The Fall of the Wall: 20 Years On

We know what happened in the years following the momentous events of 9 November 1989: the birth of a new Europe. But that week, fear mingled with hope – and The Independent's correspondents and photographers were there to capture the moment. In a special report, we present the first draft of history
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Wednesday 8 November 1989 - East German cabinet quits

By Patricia Clough in Bonn

The East German government yesterday yielded to pressure from vast demonstrations and the rapid haemorrhage of its young people, and resigned to make way for change.

Shortly afterwards the Communist Party's Politburo – the real organ of power – gathered to decide on its own fate, while outside hundreds of thousands of demonstrators were chanting: "All power to the people, not to the party!"

Egon Krenz, the country's new leader, announced recently that five more of the 21-strong Politburo had asked to go, in the wake of the three – including his predecessor, Erich Honecker – who have already resigned. But as the lights burned late in the stern grey building in the city centre, expectations rose that they would all go soon.

The government called on East Germans who were planning to go to West Germany to think again: "Our Socialist fatherland needs each and every one of you."

The way the announcement was made was also epoch-making: at a press conference by a government spokesman, neither of which East Germany had ever had before. The new spokesman, whose appointment was announced only a couple of hours earlier, is Wolfgang Meyer, hitherto head of the Foreign Ministry's press department. After reading the statement, however, he declined to answer any questions.

The dizzying speed of change in East Berlin appeared to have no effect on the determination of vast numbers of East Germans to leave. They were pouring out through Czechoslovakia at the rate of 9,000 a day. Some 30,000 have come since Czechoslovakia opened its border on Friday, filling the reception camps in south-eastern Germany to overflowing, and causing serious concern to the government in Bonn, which fears the country will not be able to absorb such numbers.

Friday 10 November 1989 - Berlin Wall breaks open

From Patricia Clough in East Berlin

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.

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 refuges 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".

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

The demographic implications of the decision to open the border may prove immense. Some 1.3 million East Germans – out of 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...

Friday 10 November 1989 - Suddenly the world has no edge any more

By Neal Ascherson

It wasn't just the landscape of European politics that suddenly changed last night. It was the European cosmos. For most west Europeans now alive, the world has always ended at the East German border and the Wall: beyond lay darkness and demons. The opening of the frontiers declares that the world has no edge any more. Europe is becoming once more round and whole.

This is the best news the German people have heard since 1945. But it's right to look back: at the huge, artfully built frontiers of wire and lights, towers and minefields, dogs tethered to wires, sensor devices and mantrap guns, sanded death-strips, helmeted men with guns. There on the border or the Berlin Wall, hundreds of human beings died and hundreds were horribly maimed. The dogs howled and raved in the night. Sometimes there would be detonations, and then the screaming which might be human or might be a roe deer blown in half by a mine. This is what is over now.

When the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, the East Germans claimed that by sealing the Berlin border they had saved the peace. Then as now, the outrush of people to the West was threatening to bring about the collapse of the East German state, but in an utterly different world. Then, the collapse would have brought the two superpowers into violent collision. Now, it's by opening the borders that the East German regime tries to avert collapse.

But, of course, the East German leaders are still playing games here. Egon Krenz can live with two possible results of what he has now done. The first is a colossal bolt to the West. If that happens, the Bonn government is trapped. West Germany cannot assimilate a far greater in-flow. Instead, Bonn would be driven to provide the German Democratic Republic with instant and enormous economic assistance and political encouragement – to make it a country worth staying in. It would mean committing West Germany to Mr Krenz and his version of reforms. And that Mr Krenz well knows.

The other outcome could be that the population, seeing one of its biggest grievances met, will begin to simmer down. There would be a temporary increase of emigration to the West but then the torrent would dry to a trickle. This too would be most agreeable for Mr Krenz.

Many of these refugees would return home if their country was more free and its borders remained open. But the people are on the move in the biggest spontaneous movement of Germans since the 1918 revolution. They want a change not of rules but of regime.

Friday 10 November 1989 - Joy blends with fear in West Germany

From John Eisenhammer in Bonn

As a jubilant Bundestag greeted the news of the opening of the East German border last night with a rousing rendition of the national anthem, the first signs of real alarm emerged among some of the authorities struggling to keep up with the numbers of East German refugees swarming west. Already under great strain because of the increased influx coming over the Czechoslovakia border, the sensational announcement that East Germans can now travel freely to West Germany holds out the immediate prospect of the country being swamped by a sudden, huge influx.

