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The blunder that brought down the Berlin Wall thirty years on

On August 13, 1961, the government of East Germany gave the order to seal its border with West Berlin. The reason? Too many of its citizens were leaving for the more prosperous West Germany.

On a single day the previous week, nearly 2,000 had left the German Democratic Republic (GDR) for good.

Berliners on both sides wept as 7,000 soldiers erected barricades and barbed wire, blocked almost 200 roads and bricked up doors and windows in apartment blocks that faced the border. The 96-mile wall that followed became the most potent symbol of the Cold War.

But, by 1989, East Germany was on the brink of bankruptcy, its productivity 40 per cent lower than West Germany. And, as glasnost — the policy of openness espoused by Russia’s president, Mikhail Gorbachev — took hold, East Germany’s Politburo, the executive body of its Communist Party, found itself under increased pressure to reform.

When Gorbachev visited the GDR in October 1989, demonstrators on the streets shouted: ‘Gorby, help us! Gorby, help us!’

Confusion: East German border guards stand in front of the Brandenburg Gate as the wall begins to be breached 

November 9, 1989

Midnight

Day 10,316 of the Berlin Wall. This is the fourth version of the structure dividing the city; it is currently made up of concrete sections originally designed for storing liquid manure on East German farms.

Since 1961, more than 5,000 people have successfully escaped from the GDR — half of them East German border guards. But 138 people have died trying to flee to freedom.

The Western side of The Wall is covered in graffiti and one of the most prominent slogans is: ‘Die Mauer Muss Weg’ — ‘The Wall Must Go’.

7am

It is a mild late-autumn morning in Berlin and the smell of sulphur from the crumbling East German factories hangs in the air. Beneath the feet of the GDR guards making their regular morning patrols are the remains of more than 40 escape tunnels.

East German border guards look on as the wall is breached. It¿s estimated that, within three days of the breaching of The Wall, three million East Germans visited West Berlin

East German border guards look on as the wall is breached. It’s estimated that, within three days of the breaching of The Wall, three million East Germans visited West Berlin

Some were made by West Germans trying to save friends and relatives, but most began in the East, dug by people of all ages.

In May 1962, over 16 days, a 12-strong group of mostly East German pensioners dug their way to freedom. Their tunnel was 104 ft long and just under 6 ft high. Asked why it was so tall, one of the escapees said: ‘We wanted to walk to freedom with our wives, comfortably and unbowed.’

8am

The morning commute begins for Germans on both sides of The Wall. West Berlin has smart shops and well-lit streets, while East Berlin’s commuters are walking past bomb sites and buildings still riddled with World War II bullet holes.

10am

Since the border with Czechoslovakia was opened on November 1, East Germany has been haemorrhaging people using that route to get to West Germany.

In East Berlin, hospitals are short of doctors and some schools have closed because so many teachers have left their jobs.

This morning, the GDR newspaper Neues Deutschland pleads with its readers: ‘We beg you, stay in our homeland, stay with us.’

In the Ministry of the Interior building, close to the most famous of the seven border crossings, Checkpoint Charlie, four officials are meeting to draw up new travel regulations on behalf of the East German Politburo to deal with the exodus via Czechoslovakia.

4pm

At the HQ of the East German Communist Party, chiefs agree to the new regulations; travel will be allowed to West Germany, but only after an application has been lodged. Visas, with a passport, will be granted for visits of up to 30 days.

The government knows that only a small proportion of the population has a passport and a new one takes at least a month to process. They expect orderly queues to start at passport offices in the morning. The Wall will remain closed.

5.40pm

East German leader Egon Krenz hands over the new travel policy document to Gunter Schabowski, the government’s spokesman. He will inform the public about the new rules at a live Press conference this evening.

Krenz is confident that the new system will prevent a mass exodus and ensure some state control.

‘Here, friend, this is something that will do us a power of good,’ Krenz says.

6pm

The large room at East Berlin’s International Press Centre is packed with the world’s media. Schabowski welcomes everyone, but he is tired and distracted.

He wasn’t in this afternoon’s meeting of the Communist Party chiefs and has not read the full document — he’s only skim-read it in the car on the way here.

Schabowski doesn’t know about the vital waiting period while applications are processed.

He has a cavalier attitude to his daily Press conferences and believes the only qualities you need are ‘to be able to speak German and read a text without mistakes’. The Press conference starts with dull news about the latest ministerial appointments and administrative reforms.

Government spokesman Gunter Schabowski on November 9 1989 at East Berlin¿s International Press Centre

Government spokesman Gunter Schabowski on November 9 1989 at East Berlin’s International Press Centre

6.30pm

At Checkpoint Charlie, East German guards are using binoculars to ogle an attractive waitress serving coffee and beer in Cafe Adler on the other side of the border. It’s part of their daily routine.

