November 1989, and East Germany, a repressive communist state that has known only dogmatic certainties under the shelter of the Soviet bloc, is now in uncharted territory. For the past few weeks, tens of thousands of its citizens have escaped through liberalising Hungary, and millions have taken part in demonstrations calling for multi-party elections, freedom to travel, independent media – indeed anything but the failing leadership of old men schooled in Moscow's ways.
In the face of this uprising, East German authorities start to lose their autocratic nerve. Long-time dictator Erich Honecker has gone, but his replacement, Egon Krenz, and those who surround him, are jumpy. Will they give in to the protestors – or crush them? How will the Soviet Union react? What might its soldiers in East Germany be ordered to do? And what of the Berlin Wall, that, for 28 years, has kept West Berliners from loved ones in the east of the city, and East Berliners trapped in their equal but grey, poor and repressed communist cocoon. As 9 November 1989 dawns, no one dares guess what will happen....
A worried East German Central Committee convenes for the second day. At the Interior Ministry, officials and State Security officers meet to draw up new travel regulations to try to stem the tide of citizens fleeing to the West.
The Central Committee takes a smoking break. During it, the politburo agrees the new travel regulations. All restrictions on permanently leaving the country are lifted, and the ban on anyone under pensionable age making temporary trips will be dropped.
Günter Schabowski, acting spokesman for the Central Committee, gives a press conference to announce the new regulations. It is broadcast live on television. After a rambling start, Schabowski invites questions.
Schabowski: "... therefore, ah, we have decided on a new regulation today that makes it possible for every citizen of the GDR, ah, to exit via border crossing points of the, ah, GDR.
Riccardo Ehrman (Italian agency Ansa): "Without a passport?"
Krzysztof Janowski (Voice of America): "From when does that apply?"
Peter Brinkmann ( Bild): "At once? At...
Schabowski: "Well, comrades, I was informed today ..." (puts on spectacles, reads out press release on visa procedure).
Erhman: "With a passport?"
(Schabowski reads out rest of press release, says he doesn't know the answer).
Reporter: "When does that take effect?"
Schabowski (searching through papers):
"That takes, to my knowledge, that is... immediately. Without delay."
Later Schabowski admits he interpreted the politburo document incorrectly. The authorities intended all East Germans to apply for travel visas to the west from the next day. But it is too late now. Word, and excitement, is spreading.
The Associated Press flashes the headline: "GDR OPENS BORDER". West Germany's nightly news programme Tageschau carries highlights of Schabowski's press conference. Its correspondent reports: "They are supposed to start letting people through the wall overnight." The show has a big East German audience. Immediately the broadcaster's switchboard is flooded with calls.
Already about 80 East Berliners are congregating at three of the city's border crossing points: Heinrich-Heine-Strasse, Bornholmer Strasse, and Invalidenstrasse. At Bornholmer, they are told by Kalashnikov-armed guards to return the next day, but are in no mood to listen. The officer in charge, Lt-Col Harald Jäger, is confused, but tries to bring the ever-growing num,bers under control. He seizes a megaphone and tells them:
"Comrade Schabowski has announced new travel legislation, but you need official permission to make use of it. You can get that permission from the people's police [Volkspolizei] but not from us. "
The crowd answers: "He said immediately – and without delay!"
Everyone heads towards the nearest People's Police office but comes back 10 minutes later.
Meanwhile, in West Berlin, at the Eddinger Café on the Ku'damm, David Kreikmeier is having dinner with his parents when, as he wrote later to the BBC, "a woman was wandering up and down outside shouting "Die Mauer ist gefallen!" ("The wall has fallen!"). Everyone thought she was mad or having a mental breakdown. Then, suddenly, the kitchen staff burst out of the kitchen and started saying the same thing. Everyone scrambled to get to a TV or radio, or even down to the checkpoints to see what was happening."
Oblivious to the crowds and to the shock generated by Schabowski's error, the Central Committee winds up proceedings for the day.
