New York Times When the Wall Came Down

The Berlin Wall and the Fall of Soviet Communism

New York Times

Serge Schmemann


Chapter One
A Knock on the Door
November 9, 1989. A chilly evening in West Berlin. I was in my hotel room,
writing furiously on my laptop. The stories were breaking fast. The
Communist government in East Germany was in crisis. All through the
autumn, East Germans had been fleeing their country in droves through
Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Even greater numbers had been holding regular
marches in East German cities, demanding reform. The government's
authority was crumbling. Every day there were new changes, new
announcements, new surprises.
I had just returned from a press conference in East Berlin, at which the
Communist leaders had announced new travel regulations for East Germans
who wanted to visit the West. That was big news: up to then, the majority of
East Germans, like most Eastern Europeans, had been prevented from
leaving the East. It was a good story, probably page one, so when somebody
knocked on the door around midnight, I was annoyed. It was my assistant
from East Berlin, Victor Homola.
"I'm busy, Victor," I barked. "Grab something from the minibar and wait."
"But, Serge…"
"Not now! Not now…"
Then it struck me: Victor? He was an East German! He wasn't allowed to
cross into the West; he'd never even been to the West.
"Victor! What on earth are you doing here?"
"That's what I'm trying to tell you, Serge! The wall is down!"
That began one of the most exciting stories I've covered as a foreign
correspondent: the fall of the Berlin Wall. For many, the event has come to
represent the end of forty years in which Eastern Europe was held captive by
the Soviet Union. But it was not only a political story. It was also an intensely
human story, about people rising up to break down a wall that had kept them
brutally apart—a wall that had divided Germany, and all of Europe, into a free
and democratic West and an East that lived under dictatorship.
It was about people choosing freedom.
I grabbed my West German assistant, Tom Seibert, and with Victor we
jumped into a taxi. The streets near the Berlin Wall were quickly filling with
celebrating Germans, and the police were trying to divert traffic. The taxi
driver, a big woman with a bigger voice, was yelling out the window, "Ich habe
hier drei Pressefritzen!"—
"I have three press guys here!"—and the police waved us through.
We drove right up to the most important stretch of the wall—the spot where it
passed by the Brandenburg Gate, once the very center of Berlin.
The Berlin Wall was a frightening sight, a twelve-foot-high concrete barrier
that divided one of the major cities of Europe right in half. It did more than
that—since West Berlin was deep inside East Germany, the wall actually ran
all around it, creating a large urban island of the free, democratic, and brightly
lit West right inside the tightly controlled Communist-ruled East. The worlds
inside and outside the wall were completely different—within its wall, West
Berlin looked like any large Western city. Shiny Mercedes and BMW sedans
cruised the neon-lit Kudamm—the grand Kurfürstendamm boulevard; store
windows displayed the latest in fashions; restaurants and nightclubs were
open late into the night. West Berlin had theaters, museums, a university,
skyscrapers, two airports, a lake, rivers, canals, parks, even a zoo. West
Berliners could easily go to West Germany, or anywhere else in Western
Europe, so they felt free and secure inside their walled-in island.
On the East German side of the wall, large blocks of anonymous apartment
buildings loomed. There were far fewer shops, and everything seemed grayer
and poorer. The East Germans heated their buildings with poor-quality coal,
so everything was covered with soot. Still, parts of East Berlin had retained
the old-fashioned charm of a central European city, recalling old black-and-
white spy movies.
In fact, life in East Berlin was better than in Moscow and many other Eastern
European cities. But the East Germans were always aware of the bright
lights in the Western island in their midst. West Germany deliberately aimed
radio and television signals eastward, so it was easy for most East Germans
to receive them. East German teenagers were more savvy about what was
happening in the West than teenagers in other parts of Eastern Europe—and
because of that they were much more frustrated. Though it was West Berlin
that was encircled, many East German children grew up thinking the wall
was around them. The wall itself reflected the difference between the two
governments it divided—from the Eastern side, it was like a prison wall, with
watchtowers and glaring lights; from the West, or from inside, it was covered
with bright and ever-changing graffiti.
Before Berlin was divided, the Brandenburg Gate had been the city's most
famous landmark. Now, the gate was actually part of the Berlin Wall. The
main wall ran past it on the west side, while police barriers on the east
formed a no man's land around it. For decades, trying to cross that no man's
land had meant possible death or imprisonment for East Germans.
Now, joyful East Berliners were scaling the barriers and running to the wall.
On our side, West Germans were climbing up on top of the wall and reaching
down to haul up their Eastern cousins. An observation platform on the
Western side, built so visitors could look at the Brandenburg Gate, was full of
dancing people.
"The wall is gone! The wall is gone!" people chanted. As we watched, more
and more East Germans poured over, and more and more West Germans
gathered to greet them with tears and champagne. For thirty years, these
people had dreamed of the day when they could be together again. Tom, a
university student from Bonn who was my interpreter and assistant in West
Germany, was seized by the excitement and started climbing up the wall to
join the party.
I grabbed him by the foot and yelled, "Not tonight! Tonight we work. Tomorrow
we celebrate!" And work we did. It was close to five a.m. when we finished
filing the stories. The historic front page of the next day's New York Times
had my story with a picture across the whole page of people dancing in front
of the Brandenburg Gate. Over it, the huge headline read: "EAST GERMANY
THOUSANDS CROSS." In the popular German tabloid B.Z., a headline
screamed, "Die Mauer ist Weg! Berlin ist wieder Berlin!"—"The Wall Is Gone!
Berlin Is Again Berlin!"