Astrid Benner, 29, knows she is being watched but doesn’t mind — in fact, she feels sorry for them. ‘Over there it was so sad,’ she said looking back many years later.

6.53pm

Schabowski finally turns to the new travel policy. Sweating under the television lights, he describes it as best he can.

‘We have decided today, er, to implement a regulation that allows every citizen of the GDR, er, to, er, leave the GDR through any of the border crossings.’

Journalists shout questions asking if that means leaving without a passport and — crucially — when it takes effect. Schabowski scratches his head and shuffles through his papers. ‘That comes into effect, to my knowledge, immediately, right away.’

A German newspaper reporter asks: ‘Does that apply also to West Berlin?’

Schabowski shrugs his shoulders and reads from the document: ‘Permanent exit can take place via all border crossings from the GDR to the FRG and West Berlin.’

The Berlin Wall has been opened by mistake — earlier than the Politburo intended.

‘It was a simple cock-up,’ one party official said later.

7.01pm

As the Press conference ends, at the largest of the border crossings, Bornholmer Strasse, the officer in charge, Lieutenant-Colonel Harald Jager, shouts at the television: ‘Bull****!’ Furious at Schabowski’s inaccurate statements.

Jager is part of the Ministry for State Security, the Stasi, and he calls his boss, Colonel Rudi Ziegenhorn, at its operational HQ to find out what is going on.

Thousands of people from the East and West of Berlin celebrate the opening of the Berlin Wall in November 11 1989

Thousands of people from the East and West of Berlin celebrate the opening of the Berlin Wall in November 11 1989 

Ziegenhorn tells him nothing has changed. But Jager, who began work as a border policeman aged 18 and had helped in the construction of The Wall, is convinced something momentous is about to happen.

7.05pm

The Associated Press news agency headline is: ‘The GDR is opening its borders.’

7.15pm

With remarkable speed, 80 East Berliners arrive at the checkpoints at Invalidenstrasse, Heinrich-Heine-Strasse and Bornholmer Strasse and ask the guards’ permission to cross the border.

They are told they need a passport and a visa and to come back tomorrow.

In Cafe Adler by Checkpoint Charlie, waitress Astrid hears the news on the radio and calls the cafe’s owner, Albrecht Rau. ‘You have to get here because I’m totally alone and thousands of people may be coming at any moment! This is the first place they’ll reach!’

In East Berlin, a democracy campaigner called Aram Radomski walks into a bar where he knows his friends will be.

He’s just watched the Press conference on television and wants to test out what Schabowski’s phrase ‘right away’ means.

He urges them to come with him straight away to the nearest border crossing. Only his fellow campaigner Siggi Schefke agrees to come.

Radomski shouts as they leave: ‘If we are not back in two hours, we are in the West!’

7.50pm

At Checkpoint Charlie, Cafe Adler owner Albrecht is carrying a tray with coffee, sparkling wine and glasses towards the East German guards. Astrid and some of his customers have come with him to offer support.

As they cross the painted white line between East and West, two GDR guards come out of their hut. Astrid offers them champagne, but they tell her to go back.

She says: ‘But we have to celebrate this exciting day, don’t you want to celebrate with us?’

They reply: ‘No, no, we don’t want that, please go back.’

Albrecht and Astrid retreat across the line and share a drink with the West Berliners who have been watching their daring gesture.

8pm

West German television station ARD announces that ‘this is an historic day’. The newsreader Hanns Joachim Friedrichs jumps the gun and says: ‘The GDR is opening its borders. The gates in the Berlin Wall stand open.’

8.15pm

At the Bornholmer Strasse crossing, the number of people is now in the hundreds and things are getting tense.

Lieutenant-Colonel Jager is concerned his men might shoot into the crowd or that the crowd might try to grab their weapons.

He has no idea what is happening at the other border crossings as only Stasi HQ is able to communicate to all seven checkpoints.

8.47pm

The East German government Politburo meeting that started this afternoon finally ends. They have no idea what happened at Schabowski’s Press conference or what is occurring at the border.

9pm

Democracy campaigners Radomski and Schefke are at Bornholmer Strasse and demanding loudly, along with scores of others, to be allowed to pass. They have Western money with them in case they are successful.

In the nearby barracks, Lieutenant-Colonel Jager is on the phone to Stasi HQ asking yet again what to do. They tell him to pull the most aggressive members out of the crowd and let them pass through to the West, calling it the ‘let-off steam solution’.