By now, crowds are building at crossing points. At Bornholmer Strasse nearly a thousand people press to be let through, chanting "Wir wollen rüber!" ("We want to go over!") A kilometre long line of puffing Trabant and Wartburg two-stroke cars sit behind them as 52 armed border guards look on. "If we shoot then they will hang us from the lampposts," says one. Lt-Col Jäger calls Stasi headquarters for orders. He is told: "Jäger, I cannot give you any decision, I am not getting any instructions from my superiors either." Jäger calls for an additional 60 armed guards.
President George Bush [Snr] gives a muted reading of events to the White House press corps. The Americans are worried that Krenz will summon the army to deal with the crowds.
At the Central Committee offices in Berlin, Egon Krenz is telephoned by Erich Mielke, Security Minister (and head of the notorious Stasi secret police). He tells Krenz of the crowds at the border. They hesitate, issuing no firm order to the guards now facing increasing numbers of people agitating for an exit. Krenz tries to call Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow, but doesn't get through. He claims afterwards the Kremlin switchboard declined to connect him.
At Bornholmer Strasse crossing point, Lt-Col. Jäger decides to single out the noisiest East Germans and let them through. He tells his men to give their passports a special stamp which means they have been permanently expelled. One by one, they are allowed into West Berlin through an electrically operated steel gate.
The KGB in East Berlin sends urgent messages to Moscow, but the Kremlin is unmanned because of events to mark the October Revolution and they can't get a response. Igor Maximitschev, Soviet envoy in East Berlin, later says: "Not a single East German official got in touch with us that evening. We had the impression that the entire East German leadership had been swallowed up by the ground."
East German television's late-night show Aktuelle Kamera, tries to clarify the official line:
"At the request of many citizens, we inform you again about the new travel resolution issued by the Council of Ministers. First: private trips can be applied for without having to give reasons for the trip or proof of family relationships. In other words: applications have to be made for travel!"
At the East German Central Committee building, a panicked Krenz tells two colleagues: "What am I supposed to do? I can't shut the borders now!"
On West German television, Joachim Friedrichs, presenter of ARD's news show Tagesthemen, opens the programme: "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. One should be cautious with superlatives; they tend to wear out fast. But this evening it is permissible to risk one: this ninth of November is a historic day: the GDR has announced that its borders are open to everyone as of now; the gates in the Wall are wide open."
His words trigger a flood to the border crossings.
West Berliner Eckard Löhde goes to Invalidenstrasse crossing, where he finds "people really are coming from over there. Small colourful Trabis are sprayed with champagne. They look out, composed faces, or hidden behind hands, pale and tired, no heroes; and yet suddenly, in the glistening limelight, endlessly photographed. Most of them are not really photogenic enough for western drama. They hold back their tears. They wave, shake hands, and start from the constant banging on the roof of their Trabis."
Eleswhere Barbara Henniger, a cartoonist from a town just outside East Berlin, rushes with her family to Bornholmer Strasse. "The streets were crowded with people cheering, crying, and practically dancing. We were delirious. The border police first tried to channel the crowd through a small gate, but it was impossible and they had to open the main gate. And then, everybody just danced into the West."
Marcus Hahn a 22-year-old East Berliner and lift engineer bursts into his flat in Ueckermünder Strasse where he lives with his girlfriend. He has watched the Schabowski press conference at his mother's house, gone out to buy cigarettes, strolled over to Bornholmer Strasse, and was astonished to see the large crowd. He tells his girlfriend: "Get dressed, we've got to get over there, something is going to happen." Lt-Col Jäger's staff keep asking him to do something. He replies: "What shall I do? Order you to shoot?"
At Bornholmer Strasse, a crowd of 20,000 East Berliners chant "Tor Auf!" ("Open the Gate!"), and shove towards the crossing point. A wire fence gives way. Lt-Col Jäger locks all visa cards and rubber stamps in a safe and shouts to his guards: "Open the barriers !" He says, according to he Wall: The People's Story by Christopher Hilton, "All I was thinking about now was how to avoid bloodshed. There were so many people and they didn't have the space to move. If a panic developed, people would have been crushed." Marcus Hahn is among those surging forward in the human tide, his girlfriend hanging on to his jacket. One guard weeps, another retreats to one of the control point's huts, where he sits convulsed by tears and shaking.
