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Dancing on the Berlin Wall

A return to the scene of the 20th century’s greatest accidental revolution.

Once it was a stark symbol of cruelty and division, cutting its illogical way across side streets, between buildings or across open land, dividing families, keeping an entire nation prisoner. And yet visiting Berlin in October in advance of the 30th anniversary, I found it hard, in places, to work out where the Berlin Wall ran. There are stretches where it has disappeared altogether; in others it’s marked on the ground by a discreet double line of cobblestones. A few short sections of it have been preserved, in a Disneyland kind of way, but they give no sense of the fear the Wall used to inspire – that double line of concrete separated by an open killing-ground a hundred metres across, dotted with watchtowers, patrolled by groups of armed soldiers and dogs trained to kill.

***

On the morning of Thursday 9 November 1989 no one had any idea that this would be a date to match the historical importance of Tuesday 14 July 1789, when the Bastille was stormed, or Wednesday 7 November 1917, when the Bolsheviks took the Winter Palace. At around 7.20pm I was standing in the lobby of a hotel in Poland, where Chancellor Helmut Kohl was on an official visit. Together with a small group of West German journalists, I was chatting to him when an aide hurried over and whispered in his ear. I caught two words: “Die Mauer” – the Wall. Kohl opened his eyes wide, and looked around anxiously for his chief adviser. The Wall had fallen.

Owing to the sclerotic state of civil aviation in the Soviet bloc, it took me 25 hours to travel the 300 miles to Berlin. When I arrived, on Friday evening, huge crowds of Easterners – Ostis – were pouring through the six crossing-points into West Berlin, laughing and wondering at their sudden freedom. The border guards, who still had orders to shoot anyone trying to leave illegally, had big grins on their faces.

Later that night, after I had finished broadcasting for the BBC, I went back to the Wall. Hundreds of people were dancing on top of it, and I was determined to join them. Someone offered their back for me, and willing hands hoisted me up. It wasn’t easy. The Wall was a good 12ft high, and I barked my shin on the coping stone on the way up, tearing the trousers of my best television-appearance suit. No matter; I knelt, then stood, then raised my arms in triumph while everyone around me laughed and sang and kissed each other. A beautiful young blonde danced with me.

Only the previous day, the Berlin Wall had been the same grim dividing-line between Soviet-occupied eastern Europe and the West that it had been for 28 years, a prison enclosure preventing people escaping to the West. Yet things had been changing. During October 1989 big demonstrations built up in Leipzig and other cities. The old hardline East German leader, Erich Honecker, decided that the only way to reassert Communist Party control was to ask the Soviet army to intervene: the Tiananmen Square solution. But this was unacceptable to Moscow, where the moderating influence of Mikhail Gorbachev was dominant. Soon Honecker fell from power. Now the newly liberal East German politburo – the Communist Party’s executive committee – wanted to find ways of satisfying some at least of the demonstrators’ demands. At their meeting on 9 November they fixed on a plan: people would be allowed to apply for temporary visas to West Germany. The system would be deliberately slow and bureaucratic, in order to calm things down.

But there was a problem. The politburo spokesman, Günter Schabowski, hadn’t been at the meeting and didn’t understand the details of the decision. He was late for his press conference, and came in sweating and riffling nervously through the documents he was carrying. He had mislaid the piece of paper containing the correct wording of the politburo decision. When the press conference began, he was still looking through the bulging file in front of him. Instead of starting with the big announcement, he read out several minor items first. An official stepped forward to help. Spotting the typed sheet sticking out of Schabowski’s file, he pulled it out and handed it to him. Schabowski, relieved, told the journalists, “This will be interesting for you.” It was one of the 20th century’s bigger understatements. But he didn’t get to the details. A reporter interrupted to ask when the exit process would start. Still flustered, Schabowski answered “sofort”, “unverzüglich”: immediately, straight away. He meant that people could apply for the visas from the following morning.

All this was being broadcast live, but most people in East Berlin preferred to watch West German television. Across the Wall, West German news teams were covering the press conference closely. Since TV news isn’t strong on subtlety, they oversimplified what Schabowski had said. At 7.17pm the West German ZDF channel put an excitable headline across its screens: “EAST GERMANY OPENS BORDER.” On the Eastern side, people arriving home from work were electrified by the words. Rushing out on to the landing or into the street, they called out to their neighbours. The news spread instantaneously.

