars in a huge cloud of Trabi exhaustfumes. We got out of the car and began walking. Between lanes of cars,streams of people were walking, talking together. Under one light, a groupof musicians were playing violins and accordions and men and women weredancing in circles. Despite the brilliantly cold night, car windows wereopen and everyone talked to each other.
We met people from Belgium, France, Sweden, Spain, England: they hadall left their homes and come to see the wall be torn down. Germans weredrunk with joy. Everyone spoke in all sorts of languages and halflanguages. French spoke German and Spaniards spoke French and everyonespoke a bit of German. We walked for a while with a French family from Belgium:the mother had packed her two young daughters into the car and came to seethe German revolution.
Along with everyone else headed towards Berlin were thousands of EastGermans; they had been in West Europe for a blitz tour with the kids and grandmother in the back, to look around and drive back again. Withoutpassports, they had simply driven through the borders. Amused West European border guards let them pass. They smiled and waved toeveryone.
At the checkpoint, which is a 25 lane place, people milled around. Itwas nearly 3 a.m. by now. It had taken us three hours to go through thetraffic jam of cheering and applause. West Germans are environmentallyconscious and if they’re stuck in traffic, they turn off the engine andpush their cars. East Germans, on the other hand, sat in their Trabis,putting out clouds of exhaust. Everyone had their radios on and everywherewas music. People had climbed up into trees, signs, buildings, everything,to wave and shout. Television teams stood around filming everything.People set up folding tables and were handing out cups of coffee. A Polishengineer and his wife had run out of gas; someone gave us some rope, so we tied the rope to his car andpulled them along.
We walked through the border. On both sides the guard towers were empty and the barbed wire was shoved aside in great piles. Large signs told us that we needed sets of car documents. The East German guard asked if we had documents. I handed him my Danish cat’s vaccination documents, in Danish. He waved us through.
We were finally inside East Germany on the transit highway to Berlin. We could seeheadlights stretching into the distance, a river of light winding throughhills and valleys as far as one could see. We counted our odometer and saw that in the opposite direction both lanes were filled and stopped for 35 kilometers. We counted people andcars for a kilometer and guessed that perhaps another one hundred thousandpeople were headed westward towards West Germany.
We drove along, listening to the radio. The only thing was Berlin.Reporters went back and forth, describing the events on the streets andwhere people had gathered at the wall. There were reports of shoving andarrests. Large crowds were beginning to form into mobs. Police stoodaround. There were reports of rumor of soldiers and military vehicles,both East and West. At one point in the wall, the crowd had begun to teardown the wall. They succeeded in carrying away a 3-meter tall slab.
We arrived in Berlin at 4:30 a.m., five hours longer than usual. We drove first to Brandenburgerplatz, where the statute of Winged Victory stands atop a 50 meter column, which celebrates a military victory in the 1890s over Denmark. Cars were abandoned everywhere, wherever there was space. Over 5,000 people were there. I began talking to people. We left the car and began to walk through a village of television trucks, giant satellite dishes, emergency generators, and coils of cables, and tents. Cameramen slept under satellite dishes. At the wall, West German police and military was lined up to prevent chaos. West German military trucks were lined up against the wall, to protect it from the West Germans. Hundreds of West German police stood in rows with their tall shields. On top of the wall, lined up at parade rest, stood East German soldiers with their rifles. Groups of West Germans stood around fires that they had built. No one knew what was going on.
After a while, we walked to Potsdammer Platz. This used to be thecenter of Berlin. All traffic once passed through the Potsdammer Platz.Now it was a large empty field, bisected by the wall. Nearby was the moundthat was the remains of Hitler’s bunker, from which he commanded Germanyinto total defeat. We talked to Germans and many said that the next breakin the wall would be here. It was still very dark and cold at 5 a.m. Perhaps 7,000people were pressed together, shouting, cheering, clapping. We pushedthrough the crowd. From the East German side we could hear the sound ofheavy machines. With a giant drill, they were punching holes in the wall.Every time a drill poked through, everyone cheered. The banks of klieglights would come on. People shot off fireworks and emergency flares andrescue rockets. Many were using hammers to chip away at the wall. Therewere countless holes. At one place, a crowd of East German soldiers lookedthrough a narrow hole. We reached through and shook hands. They couldn’tsee the crowd so they asked us what was going on and we described thescene for them. Someone lent me a hammer and I knocked chunks of rubblefrom the wall, dropping several handfuls into my pocket. The wall was madeof cheap, brittle concrete: the Russians had used too much sand and water.