The crowds are getting bigger – and more insistent. The Stasi orders the opening of all crossing points in the Wall including Checkpoint Charlie, Invalidenstrasse and Heinrich-Heine-Strasse. Everywhere there are scenes of frantic jubilation. Decades of confinement in communist East Germany are ending.
Friday 10 November 1989
In the Soviet embassy, deputy ambassador Maximychev decides not to tell Moscow the border is becoming no greater an obstacle than a theoretical line on a map. At Checkpoint Charlie, East Germans like Torsten Ryl, a waiter, are piling through. As he speaks to a reporter, a middle-aged West Berliner interrupts, gives him 20 marks, and says: "Why don't you get yourself a beer first?"
On West Berlin's main boulevard, the Kurfürstendamm, known as Ku'damm, thousands of united Berliners start a wild party. The bars hand out free drinks. Marcus Hahn begs for some money, and calls his father in the East. He sets out immediately for West Berlin.
The East German army command puts all Berlin border regiments on "increased readiness for action". Local commanders do not mobilise.
The exodus is now unstoppable. Thousands are pouring through the crossings, from both sides. Among them is Uwe Zingelman, 20, an East Berliner doing his national service. He sauntered over with nothing in his pockets except house keys. "The way it should be when one goes for a walk down the street," he says.
Near the Brandenburg Gate, the "wall peckers" are already at work, chipping away at the cement with chisels, hammers – or anything to hand. Others stand on the wall and dance in triumph.
The East German Radio DDR1 announces that, "as a temporary measure" the border can be crossed until 8am on production of an identity card. But, when it comes to that time, the crowds at the crossings are far too immense for normal controls to be imposed.
In West Berlin's Ku'damm, crowds of East German families are sightseeing and peering in shop windows at goods they could never imagine, let alone afford. Mathias Burkhardt, an East Berlin innkeeper in his thirties, says: "This is utopia... I never thought it is possible in all the years of our dictatorship." Among those watching on the west side of Checkpoint Charlie is Klaus Peter Ruppert, who fled East Berlin eight years earlier via Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania, before finally swimming the Danube to freedom. His eyes brimming with tears, and a glass of champagne in his hands, he says: "I haven't seen my parents in eight years."
Such is the desire to go West, even if only for a day, that one East German police station opens to find more than 3,000 people queuing outside for a new visa. At some crossing points people merely have to fill out a simple form; at others, not even that is required. They just walk or drive through. Hence the snarl-up of Trabants and Wartburgs at every crossing, their engines coughing and stuttering, they and their drivers utterly set on reaching their fabled destination. It is like the massing of vast migrating herds of asthmatic animals.
In Moscow, the waking Kremlin is appalled at events, and demands Krenz explains himself. He tells Gorbachev by telegram that the night-time crowds were too large to be stopped, but that border controls are now in place again. It is a lie.
The third day of the East German Central Committee meeting begins – and continues – with recriminations.
Krenz tells the meeting. "Comrades, I ask for your understanding. I do not know whether a lot of people realise how serious the situation is.... The pressure could not be withstood; a military solution would have been the only one possible. Comrades, let us agree: because of the level-headed conduct of our border soldiers and our comrades from the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Security, the matter has been dealt with extremely calmly..."
Krenz says that "panic and chaos" are growing. The meeting breaks up. Stasi boss Erich Mielke orders all members of the Ministry of State Security to remain in their duty units or at their operative targets until further notice.
Remarkably, some in East Berlin still don't know what has happened. Wolfgang Schmidt stops by a flower stall. "Buy two bouquets," says the stallholder. "It's a real holiday." Schmidt is puzzled. "What do you mean?" he asks. "You really don't know? They've opened the borders," says the woman. "They did what? I can't believe it. We've just come from Leningrad and we know nothing." He does now.
Moscow will not intervene. Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze says that "events in the GDR are a matter for its new leadership and its people alone". At one point in the day, a banner is hoisted on to the wall. It reads: "For a Berlin without a wall, in a Germany without tanks, in a Europe without borders".