Jager is sceptical, but agrees to carry out the plan. Radomski and Schefke are among those plucked from the crowd and their papers are stamped. The stamp is placed deliberately across their photo ID — thereby invalidating their citizenship. This is also part of the ‘let-off steam solution’ — a trick to keep troublemakers out.

As Radomski and Schefke make their way to the West, they don’t realise that they are no longer East German citizens.

9.10pm

Now in West Berlin, a stunned Radomski and Schefke jump in a taxi. The driver can tell by their old-fashioned clothes that they are from the East and tries to kick them out as their currency will be worthless. They hastily produce their Western notes.

Radomski and Schefke ask to be taken to the house of a friend of Schefke’s, whom he met in Hungary. They pay the driver and tell him: ‘Go back to that bridge, you’ll earn a lot of money tonight!’

9.30pm

In the American hut at Checkpoint Charlie, the phone is constantly ringing. It is listed in the phone book and radio and television stations around the world want to know what is going on.

The most popular request to the guards is: ‘Tell us what you can see out of the window.’

The Americans can see about 1,000 people on their side of the border and about 100 on the other side. The GDR guards are pushing them away from the white line.

10pm

West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl has just finished a state dinner on the first day of a six-day visit to Poland.

Rumours of the chaos in Berlin have reached him and he calls his media adviser Eduard Ackermann in Bonn who says excitedly: ‘Mr Chancellor, as we speak, The Wall is falling!’

‘Are you sure?’ Kohl says, and jokingly asks Ackermann if he’s been drinking.

The ‘let-off steam solution’ is going badly wrong; it is merely encouraging people to shout more aggressively to be let through.

An East German couple who wanted only a quick look at West Berlin have come back to return to their children who are fast asleep at home. But their IDs have been stamped across their photo and the border guards refuse to let them pass.

Unable to placate the distraught parents, the guards summon Lieutenant-Colonel Jager, who tells the couple that he will make an exception in their case, and lets them through.

Jager is becoming increasingly disillusioned with what he’s being asked to do.

10.10pm

Stasi official Erich Mielke rings GDR leader Krenz to brief him on the chaos by The Wall.

Krenz faces a choice: to shut the border by bringing in tanks, or to open the checkpoints to let things run their course. He decides to do nothing.

Since November 7, the Stasi has been burning sensitive documents, especially those that identify their large network of informers among the East German population.

In Warsaw, Chancellor Kohl’s aides toast the news from home with the only wine available, a present from the Poles of a bottle of Crimean sparkling wine, the Soviet equivalent of champagne.

10.30pm

The state-run East German television news makes an appeal for those citizens who wish to travel to first attend passport and registration offices and make an official application.

‘Trips have to be applied for!’ the presenter says.

But most viewers are tuned to West German television to find out what is going on. Scores of dirty and unreliable Trabant and Wartburg cars have been left in the streets around the border with their engines running.

11pm

The East German army has been placed on high alert. Meanwhile, at Checkpoint Charlie, the crowds have become so large on the Western side that any movement is impossible, but the American border regiments decide not to clear the area.

As one officer says: ‘We need to just let this happen. This is a moment for the German people.’

11.30pm

The section of The Wall by the Brandenburg Gate has a wide, flat top rather than barbed wire, so East Germans are able to clamber on top of it, their risky exploits illuminated by lights from television cameras.

Scores of people are dancing and chanting, cheered on by others wearing pyjamas and dressing gowns.

At the border crossing on Bornholmer Strasse, Lieutenant-Colonel Jager has seen enough.

Thousands of his fellow citizens are chanting: ‘Open the gate! Open the gate!’ Someone pushes one of his customs officers who immediately shoves them back.

Although people shout: ‘No violence! No violence!’ Jager is increasingly concerned that his men might be attacked, so he calls his commanding officer, Colonel Ziegenhorn, and tells him bluntly: ‘I am going to end all controls and let the people out.’

Ziegenhorn protests, but Jager hangs up then orders the gate to be opened.

As two of his men start to push the barrier, the crowd surges forward and does the job for them. Some walk but many run towards the West where they are met by West Berliners with outstretched arms.

11.40pm

East German leader Krenz is on the phone to the government’s official spokesman Schabowski, whose Press conference was the cause of the evening’s historic events. Krenz reassures him: ‘The ones who are leaving today, they will come back.’

At Bornholmer Strasse, Lieutenant-Colonel Jager is close to tears as he watches the crowds stream past him towards the West. One of his guards, Helmut Stoss, is thinking: ‘Why have I been standing here for the past 20 years?’

11.59pm

At Checkpoint Charlie, crowds on either side of the barrier are calling to each other.