Progress seemed rather slow and we figured it’d take another hour. Thecar wouldn’t start anymore without a push. We went back towards the cityfor coffee or beer or whatever. We drove down the Kurfurstendamm (theKu’damm), the central boulevard. Hundreds of thousands of people werewalking around, going in and out of stores, looking around, drinking cheap East German champagne. Thousands of champagne bottles littered thestreets. Thousands of Trabis were parked wherever they had found a space,between trees, between park benches, on traffic islands. Everything wasopen: restaurants, bars, discos, everything. Yesterday over two millionEast Germans had entered Berlin. The radio reported that over 100,000 wereentering every hour. With Berlin’s population of three million, there wereover five million people milling around in delirious joy celebrating thereunion of the city after 28 years (Aug. 12, 1961-Nov. 9, 1989). A newspaper wrote banner headlines: Germany is reunited in the streets!
The East German government was collapsing. East German money wasworthless. West Germany gave every East German 100 Deutschmark, whichamounted to several months wages. The radio announced that banks and postoffices would open at 9 a.m. so that the people could pick up their cashwith a stamp in their identification papers. Thousands stood in line.
We left our car in front of the Gedankniskirchen, the Church ofRemembrance, a bombed out ruins of a church, left as a memorial to thevictims of the war.
We walked into a bar. Nearly everything was sold out. A huge crowd wastalking and laughing all at once. We found a table. An old woman came upand asked if we were Germans. We said no, Danish, and invited her and herfamily to our table. We shared chairs and beer. They were East Germans,mother, father, and daughter. She worked in a factory, her husband was aplumber, and the daughter worked in a shop. They came from a small villageseveral hundred kilometers to the south. The old woman said that she hadlast seen Berlin 21 years ago and couldn’t recognize it. They told usabout the chaos of the last few weeks. I asked them what they had boughtin Berlin. They all pulled out their squirt guns. They thought it was sofunny to fill up the squirt guns with beer and shoot at everybody. The familyhad chased a cat in an alley and eaten a dinner of bananas, a luxury forthem. We talked about movies; they knew the directors and cameramen. Thefather was very happy at the idea of being able to travel. He wanted to goto Peru and see Machu Picchu and then to Egypt and see the pyramids. Theyhad no desire to live in the West. They knew about unemployment and drugproblems. Their apartment rent was $2 a month. A bus ticket cost less than apenny.
At seven a.m. or so, we left and headed back to the Potsdammer Platz.Old Volkswagens don’t have gas gauges. The car ran out of gas. Someonesaid that there was a gas station five blocks ahead. People joined us inpushing the car to the gas station. When we arrived, people were standingaround. The electricity had failed in the neighborhood so the gas pumps were dead. The owner shruggedat the small bother and waved us towards the coffee. Dozens of EastGermans, young, old, children, stood around drinking coffee. After an houror so, the electricity came on and we filled up the tank. With a crowd ofpeople, we pushed the car up and down the street three times to get it tostart. We drove back to Potsdammer Platz.