Pressed about this danger, Helmut Kohl, the West German Chancellor, said: "Our interest must be that the East Germans stay at home." Leading politicians were holding a crisis meeting at the chancellery last night when the news dropped like a bombshell.

Even before the East German announcement, Herbert Schmalstieg, the Mayor of Hanover, had said that many cities would have to stop taking refugees: "Their capacity to offer jobs and accommodation is exhausted."

On Monday Bremen was the first city to declare that it could take no more refugees. "Through meeting citizens or in letters," said Mr Schmalstieg, "I see that unhappiness, jealousy, and aggression towards the refugees is growing." His remarks were denounced as "politically dangerous" by Wolfgang Mischnick, the Free Democrat parliamentary chairman...

Friday 10 November 1989 - Elated Bush urges people to stay and enjoy reform

From John Lichfield in Washington

President Bush said yesterday he was "elated" by East Germany's decision to throw open its borders with the West. But he urged East Germans to resist the temptation to flee to West Germany. "Stay and participate in this dramatic change in your country," he said. The US government was caught off-guard by the announcement, which will add to the fears of some US officials that events in eastern Europe are spinning out of control. Mr Bush admitted that the announcement had taken Washington by surprise. If the promise of the East German authorities was kept to, he said, the Berlin wall "will have little relevance... it's a dramatic happening for East Germany and for freedom."

Mr Bush said the US would be prepared to help West Germany to cope with any huge influx of East German refugees. In London, the Foreign Office joined the chorus calling for the Wall to come down altogether. It had earlier issued an unusually outspoken statement which strongly supported those pressing for change in East Germany, called the resignation of the Politburo "a historic event" and said the East German people were reaching for freedom which the regime could no longer deny them.

Saturday 11 November 1989 - Bulldozers move in to breach Berlin Wall

From Patricia Clough and Adrian Bridge in Berlin

Amid a cloud of dust and the cheers of the watching crowd, the first piece of the Berlin Wall crumbled easily under the jaws of East German bulldozers last night. Bystanders scrabbled for pieces of the rubble to keep as souvenirs as border guards opened new crossing-points for the hundreds of thousands of East Berliners who have swarmed to the West for the first taste of freedom in 28 years.

The sealed crossing at Glienicke Bridge, famous as the location of many East-West spy swaps over the decades, was thrown open. Others to follow will include a crossing at Potsdamer Platz, Europe's busiest interchange before the Second World War.

A seemingly endless series of extraordinary announcements delighted Berlin yesterday. Friedrich Dickel, East Germany's outgoing Interior Minister, said cross-city buses would link East and West, and that old, defunct underground railway stations would be reopened.

In the Western section of the city, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, breaking off his trip to Poland, addressed a "freedom rally" swollen by crowds of the visitors. Many who crossed from the East yesterday seemed confident that Egon Krenz, who took over the leadership of East Germany's Communist Party last month, would keep his promises of reform. "This has done a lot for Krenz's credibility," said one young man as he drove his Trabant towards Checkpoint Charlie. "People now believe he means business." As a welcoming gift from the West German government, the visitors received DM100 each. In East Berlin, the Communist Party continued its struggle to win support by unveiling reforms including the promise of free elections. The official ADN news agency said: "A revolutionary people's movement has set in motion a process of upheaval. East Germany is awakening..."

Saturday 11 November 1989 - Hitler's Europe finally crashes to destruction

By Neal Ascherson

The brake is off, and East Germany – which means all Germany – is rolling into the future. Soon, at this rate, the runaway wagon will burst through a fence and into an extraordinary, untidy old building site abandoned over 30 years ago.

This forgotten place is where the US, Britain, France and the Soviet Union tried to construct a peace treaty to end the Second World War. But no peace conference ever met. Instead a series of fruitless Four-Power conferences, mostly at foreign minister level, convened only to squabble about Germany and break down. The last was in Geneva in 1959. Two years later, the Berlin Wall went up: a sign that everybody had given up the struggle to find a reunification formula. The Cold War grew colder, and also safer.

But there is no way round this building site. The self-styled "visitor powers" of the Second World War still retain residual authority over all Germany and they can only hand over that responsibility to the Germans at a peace treaty. That is the view formally expressed by the three Western Allies. It is a view which the Soviet Union does not proclaim, but has never renounced. It means that reunification or any other major change can only happen after a peace conference – which, in turn, can only happen after another Four-Power meeting.