One group of people was completely ignorant of what was happening: the politburo. Its members, minus Schabowski, carried on with their discussion. In Berlin recently I interviewed Hans Modrow, the liberalising socialist who, that November, became East Germany’s premier. Nowadays he’s a sprightly, energetic 91-year-old, still active in politics. He told me the television had been on in the politburo room throughout the meeting, but that no one there watched Schabowski’s shambolic performance. When their meeting broke up, they assumed their efforts to ease the pressure had been successful.

Modrow walked home after the meeting instead of being driven in a party limousine. It was only when a group of young people, singing and shouting, asked him about the opening of the border that he realised what had happened. Depressed, he went straight to bed. Meanwhile, thousands were flooding towards the crossing-points into West Berlin. The guards saw they couldn’t halt the flow, and stood aside. While its new premier slept, East Germany’s defences were being swept away.

During the carnival-like days that followed, all sorts of weird notions circulated. One, current in Catholic Bavaria, went like this: the strange young man who had handed Schabowski the piece of paper with the politburo decision on it had appeared out of nowhere, and was actually an angel. “For me, this was a true miracle,” a Bavarian politician said to me at the time. “If you can find the identity of that young man, you’ll have an amazing story to tell the world.” Six weeks after the fall of the Wall, I thought I’d try. I went back to Berlin to see Schabowski, who lived modestly in a flat over a shop. His Russian-born wife opened the door. “He’s still upset,” she whispered, though when I sat down with him he seemed ruefully amused by what had happened. He told me how nervous he’d been, and how he’d lost the essential bit of paper. And the theory that an angel had been involved? He clapped his hands with amusement. “It was my assistant. I don’t think anyone has ever called him an angel in his life. Not even his girlfriend.”

Yet even without heavenly intervention, the Wall was finished. The East German state existed solely because Moscow kept it on life support, and now Gorbachev had decided to pull the plug. As my perceptive BBC colleague Brian Hanrahan reported at the time, Honecker was “a small dapper dinosaur trying to avoid extinction in a fast-changing communist world”. Extinction was inevitable, but not just for Honecker. The communist system itself was done for.

East Germany had its good points – its education and health systems, for instance, were impressive – but it was never anything but a police state. Soon after the Wall fell, the Stasi files were opened: all 111km of them. The full extent of the spying that had gone on suddenly became clear. The Stasi was watching one in seven of the population. People began discovering that their nearest and dearest had been feeding information about them to the Stasi, among them a leading dissident whose husband had been reporting on her every movement for years. I interviewed her in December 1989, just after she’d seen her file. “Can you can imagine what sort of Christmas our family will have?” she asked grimly.

***

A couple of years earlier, in 1987, I’d travelled around East Germany for the BBC. Any suggestion then that its days were numbered would have seemed preposterous; it looked permanent, immutable. Our ministry fixer was 40-ish and well-dressed. “Let’s get one thing straight,” she announced. “Don’t bother telling me how wonderful the West is. My husband and I lead good lives here in East Germany, and we’ve got everything we need. So let’s not waste each other’s time.” Over the next few days we got to know and trust each other. “Oh God,” she said as we drove back through the unrelenting rain to East Berlin, “I hate this dreadful country. My husband and I are desperate to get out.”

I’ve lost contact with her, sadly. It would have been good to have interviewed her on this 30th anniversary. Günter Schabowski, whose momentary confusion brought the Wall down, died a few years ago. Hans Modrow, the one-time premier, is free to praise East Germany’s puritanical virtues. But the past has evaporated, and today the only hint that you’re in East Berlin rather than the West is that it seems a little quieter there, a touch less garish.

The memory of the Wall is now one of Berlin’s main attractions. Friedrichstraße, which used to be bisected by Checkpoint Charlie and was just about the most ominous place on Earth, has become a noisy tourist trap: you have to battle through Chinese, Malaysians, Turks and Mancunians to get a look at the place where the Soviet bloc once confronted the West. There’s a McDonald’s and a KFC in the street, and an array of souvenir shops where you can buy little concrete fragments of the Wall, painted in nice colours and mounted on plastic stands. The shops insist they’re genuine; perhaps some of them are. Capitalism has won a victory in the very place it was once most seriously threatened.

East Germany was always abnormal, unnatural, never much more than an elaborate prison, built by Stalin and kept going by Soviet weaponry and a powerful secret police force. It had no objective reason for existing, and when the moment came it showed all the strength and resilience of wet cardboard. Which is why a couple of careless words from a flustered Osti bureaucrat were enough to open the gates of the ugliest and most forbidding barrier of our time. 

John Simpson is the BBC’s world affairs editor. His documentary on the fall of the Berlin Wall is on BBC iPlayer

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article appears in the 06 November 2019 issue of the New Statesman, What went wrong