The East German Council of Ministers decides to create six new border crossings in Berlin, and four outside it. Less than an hour later, Krenz tells party rally in Lustgarten Park: "We are serious about the politics of renewal". In the afternoon, East German workers start knocking great holes in the wall, and, later that night, East German soldiers are seen dismantling sections of the wall at Ebers- walder Strasse.
In the East German town of Bernau, where there are long queues for visas to the West, youngsters who spent a heady night in West Berlin tell anyone who will listen what they have seen. "You really missed something," shouts Rene. "Grapes as big as plums, bananas, pineapples – absolutely unbelievable." Not everyone, however, will return. Gabriella Ulig, an East German anaesthetist, will later say that, in the weeks leading up to this weekend, East Berlin lost a thousand doctors in the exodus.
Commanders of the 350,000 Soviet troops in East Germany are called to a briefing in the Soviet embassy. They are told that Moscow wants soldiers confined to barracks. East Germans continue to cross the border. When the numbers reach 50,000 in Berlin alone, the police stop counting. The same rush is true all over East Germany's border. Later in the weekend, near Helmstedt, the cars queuing to cross are backed up for 24 miles.
West German banks, which normally close at 1pm on Fridays, are still open so they can give out 100 marks (about £34) in "welcome money" to each arrival. Ellen Schmidt, tears glistening, says: "I was four when the Berlin wall went up. I've never skipped work before, but I couldn't help it today. I just had to come. I can tell my grandchildren I was there on this day of history." Bank clerks move up and down the queues, handing out forms and telling surprised mothers that even their babies qualify. One of them, Anna-Katherine Schwartz, says: "It would take me two months to earn enough to buy this amount of West German money at home." But the prices are, for most people, too much. In the food hall of West Berlin's KaDeWe department store, an East German sees his wife eye up a smoked ham costing 34 marks. "Leave it alone," he is heard to say. "Too expensive."
Seemingly, all the television crews in the world are training their cameras on some part of the wall. The crowds respond. By the anti-tank wall at the Brandenburg Gate, as they chant, "The Wall has to go!", sledgehammers are used. Nearer to Potsdam Square, the guards become agitated as the pipes on top of the wall are ripped off.
Katrin Mongau, student at Humboldt University, says in Christopher Hilton's book: "I went with my friend to Eberswalder Strasse... because we heard on the radio they were breaking down the wall there to make a checkpoint. Some building workers were breaking the wall down very slowly and a lot of Army officers watched. The people... had hammers and they began battering the wall down. They found a big piece of steel, shaped like a pole but big and heavy, and five of them – ordinary people – used it as a battering ram. They broke down the wall with it. My friend helped. I couldn't – it was too heavy for a woman.... The people watching counted out 'One... two... three', and the five hit the wall with the pole. Their hands were already bloody so others took over. Afterwards, when we left, we took a piece of the wall with us from the East."
Some could not join in the euphoria – people such as Jürgen Guse, one of many in an East German jail for trying to escape. It will take a month before they are freed. Guse later says: "When I got out, me and the family drove to West Berlin. We couldn't take it all in, it was just overpowering. There was this feeling – it's all over. They can't do it to us any more."
The following year, Germany is unified.
Additional reporting by Greg Walton in Berlin
A guide to the German Democratic Republic
Economy The USSR extracted considerable booty and reparations from East Germany. A third of the country's industrial plant was shipped to Russia in the late 1940s, and a further £6bn by the early 1950s. Yet later, thanks ironically to huge loans from West Germany, East Berlin had in the end the most successful economy in the Eastern Bloc.
Population Low birth rates and emigration (especially by professionals) meant East Germany's population actually fell in the postwar period, from 19 million in 1948 to 16 million in 1990.
Cost of living The state subsidised 80 per cent of the cost of basic items; most rents were less than £20 a month; and a standard loaf cost barely a penny in English money. Wages were much lower, although white goods were two or three times the cost in the West, and there were, as in any planned economy, frequent shortages.
Trabant Now something of a hero and the object of much ironic idolatry since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Despite a two-stroke engine, it could carry four adults and had a lifespan of 28 years – about half the waiting time for a new one. It wasn't fast, going from 0-60mph in 21 seconds.