None of the four governments is yet ready to call for such a meeting ... but it is worth dusting off, for example, the British stand-point. It would presumably be based on the Western commitment of 1955 to free German self-determination. First there should be free East German elections. Then discussions should take place between the two democratically elected German governments, and if they went well, the two governments would propose reunification to their respective parliaments. Next a bilateral agreement between the German states should be negotiated. And then – only then – the Big Four would squeeze their middle-aged bulks into their gorgeous parade uniforms for the last time; they would throw a peace conference, and grant the lucky pair reunification at the end of it.

It all sounds far too stately for the pace of events. This is because that sequence was designed to block off any Soviet attempt to lure West Germany into neutrality in exchange for reunification – like the famous Stalin Note of March 1952, which gave Dean Acheson and Anthony Eden nightmares. What, though, if the Germans – those quiet seas of humanity flooding the cities of Saxony and Mecklenburg a little deeper each night – don't feel like sticking to the script? What if the retreat of Communism disintegrates into a rout, in which power tumbles into the street and is caught up by unknown men and women who were children when the script was composed?

One way of describing what is coming is to say that the war is truly ending. Another would be to reflect on the famous saying of Sebastian Haffner that "the Europe we live in is the Europe Hitler created". What this meant was that in the early morning of 22 June 1941, when Adolf Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, he set off a chain of fearful and inevitable events: his own defeat, the shattering of the 1871 German Reich, and the consequence which European statesmen had worked to avoid for 200 years – the advance of Russian power into the very centre of Europe.

Saturday 11 November 1989 - Two cheers for democracy

Leading article

Euphoria and trepidation mingle. In Berlin, the West's victory seems to unfold. Communist Germany dissolves before our eyes, its captive people winning freedom with miraculous rapidity. They have spent more than 40 years imprisoned in the wilderness of a one-party state, while on the other side of the Iron Curtain their compatriots founded and strengthened a democracy. The East Germans' preference for the West was not in doubt: a wall was built to stop them going there, and many still sacrificed their lives trying to make the journey. But no less certain seemed the ability of the Communist regime to stop an excessive number of its subjects from escaping. After all, the rulers of East Germany knew they could count, if necessary, on help from Moscow, and the ruled knew so too.

Today the two sides have discovered something different. The rulers are alone. They have no friends. In a desperate attempt to win the support of the ruled, they have abandoned the policy of decades and opened their borders. The concession is likely to prove pitifully inadequate. Only free elections, which the Communist Party promises but is bound to lose, will persuade people to stay in East Germany, or to return there from the West. If Egon Krenz, the leader of the party, has any choice left, it is the choice of moment to abdicate.

There are several reasons why this triumph of freedom evokes trepidation as well as euphoria. First, is it truly happening? Are the East Germans really gaining their liberty? Suppose they vote in free elections to join the West German federation: will not Moscow forbid it? Indeed, if this outcome is foreseen, the old guard may try to prevent free elections from taking place at all.

If, however, the movement towards freedom proves as irresistible as it has looked in the past few weeks, all Europe is swept into uncharted waters. The old navigational certainties vanish. Because nobody knows what reefs may lie concealed beneath the new ocean we are entering, thankfulness for leaving behind the horrors of communism is mixed with alarm. It appears that we may have to throw overboard much of the intellectual equipment we brought with us.

Since 1945, the balance of power in Europe has lain between East and West. The institutions through which the countries of the free half of Europe co-operate were formed in recognition of this fact: most obviously Nato, but also to an unknowable extent the European Community. The prime motive behind the EC may have been to ensure that Franco-German war would never again break out, but the external threat was a powerful inducement to achieve this. In particular, the danger meant West Germany stayed in the Western camp.

This adversarial relationship between East and West is now vanishing. An enormous field of action is opened to West Germany. Already the strongest economy in the EC, it can, by adding East Germany to itself, become as large as Britain and France combined.

Saturday 11 November 1989 - 'What a day, what a wonderful day'

From Patricia Clough in East Berlin

Joachim Gottschalk pointed his mechanical digger at the Berlin Wall, lowered the grab and bit. The plaster broke like icing off the two or three thicknesses of flimsy hollow brick inside – an absurdly cheap, thin construction to have kept East from West for the past 28 years. Mr Gottschalk, 52, had been brought in to break down the first section of the Wall to be removed following the East German government's decision to allow its people to go freely to the West.

