A bridge opened – and then the Wall fell

1989: Europe's Revolution: On the 20th anniversary of Berlin's reunification, Tony Paterson remembers the place where the city's dividing lines began to dissolve

Twenty years to the day since the Berlin Wall was first breached, the city will today play host to a celebration of the momentous changes brought about by the fall of a monument to a repressive regime.

Angela Merkel will be joined by a host of foreign dignitaries, including Gordon Brown and Hillary Clinton, in walking through the Brandenburg Gate; the pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim will lead an orchestral performance; 1,000 giant dominos running along the path of the wall will be toppled in a rapid re-enactment of the end of Communism in Europe, a process that in reality took months.

Earlier in the day, Ms Merkel will take stock at a less glitzy location. The Bornholmer bridge is off the tourist track, a big, ugly, grey-painted web of steel girders, still flanked by the last remaining remnants of the Wall. Yet at around 3 this afternoon, Chancellor Merkel will be joined by Mikhail Gorbachev and Lech Walesa – two men who arguably did more than anyone else to bring an end the Cold War – for a brief pilgrimage to the site. Their gesture will be purely symbolic, but the anniversary would be unthinkable without it.

The Berlin Wall was first breached at the Communist-controlled east-west crossing on the Bornholmer bridge. It was the weak point in the 96-mile-long barrier that finally burst open. I was lucky enough to have witnessed it.

I had flown into Berlin for the BBC from London six days beforehand to find the city in a state of feverish apprehension. Everyone felt that something was going to happen, but the question was what? Nobody dreamt that the Berlin Wall would suddenly open, let alone that Germany would be reunited within a year. With hindsight, the assumption seems almost idiotic, but the widely held expectation was that East Germany would attempt to reform itself from within.

But then came the now-famous press conference given by Günter Schabowski, the East German Politburo member and ex-editor of the Communist Party newspaper Neues Deutschland. Mr Schabowski, yellow and utterly exhausted, sat on a podium before the world's media and read out utterly confusing details of the regime's draft travel law – including the announcement that the right to travel to the West came into force immediately.

Within about an hour the first West German reports started coming in about East Germans gathering at crossing points. We leapt into a car and raced to the centre of Berlin. The watchtowers and guard houses were manned with their customary Kalashnikov-toting sentries. There was nothing to report.

Following the Wall northwards, we wound through a maze of dimly lit streets until we began to see single people walking towards us. Single people turned into groups. We thought: "They are just inquisitive West Berliners taking a look." But then the groups turned into a small crowd and we had to park the car and start walking.

What confronted us at the Bornholmer bridge was beyond belief: a vast tide of people, some in tears, many just looking stunned, flooding across. Behind them were the huge glaring arc lights, guard huts, raised barriers and a line of puffing Trabant and Wartburg cars. Two East German border guards stood there looking bewildered. One, I remember, was crying. With no orders from above, the guards had simply buckled under the pressure of a 20,000 strong crowd of East Berliners chanting "Open the gate!" and raised the barriers.

News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
tvSeries celebrates 20th anniversary
Sport
Twelve of the winning bidders will each host three group matches
football
Life and Style
Jack Cooksey goes for the grand unveiling - moments before dropping his new iPhone 6 on the floor
iphone launch
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo
football

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear
tv

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Life and Style
life

News
ScienceGallery: Otherwise known as 'the best damn photos of space you'll see till 2015'
Life and Style
fashion

Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Primary General Cover Teachers

Negotiable: Randstad Education Leicester: Are you a Newly Qualified Teacher lo...

Part Time Primary Teacher

£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Leicester: Part Time Primary TeacherOur...

Science Technician

£7 - £8 per hour: Randstad Education Cheshire: The Job:School Science Technici...

School Administrator

£50 - £60 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Long term SIMS School Administr...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week