Propaganda One small example: in September 1989, as thousands of East Germans were fleeing to the West, the state newspaper (and there were no others) Neues Deutschland published this story: "Planned long in advance and organised with care, a cloak-and-dagger operation was begun yesterday to take a large number of DDR citizens from Hungary to West Germany... it is part of imperialism's crusade against socialism... our socialist system is just as irreversible as our alliance with the Soviet Union..." Two months later, the system was dead.
Bertolt Brecht East Germany's most famous son who moved back after falling foul of the House Un-American Activities Committee when he was resident in the US. In the wake of the June 1953 uprising (squashed by Soviet tanks), he wrote: "Would it not be easier in that case for the government to dissolve the people and elect another?"
From jumping the wire to tunnels and aircraft – how escape plans grew more sophisticated
The Berlin Wall was the scene of as many as 40,000 successful escapes. The majority happened during the first four months of the Wall's existence, with some 25,428 people escaping before security was increased. From the first dashes, when the barrier was little more than barbed wire back in 1961, up to the final escape in August 1989, it is believed that perhaps hundreds of thousands planned or attempted escapes but were foiled by the East German secret service, the Stasi.
One of the first was by a 19-year-old East German soldier assigned to protect the construction of the Wall. Conrad Schumann's daring leap across rolls of barbed wire was captured by a West German photojournalist and the image has since become symbolic of the bravery of those trying to escape.
No clear figure for the number of successful escapes exists, and the number shot while fleeing is estimated at anywhere between 230-580. Many victims were the Grepos (border guards) who were assigned to protect the Wall and border points, and were shot by escaping partners. According to reports by the West German press, though denied by the authorities in the East, on 7 May 1986, 12 army reservists assigned to guard the Wall hijacked an East Berlin U-Bahn train with the intention of diverting it to a westbound track. The attempt failed when border guards stationed on the metro opened fire, killing six. The other six were executed after a court-martial.
As the border guards became more sophisticated at detecting escapes, so to did the attempts. In November 1962, 29 people managed to escape to the West through a 395ft tunnel that had been dug by students in the East, requiring careful coordination with accomplices in the West.
Many attempts involved using hidden compartments in vehicles, as in 1964 when six people escaped the East one at a time by hiding in a tiny space in an Isetta bubble car, created by removing the heater and air intake. This method of escape became riskier as the Grepos began to deploy sophisticated heat sensors at the checkpoints to detect stowaways.
As the border fortifications evolved, the Wall became almost impregnable. As well as having to contend with the Wall itself, would-be escapers were faced with ditches, floodlights, regular armed patrols, attack dogs, trip wires, 295 watchtowers, as well as further inner barriers. Towards the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, attempts to fly over it had become more frequent. On 16 September 1979, eight people managed to flee the East in a homemade hot-air balloon and, after a 28-minute flight, landed safely in the Western city of Hof.
Timeline of Europe's Cold War
US president Harry S Truman tells Soviets that US has atom bomb.
Potsdam accord divides Europe. Allies split Berlin into four zones.
 5 March
In a speech in Missouri, Winston Churchill says: "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an 'Iron Curtain' has descended across the Continent."
 16 April
White House confidante Bernard Baruch coins the term "Cold War".
US Secretary of State George Marshall plans major financial assistance for Europe. The US gives $12.4bn for reconstruction.
 24 June
Soviet leader Joseph Stalin seals off West Berlin to force French, UK, and US from the city. West launches Berlin Airlift to drop supplies. The blockade is lifted 11 months later.
 4 April
North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) is founded.
Soviet Union tests first atom bomb.
 1 November
US explodes world's first hydrogen bomb.
 5 March
Stalin dies. Six months later, Nikita Khrushchev emerges as the new Soviet leader.
Soviet spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who leaked nuclear secrets, are the first civilians in US history to be executed for espionage.
 14 May
Warsaw Pact inaugurated for Eastern Bloc countries.