The breaching of the Wall followed a day of euphoria in which many thousands of Berliners, with cheers and singing, kisses and hugs, whoops and tears of delirious joy, were reunited after 28 years. Scores celebrated on Thursday night by climbing over the Wall in both directions – for which they would have been shot on sight not long ago. Hundreds of thousands thronged to the crossing-points and the green-uniformed guards, once so forbidding, simply let them pass. Later, starry-eyed and intoxicated, by a sense of freedom as much as the beer, most were content to return to their jobs, homes and families in the country which had once been their jail.

The day that few had thought they would live to see burst upon the city at 7pm on Thursday evening with the impact of a gigantic stun-bomb. At first, neither the East nor the West German television and radio announcers appeared to quite grasp what the news meant. "Someone brought the news while we were having an employees' meeting. I simply didn't believe it," said Volker Zacke, a taxi-driver. "To think that it could happen in my lifetime," said a middle-aged man at checkpoint Charlie, blubbing uncontrollably.

It was only a couple of hours later that people began flocking, as if drawn by a magnet, to the checkpoint without waiting for any visas. Many simply walked around for a few hours before returning. "It was like a dream," said a young mother, as she crossed back at dawn into the East to get her children up for school. "I have lived for 28 years with my windows looking on this side of the wall," said Horst Pieper, 65. "I wanted to see what it looked like from the other side."

Monday 13 November 1989 - Hammers chip away as the oranges are brought home

From Terry Coleman in Berlin

This is the story of a weekend in Berlin, and, in a way, of a government which tried to run a country without oranges, or pineapples, or children's toys.

It is a weekend which started at 10 minutes to midnight on Saturday, on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie. In that desolation, where the brightest spots are the Peking Restaurant and an ersatz fashion boutique called Joker, I bumped into an East German couple coming home from a day in the West. And what had they bought, what did they have in their plastic bags? Oranges.

Half a mile farther round the Wall, at Potsdamer Platz – which used to be the Piccadilly Circus of Berlin but was until yesterday one big tank trap – they were drilling into the Wall from the East to open it up the next morning. But it is not the drilling that stays in the mind. It is the tap-tap-tap of hammers in the dark, where, all round the Western side of the Wall, they were hacking off bits for souvenirs.

Yesterday morning was bright and very cold. The Berliner Bank in the Kurfurstendamm does not usually open on Sundays, but by 10am the queue was five deep and a quarter of a mile long. East Germans were waiting to collect their 100 Deutschmarks (£35) in welcome money – a gift from the state which they could pick up from any post office or bank. And what would they spend it on?

An electrician and his wife from Dresden wanted chocolate and toys. Smante Weidner and her husband Peter, a farm worker from Kotbus, said fruit, and a doll for their small baby. Sven Bucher, the 11-year-old son of a blacksmith, wanted a Walkman. Two men, who had already collected their money, carried a bagful of sweets and three pineapples. A man running a flower stall said they were buying red roses, not in bunches but one or two at a time, at 50p each. They were astonished to see so many flowers.

The Kurfurstendamm was crowded like Oxford Street on Christmas Eve. The Underground at Wittenbergplatz was so packed it was impossible. Taxi drivers refused to try to get near Potsdamer Platz. The streets were jammed with two-stroke Trabants from the East which run on gas-oil and stink. They are like no car built in the West in the last 30 years. I took a double-decker bus, whose driver made no attempt to collect the fares. At the Potsdamer Platz at last, I was taken in the mêlée for an East German and had gifts of chewing gum and chrysanthemums thrust into my hands. The flowers came from a Dutchman who had bought 15,000 bunches from Amsterdam in a truck. The Berliner Morgenpost printed a special edition and gave it away free. It said 800,000 Easterners had made West Berlin their own again. Someone gave away stickers saying "Ein Herz für Deutschland" (One Heart for Germany).

A woman called Evelyn came through the smashed-down Wall with her 11-year-old daughter. She spoke freely, as everyone did, but would not give her second name, since her husband had not yet decided to come over because of his job. I was told that this might be because he was a Party member. Then the West German president, Richard von Weizsäcker, appeared, shook a few hands, and was clapped. His Mercedes, as it left, was followed by a dirty grey Trabant, a dirty green Trabant, and a khaki Wartburg, which were all cheered to the echo.

I heard of no resentment from the East at the sight of the department stores, nor from Westerners at the sheer number of their very poor visitors. It could have been chaos, but it was not. The only time I have seen such harmlessly jubilant crowds was in Sydney on the night Australia celebrated her 200th birthday. There was beer everywhere but only a few brief brawls. It is like that here. The Berlin Wall is down, and the death of a monster is being celebrated by vast, docile crowds and the chink, chink, chink of hammers.