Everything was out of control. Police on horses watched. There wasnothing they could do. The crowd had swollen. People were blowing longalpine horns which made a huge noise. There were fireworks, kites, flagsand flags and flags, dogs, children. The wall was finally breaking. Thecranes lifted slabs aside. East and West German police had traded caps. Toget a better view, hundreds of people were climbing onto a shop on theWest German side. We scampered up a nine foot wall. People helped eachother; some lifted, others pulled. All along the building, people pouredup the wall. At the Berlin Wall itself, which is 3 meters high, people hadclimbed up and were sitting astride. The final slab was moved away. Astream of East Germans began to pour through. People applauded and slappedtheir backs. A woman handed me a giant bottle of wine, which I opened andshe and I began to pour cups of wine and hand them to the East Germans.Journalists and TV reporters struggled to hold their cameras. A foreignnews agency’s van with TV cameras on top was in a crowd of people; itrocked and the cameramen pleaded with the crowd. Packed in with thousands,I stood at the break in the wall. Above me, a German stood atop the wall,at the end, balanced, waving his arms and shouting reports to the crowd.With all of the East Germans coming into West Berlin, we thought it wasonly fair that we should go to East Berlin. A counterflow started. Lookingaround, I saw an indescribable joy in people’s faces. It was the end ofthe government telling people what not to do, it was the end of the Wall,the war, the East, the West. If East Germans were going west, then we should go east, so we poured into East Berlin. Around me, peoplespoke German, French, Polish, Russian, every language. A woman handed hercamera to someone who was standing atop rubble so that he could take herpicture. I passed a group of American reporters; they didn’t speakanything and couldn’t understand what was going on, pushing their microphones into people’s faces, asking “Do you speak English?” Near me, a knot ofpeople cheered as the mayors of East Berlin and West Berlin met and shookhands. I stood with several East German guards, their rifles slung overtheir shoulders. I asked them if they had bullets in those things. They grinnedand said no. From some houses, someone had set up loudspeakers and playedBeethoven’s ninth symphony: Alle Menschen werden Bruder. All people becomebrothers. On top of every building were thousands of people. Berlin wasout of control. There was no more government, neither in East nor in West.The police and the army were helpless. The soldiers themselves wereoverwhelmed by the event. They were part of the crowd. Their uniformsmeant nothing. The Wall was down.
After a while, we left and went back to the city, to find some food.The TV was set to East German TV. The broadcasters began showing whateverthey wanted: roving cameras in the street, film clips, porno, speechesfrom parliament, statements, videos, nature films, live interviews. WestBerliners went out of their homes and brought East Germans in for food andrest. A friend of ours in Berlin had two families sleeping in her livingroom. The radio told that in Frankfurt, a Trabi had been hit by aMercedes. Nothing happened to the Mercedes but the Trabi was destroyed. Acrowd of people collected money for the East German family; the driver ofthe Mercedes gave them her keys and lent them her car for the weekend. AWest German went home, got his truck, and drove the Trabi back to EastGermany. Late Sunday, the West German government declared on radio and TVthat East Germans had free access to all public transportation: buses,streetcars, and trains, plus free admission to all zoos, museums,concerts, practically everything. More than 80% of East Germany was onvacation in West Germany, nearly 13 million people, visiting family andfriends in the West. After a week, nearly all returned home.
After a dinner of spaghetti, we got back into the Volkswagen and headedhome. The radio talked about delays of ten hours, but then again, that wasjust another rumor. At the border, there were no guards anymore. Late thenext morning, we were back in Denmark.
1989: The End of Communism in Central Europe
In 1848, Europe went through a year of revolution, as kings fell and democratic governments were created. 1989 was another one of these years for Europe. With countries that are literally a short automobile trip apart, where people tend to know each other, where international news is local news, political movements leap like wildfire from city to city.
- April 5: Poland. The Communist government and Solidarity agree to share power and hold free elections.
- May 8: Yugoslavia. The nationalist Slobodan Milosevic is elected as president.
- June 4: Poland. Solidarity wins a huge majority of the vote, including 96 of 100 Senate seats.
- Aug. 19: Poland. Mazowiecki is elected as Poland’s first non-Communist prime minister.
- Sept. 10: Hungary. 60,000 East Germans go through Hungary to cross into Austria.
- Sept. 27: Yugoslavia. Slovenia asserts its right to secede from Yugoslavia.
