Of course I knew about the Berlin Wall and I have seen footage of it being destroyed by the people of East and West Germany. But somehow, I thought it was opened up through political negotiations between Reagan and Gorbatchev.
While I know the wall fell because of political change, on our recent trip to Berlin, I learned that the way it happened had more to do with blunders and lack of communication.
Enough is enough
It’s 1989 and the people of East Berlin are not happy. They are tired of living behind a wall and not being able to leave their country. The wall that went up overnight in 1961 has separated them from friends and family on the other side of the city for 28 years and they have had enough.
What’s a Government To Do?
The Communist government recognises that it must do something, so they decide to start to loosen travel restrictions. They hold a meeting and decide to announce that the travel policy will be changed and that East Berlin citizens will be able to freely cross the border. But that is all. There are no details, such as when it’s to be announced (the following day), or how it will be implemented (slowly).
Gunter gets a surprise
Someone gives the paper to Gunter Schabowski, a government spokesperson, just as he is ready to start a live international press conference. Gunter doesn’t have time to read it and just sticks it at the back of his other papers. He reads through pages of boring political “bla bla” then pulls out the last sheet. He reads out before the world that travel restrictions will be lifted for East German citizens. He looks surprised and uncomfortable as do the others, sitting beside him on the panel. Bewildered glances are exchanged among the politicians.
The reporters who have just about been lulled to sleep by the monotony of the previous announcements perk up. Everyone is stunned. Then one of them asks a simple question. “When?” Gunter stammers a bit, puts on his glasses, and looks back at his paper to search for the information that is not there. He looks to his colleagues for help but they give him a look that says, “You’re on your own on this one”. After another look at his paper he says, “Umm…from the information that I have here…umm…it looks like it is…umm…immediate, yes it begins now.”
This sparks another question from the shocked reporters. “Who? Who can leave immediately?” Gunter starts stammering again. He looks at the others, but their expressions show that they are not having anything to do with this. He has another glance at his paper, hoping some additional information has appeared, then says “Umm…from the information that I have here…umm…it seems that it applies to…umm…everyone.”
The blunder heard around the world
You can feel the electricity pass through the room. The reporters jump up and run for the telephones to report this dramatic news, while Gunter and the others are left looking stunned and wondering what has just happened.
The report goes out on stations around the world. When the East Berliners hear it, they can’t believe it. But just in case, they put on their coats, take their passports and head for the wall. They don’t care that it is a cold November night. They gather by the tens of thousands at the border crossings and demand to cross.
Guards have no orders
The border guards are as surprised as the rest of the world and start calling their superiors. But no one has any idea what to do and no one wants to make a decision. The guards are left to decide for themselves. First, they try to persuade the people to go home. “It’s night-time and it’s cold. Go home and come back in the morning when we’ll have more information.” But the people won’t have it. “Gunter said we are free to go now and we want to go now.”
What is a border guard to do?
The guards are greatly outnumbered and have recently been told not to shoot anyone else. What can they do? They open the gates. People flood into West Berlin all night long. Families that haven’t seen each other in 28 years are reunited and the world rejoices that these people are finally free.
The wall falls
From that night on, the wall lost its power. People came back the next day with hammers to knock it down. Berlin was once again a united city and Germany, a united country. The wall that went up overnight was brought down overnight, 28 years later, by a series of errors and miscommunication.
A few miscellaneous photos from Berlin:
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*When we were in Berlin we took a walking tour with “The Original Insider Tour” which was fantastic. We walked a lot – the brochure said four hours, but we walked six hours. The guide was very passionate about the city and we learned a lot. If you are headed that way, check them out. http://www.insidertour.com/
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Margo..that was fantastic. I had heard it happened this way but never told so well. Now I must put Berlin on the bucket list and take the same tour.!
Thank you. I hadn’t heard this story before our trip to Berlin and found it quite amusing. I would certainly recommend the tour that we took – it was so interesting and our guide was amazing. There are lots of great museums there as well. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to explore them all – So many things to see and so little time!
Margo, a great read as usual! Who would have thought? The mystery is solved.
Thanks, Jay. As we know, “the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry” and when they are not well-laid – well things can really get messy! But at least in this case the outcome was for the best.
Great to finally meet you on Saturday.
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Hi Samuel, it was nice to meet you too.
I had heard there had been a bit of a cock-up, but you told the story very well and brought it to life. Thanks Margo
Thanks. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Sometimes errors or misunderstandings can have a huge historical impact – like here.
Thanks for commenting.
Hey Margo! You’ll be pleased to know you’re famous… well more famous! Check out this link from the Wall Street Journal http://blogs.wsj.com/brussels/2014/11/05/the-fourth-man-who-prompted-the-fall-of-the-berlin-wall/ . Pretty cool that they are telling your story!
Hi Jonelle. Thanks for the link. There’s a lot of interest right now because the 25 year anniversary is this Sunday. It’s hard to believe that it was only 25 years ago – it seems much longer.
Thanks again. All the best ~Margo