25 years since the Berlin Wall fell – a Berliner looks back

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Anniversary celebrations at the Brandenburg Gate on 9th November 2014

It happened almost by mistake on 9th November 1989. The anniversary celebrations 25 years later at the Brandenburg Gate included a row of white balloons where the wall once stood. Pictures of them flying off into the sky went around the world.

In 2014 9th November was a Sunday and I went to Mass at St Hedwig Cathedral only a kilometre away. For the first time ever I heard the tune of the German national anthem played at Mass. It drove the tears to my eyes as I remembered the overwhelming joy everyone felt 25 years ago.

The Stasi never sang along

The peaceful revolution, as it is called, had its origins in the churches. I recently visited Gethsemane Church in East Berlin where thousands gathered in October 1989 just to get some information on the situation. The police never entered the churches although the infamous Stasi secret service did. A man who was there at the time told me they could tell who they were as they never sang along. Some people were beaten or arrested as they left though.

The outcome was indeed unknown and at one point there was an order to make use of firearms. But the general situation in Eastern Europe had changed. Hungary was the first country to open its border with Austria and tens of thousands of East Germans went through. The Soviet Union had also changed under Mikhail Gorbatshev. No help was to be expected to continue the oppression.

The Wall fell by accident

A new head of state came to power, which in itself was very unusual. Living in West Berlin I still didn’t even consider that the wall could fall. It had been there since before I was born. But on 9th November 1989 at a press conference a government minister read out a statement saying that travelling to the West would now be possible if people had the appropriate papers. He was asked when this would come into force and stumbled that this came into effect immediately.

At that point tens of thousands left for the border. The guards didn’t have any orders and phoned their superiors, but got no answer. At last they decided to open the gates. Not a single shot was fired.

Walter Momper was mayor of West Berlin in 1989
Walter Momper was mayor of West Berlin in 1989

Would they let me out again?

The opening of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin a few days before Christmas 25 years ago was another symbolic moment. In early November the iron curtain had fallen politically, but it was yet to be taken down physically. I was there on the day, when a crane lifted several pieces of concrete out of the wall to open a border crossing. There were huge crowds on either side. When they poured through the border guards could only step aside. I remember feeling slightly uneasy going through without a stamp in my passport. Would they let me out again?

The emotion was overwhelming though. I still have tears in my eyes thinking back. The wall which had cut my home town in two was finally tumbling. Only a few steps on the other side and a young East German lady came up to me and gave me kiss on the cheek. Such was the joy on both sides. I strolled up “Unter den Linden,” East Berlin’s main avenue, together with a friend of mine. In front of Humboldt University a group of French communists were trying to convert us to their cause. They couldn’t have picked a worse day.

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Only one block away from Unter den Linden German history is still omnipresent. Bullet holes from WWII and a much larger hole left in the row of houses by a bomb between a new-build and a restored house. Next to it is a house which hasn’t changed much since 1945.

When Germany commemorated the anniversary of the fall of the communist/ socialist regime in November 2014 I was back at the Gate. Michail Gorbatshev, the Soviet leader who started the political change in the East, was there, too, and warned of a new cold war.

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