 10 November
The Hungarian revolt against the country's Soviet-dominated regime had begun on 23 October and ousted the government. Soviet troops invaded on 4 November, starting a week of bitter fighting. When it was over, Soviet forces had reimposed control but 2,500 Hungarians and 700 Soviet troops were dead. Repression followed.
 4 October
Soviets beat US into space when first Sputnik satellite launches.
 1 May
US pilot Gary Powers is shot down in his U2 spy plane over the Soviet Union. He is convicted of espionage in a show trial, and released in 1962 in one of the Cold War's more famous "spy swaps".
 15 April
The Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba when a group of CIA-backed exiles tried to mount an invasion of communist Cuba.
Berlin Wall is built to stop East Germany's brain drain to the West. Thousands of professionals have fled in recent years, leaving a labour shortage in the GDR that is never to be entirely filled.
 16 October
Cuban missile crisis: Soviets have secretly installed nuclear weapons on Cuba, 90 miles from US mainland. President Kennedy orders a naval blockade. As the two superpowers confront each other, the world holds its breath. It is the nearest the world comes to a nuclear conflict. The Soviets blink first and agree to withdraw their missiles.
 23 January
Senior British intelligence officer Kim Philby, who with Guy Burgess and Donald McLean made up the most famous trio of British Soviet agents, disappears and later surfaces in Moscow. There he becomes steeped in vodka, dying in 1988.
Hotline set up between the White House and the Kremlin.
President Kennedy makes his "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech in Berlin.
Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas by Lee Harvey Oswald, a man suspected of communist links. No foreign intervention is ever proved, but suspicions linger for years.
 20 April
US President Lyndon Johnson in New York and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow announce plans to reduce the production of nuclear weapons materiel.
 1 July
Nations are invited to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Reformers initiate Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia. It is subsequently crushed by Soviet intervention.
 20 July
Neil Armstrong steps on to the Moon. The US, rather than the Soviet Union, is the emphatic winner of the first phase of the space race.
 5 March
Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty comes into force.
 1 September
The Cold War is fought across a chess board. American Bobby Fischer defeats Russian Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland, to become world champion at an activity the Russians had always dominated.
The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, the first joint US and Soviet space flight, takes place.
 18 June
Salt II nuclear weapons treaty is agreed by Soviet Union leader Leonid Brezhnev and US President Jimmy Carter.
Soviet Union invades Afghanistan.
 28 July
US and others boycott Moscow Olympic Games in protest at the invasion of Afghanistan.
In Poland, agreement signed, allowing more civil rights. It is the start of a liberalising wave that spreads across entire East Bloc.
 23 March
US President Ronald Reagan, who had called the Soviet Union an "evil empire", proposes "Star Wars" plans for weapons fired from space.
Margaret Thatcher meets Mikhail Gorbachev at Chequers. The "Iron Lady" finds he is someone she can do business with.
 11 March
Mikhail Gorbachev becomes the new Soviet leader.
 26 April
Chernobyl disaster, the worst civilian nuclear incident in history. It is a pivotal moment, defining not only the secrecy of the Soviet regime, but also the extent to which its might is a charade built on a rickety infrastructure.
At the Reykjavík summit, Reagan and Gorbachev, right, come close to a deal on nuclear arms control. Gorbachev is recognised in the West as the most sympathetic Soviet leader it has seen.
Gorbachev announces policies of glasnost and perestroika.
 15 May
Soviets begin Afghan withdrawal.
 20 January
George Bush Snr becomes the 41st President of the United States.
Hungary opts for free elections. In East Germany, Erich Honecker resigns as head of the GDR.
Berlin Wall falls.
Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution climaxes when the communist regime announces the end of the one-party state. Vaclav Havel becomes president a month later.
Bush and Gorbachev declare the Cold War at an end.
After mass demonstrations around Romania, its communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, attempt to flee abroad but both are caught, tried within two hours, and executed.
 31 January
McDonald's opens in Moscow.
 1 July
Warsaw Pact dissolves.
Attempted Soviet coup against Gorbachev. It fails, but brings Boris Yeltsin to world prominence.
Gorbachev resigns as President of the Soviet Union.
Soviet Union dissolves. A host of new nations emerges from the wreckage in a Russian Federation.Reuse content