In the East, they shout: ‘Let us go! Let us go!’ and in the West they reply: ‘Come! Come! Come!’

In Cafe Adler, waitress Astrid can hear the shouting and see the powerless GDR guards watching the crowds with their binoculars.

‘They didn’t know what to do so just kept doing that,’ she says.

Gunter Moll, the officer in charge on the GDR side, walks to the pedestrian gate and says matter-of-factly: ‘Open it.’

November 10, 1989

Midnight

Lieutenant-Colonel Jager calls his wife and tells her that he won’t be home until the morning as he has opened the checkpoint. ‘You’re kidding!’ she laughs.

12.02am

At Cafe Adler, a man bursts in shouting: ‘I’m the first! I’m the first!’ All the customers burst into applause. He asks Astrid if she will mark his hand with the ink stamp that all cafes put on their bills once they’ve been paid; he needs proof that he’s actually been to the West.

After drinking a beer, the man leaves proudly with a stamp on the back of his hand that says: ‘Cafe Adler Friedrichstrasse 206 1000 Berlin 61 Tel: 030/2518965’.

12.15am

At the Brandenburg Gate, East German guards turn a fire hose on the people on top of The Wall.

The hose is not very powerful as it is full of holes, but most of the soaked revellers are forced down. One young man with an umbrella remains defiant.

At the Sonnenallee checkpoint, the guards call Stasi HQ to say they are ‘opening everything’.

All the border crossings are now open.

1am

The American guards at Checkpoint Charlie watch the East Berliners approach the white line, then pause and take a deep breath as they cross.

One of the many thousands of East Germans who have made it across the border is a 35-year-old woman named Angela Merkel.

She was on her way home from the Central Institute for Physical Chemistry when she heard the news. Merkel is heading for a phone box to call her family to tell them she is in West Berlin.

In 16 years’ time, Angela Merkel will be Chancellor of a united Germany.

2am

CafE Adler has closed as it has run out of beer and champagne. Sightseers are arriving from as far away as Denmark and Austria to take part in this historic moment. The streets are packed with people playing music from radios and tape machines, blowing alpine horns and sharing flasks of coffee.

One of the most popular songs being played is Looking For Freedom by American actor David Hasselhoff, which had been No 1 in West Germany for eight weeks earlier that year.

Next month, on New Year’s Eve, Hasselhoff will sing the song suspended from a crane high above the Brandenburg Gate while being cheered by a huge crowd.

3.20am

East Berliners are walking as if in a trance down one of West Berlin’s main shopping streets, Kurfurstendamm, amazed at the goods on display.

The people from the GDR are easy to spot in their plain shoes and old-fashioned coats and hats.

Meanwhile, the Stasi has had enough of the people around the Brandenburg Gate and call in army reservists to help clear them away.

5am

In Potsdamer Platz, Berliners on the western side of The Wall hear the sound of electric drills and sledge-hammers. Soon holes start to appear in the concrete.

Hundreds of Berliners from both East and West arrive with hammers and chisels to get their own Cold War souvenir, earning the nickname ‘wallpeckers’.

The watchtowers on The Wall are now empty.

10am

In London, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is holding an impromptu Press conference outside 10 Downing Street.

A television reporter asks for her reaction to the events in Berlin. She replies: ‘I think it is a great day for freedom.

‘I watched the scenes on television last night and again this morning because I felt one ought not only to hear about them, but see them because you see the joy on people’s faces and you see what freedom means to them; it makes you realise that you cannot stifle or suppress people’s desire for liberty and I hope that they will be a prelude to the Berlin Wall coming down.’

Privately, Mrs Thatcher had been horrified by scenes in the West German parliament the previous evening, when politicians all stood to sing Deutschland Uber Alles when they heard the news from Berlin.

New graffiti has already appeared on the Wall. ‘Die Mauer Muss Weg’ — ‘The Wall Must Go’ has been replaced by ‘Die Mauer Ist Weg’ — ‘The Wall Is Gone’.

In East Berlin, the Stasi is busy compiling a report, which includes complaints from its border guards. One guard said simply: ‘I do not understand the world any more.’

Aftermath

It’s estimated that, within three days of the breaching of The Wall, three million East Germans visited West Berlin.

Change came rapidly. In July 1990, East Germans started using the Deutschmark as their currency, and on October 3 that year, the country was reunited.

Some sections of The Wall were sold at auction as contemporary art and hundreds of tons were used as rubble in road building.

Within two years, all that remained of The Wall were a few small sections that were preserved as monuments. 

  • Jonathan Mayo is author of Hitler’s Last Day: Minute By Minute, Short Books, £8.99.

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk


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