The joy of freedom: 20 years on

Author: By Tony Paterson in Berlin

Lech Walesa, still every inch the Polish shop steward in his unionist’s cap,
Mikhail Gorbachev, still recognisably the Russian Communist he was then, and
Angela Merkel, who when the Wall fell was a humble scientist in East Berlin.

Together they linked arms and walked over the grey steel Bornholmer bridge
across which tens of thousands of East Germans, Ms Merkel among them, first
flooded into West Berlin on the night of 9 November 1989. Carrying a small
white rose and a large umbrella, the German Chancellor ? whose life was
changed beyond recognition by the Wall’s collapse ? paid tribute to her
companions. “What happened in Poland was incredibly important for us
all,” she said. And, turning to the former Soviet leader, she said: “We
always knew that something had to happen there so that more could change
here. You courageously let this happen, and that was much more than we could

The return to the Wall yesterday was low key, but nonetheless emotional. Ms
Merkel told the crowd: “This is not just a day of celebration for
Germany but for the whole of Europe.”

Earlier, during a service at Berlin’s Gethsemane church, she acknowledged
that, despite the 20 years that have elapsed since the fall of the Wall,
Germany still bears the scars of division, with the rate of unemployment in
the East double that of the West. “German unity is still incomplete ?
we must tackle this problem if we want to achieve quality of life on an
equal basis,” she said.

What happened on the night of 9 November at the Bornholmer bridge crossing
point was arguably the single most critical moment in the events of 1989.
East German border guards faced a 20,000-strong crowd of East Berliners
chanting “Open the gate!” After trying to contact his superior and
getting no response, the officer in charge of the crossing point ordered the
barriers to be opened. A human tide of East Berliners flooded into West
Berlin, and within the hour all of Berlin’s seven crossing points were
thrown open, heralding the collapse of Communism.

Katrin Hattenhauer, who is now in her early 40s, joined the throng of East
Germans who headed for West Berlin across the Bornholmer that night. A
dissident who had been jailed in Leipzig, she had only just been released
from prison and was officially banned from travelling to Berlin. “I
decided to go all the same. It is my birthday on 9 November and I met up
with some friends in East Berlin. Suddenly we heard the borders were open,”
she recalled. “The feeling was overwhelming. I went to the Bornholmer
bridge and then on into West Berlin. They were dancing on the Wall. It was
the best birthday present I could have had,” she recalled.

Ms Hattenhauer was one of hundreds of thousands of Berliners and visitors from
across Germany and overseas who joined celebrations in the capital last
night. Ms Merkel described the events as “a celebration of the happiest
day in post-war German history”.

Last night it was still raining as all 27 EU leaders plus Hillary Clinton and
President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia gathered under the Brandenburg Gate.
Also attending was the former Hungarian prime minister Miklos Nemeth, whose
decision to open his country’s borders with the West in the summer of 1989
was a key step towards Communism’s collapse.

In a special address broadcast to the crowds on video, US President Barack
Obama said of the fall of the Wall: “There could be no clearer rebuke
of tyranny. There could be no stronger affirmation of freedom.”

Ms Merkel led a procession of leaders through the Brandenburg Gate ? an
abiding symbol once of Germany’s division and today of its unity. “Freedom
is the most precious element in our political and social system,” she
declared in an address. “Without freedom there is no democracy.
President Sarkozy spoke of “the wall of shame”, while President
Medvedev said: “The Iron Curtain was annihilated. We hope the era of
confrontation is past.” Gordon Brown told Berlin: “The whole world
is proud of you ? you tore down the Wall and you changed the world. Because
of your courage, two Berlins are one, two Germanys are one and now two
Europes are one.” Hillary Clinton said, “History broke through
concrete and barbed wire and signalled a new dawn.”

But it took Gorbachev to remind the crowd of the single most extraordinary
thing about the event they were commemorating ? the fact that it was such a
stunning surprise. He and the then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl knew the Wall
would fall, he told the crowd, but they were ambushed by the speed at which
it happened. “We were not very good clairvoyants. Every day we talked
about how the German question could be solved ? and then it went and
happened on 9 November.”

At the climax of the celebrations, Lech Walesa gave a gentle prod to a giant
painted domino made of foam at the Brandenburg Gate, and, one by one,
another 999 dominoes lined up from the Gate to the Potsdamer Platz in the
centre of Berlin collapsed. A huge firework display followed, and the “festival
of freedom” was rounded off with a concert in front of the Brandenburg
Gate conducted by Daniel Barenboim, another who witnessed the events of 1989
at first hand.

In their own words: East Berliners on the Wall

The Stasi man: Harald Jager

The Stasi officer in charge of the Bornholmer bridge crossing-point in the
Wall was confronted by a crowd of more than 20,000 East Berliners chanting “Open
the gate!” He began letting the most vociferous into West Berlin. But
the crowd started trampling down a fence. “Open up ? let them all out,”
he ordered the guards. “I got around ?4,000 in compensation after the
Stasi was disbanded. I worked selling newspapers. After that I sold ice
cream. I still find it strange that my pension comes to more than the amount
I paid in ? that’s the social market economy. In my heart I’m still a leftist”

The dissident leader: Barbel Bohley

A dissident who helped to topple the regime feels let down. “I think it’s
wrong to have an expensive celebration to mark the anniversary. They should
use the money to help the typhoon victims in the Philippines. When I look
back, I think we as dissidents were stupid. Hardly any of us are in politics
nowadays. We should have all gone to Bonn, [then the political capital], and
we should have insisted on our people being given some key political jobs.
But that just didn’t happen. Even as people who were opposed to Communism,
we were not free enough in our heads to make use of the opportunities we had.”

The spin doctor: Gunter Schabowski

Now 80, he was the East German Communist Politburo’s media spokesman on 9
November 1989. At a press conference that evening he mistakenly declared
that the regime’s plans to open the country’s borders with the West would
come into force “immediately”. Schabowski’s mistake opened the
Wall. “I look back on 9 November with satisfaction and a certain amount
of pride. Some people respect what I did at that press conference. With
hindsight I think we did everything wrong in East Germany. Any attempt to
construct a socialist society is certain to fail.”

The teenager: Uta Wohlfarth

The graphic artist was 18 on the night the Wall fell. “I grew up right
next to the Wall. The apartment block I used to live in backed on to it. I
remember seeing the guards who used to patrol the Wall right next to our
house. On 9 November, I watched Schabowski give his press conference on TV.
I didn’t go to West Berlin until a few days after the Wall had fallen. We
went by bus into Neukölln. It is a run down-area and I was quite shocked. I
thought the whole of West Berlin would be luxurious. I was quite
disappointed and thought ‘It’s not much different from where we live in the
East!'” She now lives in West Berlin.

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