- Oct 7: Hungary. Socialist Workers Party (formerly Communist) renounces Marxism, embraces democratic socialism, and is renamed the Hungarian Socialist Party.
- Oct. 18: East Germany. Mass demonstrations force President Eric Honecker to resign.
- Oct. 18: Hungary. Parliament ends the one-party monopoly and announces elections for next year.
- Nov. 9: East Germany. The Berlin Wall is opened and five million people come to Berlin to celebrate the end of the Wall, the end of the Cold War, the end of Communism, and the reunification of Germany.
- Nov. 10: Bulgaria: Todor Zhikov, head of state and leader of the Communist Party for 35 years, resigns.
- Nov. 17: Czechoslovakia, Hundreds of thousands of protesters march in Prague.
- Dec. 10: Czechoslavakia. President Husak resigns and installs a coalition cabinet with communists in the minority.
- Dec. 13: Bulgaria. The Communist Party renounces their monopoly on power.
- Dec. 16-21: Romania. Secruity forces opens fire on thousands of demonstrators; hundreds are killed and buried in mass graves. As Christmas arrives, everyone in Europe watches the revolution on television.
- Dec. 22: Romania. The army revolts, joining with demonstrators, and the Council of National Salvation declares the government to be overthrown.
- Dec. 25: Romania. In an two-hour trial, the Communist dictator Ceausecsu and his wife are convicted of genocide and immediately executed by machine gunfire.
- Dec. 26: Poland. Radical free-market reform plan is announced.
- Dec. 29: Czechoslavakia. Playwright and human rights compaigner Vaclav Havel, who spent years in prison as a dissident, is the new president of Czechoslavakia.
Links to More Sites…
- Read another personal account of the Berlin Wall, by Shirley Thompson.
- Visit the EncyclopÊdia Britannica’s article about the Berlin Wall.
- The Free University of Berlin has a short history of the wall.
- A web site in East Berlin has more links about the wall.
- For the 10th Anniversary, there’s www.wall-berlin.org.
- Matthias Melcher maintains the University of Heidelberg’s links to German history.
- Photos of the Wall at www.dieberlinermauer.de (The Berlin Wall.)
- See Steffan Iwersen’s photos.
- Jim LeBlanc was a translator with the US Army during the 80s. He took many photos of the Berlin Wall, both before and after, which show the change in the city.
- Chris De Witt has a collection of essays and pictures.
- Cliff Docherty wrote a description of life in Berlin in 1983 during the wall. I was often in Berlin throughout the 80s and his description is accurate.
- The Ghost of the Wall.
- World Book Encyclopedia’s The Wall Comes Down. A collection of articles that examines the Berlin Wall, why it was built, and why it fell.
- BiW: Berlin Wall: Background, construction, measurements, and its fall.
- Chris De Witt’s Berlin Wall.
- Concrete Curtain. On the tenth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
- Concrete Curtain: The Life and Death of the Berlin Wall: The Caen Memorial and the DHM of Berlin.
- Fall of The Berlin Wall: Timeline of events and social and political impact.
- Fall of the Berlin Wall: Photos and newspaper articles from the days after November 9th, 1989.
- History Of the Berlin Wall in Text and Pictures.
- Lost Border: Photographs of the Iron Curtain The landscape of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall and the subsequent reconstruction of central Berlin.
- If you’re writing about the Berlin Wall for your school or studies, you can look at other issues. For example, Korea was also divided into two parts: Communist and Western. They also have a wall that divides the country and families. North Korea is barely able to survive. The USA, Japan, and China support North Korea so it won’t collapse. South Korea wants to reunify, but they can’t bear the costs of developing a country that is in near ruins. So everything that happened in Germany will also happen again in Korea. You can learn about Korea and compare the two.
- Here’s more on the Origins and Politics of the Berlin Wall.
- © Andreas Ramos 1989. You are welcomed to reprint this essay. It has been included in four American history books or English text books, an Australian school history book, and a Canadian school history book. It’s also part of the Berlin Wall historical archives. Just send me an email () and I’ll send you publication permission.