Berlin Wall Ten Years After: `It has lost its meaning. It must be torn down'

Ten years ago today, Neil Ascherson filed this report for `The Independent' on the fall of the Berlin Wall

EAST GERMANY last night decided to throw open its heavily fortified "Iron Curtain" border, including the Berlin Wall. Soon after the announcement was made at 6.55pm local time, East Germans on foot and in cars had begun arriving in the West.

One couple crossed the Bornholmer Strasse checkpoint into West Berlin at 9.15pm, their identity cards stamped with new- style visas. Later, hundreds more were seen coming by way of the Friedrichstrasse underground station. Unusually, others were allowed to come in through the military- run Checkpoint Charlie. Many apparently camewithout visas, although these were technically necessary.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl, on a state visit to Poland, told West German television that he wanted talks with the new East German leader, Egon Krenz. "We will be in contact with the East German leadership shortly after my return," he said, "and I would like to meet very soon with Mr Krenz." Asked how many refugees West Germany could absorb, Mr Kohl said: "We shall have to wait and see how many actually come." He added that it would be in West Germany's interest for East Germans to "stay at home".

US President George Bush said that he was elated with the decision, calling it "a dramatic happening".

The announcement struck West Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, like a thunderbolt. A debate about taxation erupted into ecstatic applause. An impromptu rendition of the third verse of the national anthem - "unity and law and freedom" - filled the chamber. Many parliamentarians called for the immediate pulling down of the Berlin Wall, built in 1961.

The mayor of West Berlin, Walter Momper, said: "This is the day that we have been waiting for for so long. The border will no longer keep us apart. It is a day of happiness for Berlin." Eberhard Diepgen, a Christian Democrat, said: "The wall has lost its meaning. It can and must be torn down."

The East German move has followed weeks of demonstrations and calls for political reform. Though Egon Krenz, the new Communist Party chief and head of state, hinted at forthcoming "free" elections on Wednesday, he dampened hopes yesterday [Friday] by adding that he was "working on the basis that our elections are already not unfree".

The demographic implications of the decision to open the border may prove immense. Some 1.3 million East Germans - from a population of 16.6 million - had already applied to emigrate to the West. With 200,000 having left East Germany this year alone, the army has been brought in to maintain public transport, food deliveries and hospital services.

In West Germany, an Interior Ministry official promised last night that no one would be turned back from the East.

But some West Germans now fear that potential problems of jobs and accommodation could provoke a right-wing political backlash.

Gunter Schabowski, the East German Politburo media chief who announced the open border, said the Berlin Wall would remain standing, for the time being, for military reasons. It was needed to "ensure peace", pending a change of attitude by Nato towards the East.

Early today, hundreds of West Berliners stormed Checkpoint Charlie in an effort to force their way through to the East German side.

They pushed across the white demarcation line dividing East from West Berlin shouting: "We want in, we want in." East German border guards were finding it difficult to hold them back.

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