This column will be published Sunday October 26th 2014 in the Rutland Herald and the Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus, where it was originally published November 1st, 2009 marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I am also pleased to note that I will be a featured guest at the Newseum in Washington D.C. on November 8th on its program devoted to the 25th anniversary of this historic event.
On the night of November 9th, 1989, I stood on a camera platform at the Brandenburg Gate. The Berlin Wall, which for 27 years had separated West from East and cut an ugly scar across the city, loomed directly behind me. On most nights this west side of the Wall would be shrouded in darkness, hiding behind it the “death strip” of mines and booby traps where border guards constantly patrolled with orders to shoot to kill. Over the years as many as 192 people were indeed killed trying to escape over the Wall. (About a thousand died fleeing across the full 300 mile East German border.)
But on that particular night, the Wall was bright with television lights as I and other correspondents did live reports describing the truly unbelievable scenes before us, to viewers in the United States and throughout the world. On top of the Wall, thousands of East Berliners were singing, dancing and drinking – euphorically celebrating their newly-found freedom. Some with sledge hammers, axes, ice picks and even finger nails were trying to deface the dreaded Wall. Young and old, men and women, could not stop embracing one another. It was as though a giant love-in had swept over an entire nation whose people had been imprisoned for all or most of their lives. They had suddenly stormed through and over their prison wall while the only shooting done by their notorious guards was with water cannons in an apparent attempt to dampen the crowds’ enthusiasm - that failed miserably.
With the perspective of time it is now easy to say, that was the most momentous night in the history of the second half of the 20th Century. The night the Berlin Wall came down effectively ended the Cold War – the war that had threatened the entire world with nuclear annihilation for some four decades. But as the theme music for ABC News Nightline came into in my earpiece, and I awaited the first question from Ted Koppel, the moment was not as crystal clear as all that.
Over the previous three years, reporting on the changes taking place in what was then the Soviet Bloc was my main assignment. I had seen Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev transform the politics of his country; heard him signal he would not intervene in the affairs of other countries of the bloc; and watched him establish an amicable and productive relationship with President Ronald Reagan, the man who once labeled the Soviet Union the “Evil Empire.” Already in 1989, I’d covered the Communist Party losing its stranglehold on power in Poland and Hungary. Since early September I had been reporting mainly in East Germany as tens of thousands of its citizens fled to the West, many through a new hole in the Iron Curtain opened up by the Hungarians. In October, the long- time East German communist strongman Erich Honecker had been deposed by his own politburo and massive protests, once unheard of in this most repressive of police states, were now occurring almost daily.
Extraordinary change was palpable. But still there was a burning question of doubt in the minds of top Eastern European reformers with whom I spoke regularly throughout 1989 - namely -at what point might the Soviet Union suddenly decide to intervene militarily to save its crumbling empire? Even in November 1989, there were still many skeptics about Gorbachev’s true intentions – including in the White House of President George H.W. Bush. Others worried that Gorbachev could be overthrown by Soviet hardliners who would again crack down on reform movements in Poland, Hungary and East Germany as they had so brutally done in the past.
One other reason for the element of uncertainty that night was that no one seemed to know exactly what had happened. At a news briefing in East Berlin that evening, televised live in both Germanys, Gunter Shabowski, the new politburo’s official spokesman casually mentioned that for the first time, every East German would have the right to a passport and exit visa. When a chorus of reporters began shouting when? when? Shabowski didn’t seem to know. He looked back at his papers and finally responded, “Immediately.”
Given that freedom to travel outside of the Iron Curtain was the most critical issue of the day, this was momentous news. But did this announcement, so off-handedly presented, really mean what it appeared to say? First dozens, eventually thousands decided to find out for themselves by gathering at the various checkpoints into West Berlin. It turned out the border guards had no new instructions regarding passports or visas and refused to let anyone pass. So a crisis began building. Guards were seen trying repeatedly to call for new guidance but apparently were unable to reach anyone in high authority. Meantime, the mood at places like Checkpoint Charlie was shifting from joyful to ugly as once docile East Germans began shouting at the guards and pressing hard against the barricades. Finally after more than four hours, each nervous border commander on his own simply gave up and threw open the gates. With that, what seemed like much of the population of East Berlin began flooding into West Berlin, through the checkpoints and over the Wall as at the Brandenburg Gate. The Berlin Wall, at least for that night, was no more.
We learned much later that spokesman Shabowski had made a mistake of literally historic proportions. The new regime had decided to grant passports for all and to issue new travel regulations to government ministries, passport officials and border guards. But on the night of November 9th, none of that had yet happened, because the new policy was not to begin until November 10th. What was actually envisaged was a slow, orderly process that could take weeks or more. The calculation was that the promise of passports for all would take the steam out of the pent up demand for freedom to travel. But when Shabowski mistakenly said the new policy was to begin immediately, instead of a controlled departure of East Berliners over days and weeks, that night the entire city of more than a million seemed virtually empty. Most people returned, but with that massive breach of the once invulnerable Berlin Wall, history had been made and forever changed.
It’s satisfying to report that when Ted asked me on the air that night if we were being carried away with that euphoria of the moment I said no, adding that he and I would have other stories to cover but this one (the Cold War, which the two of us had reported on for 25 years) was basically over. In my closing thoughts, I mused that the gods sometimes punish us by giving us what we ask for. I wasn’t predicting anything- just expressing an anxious feeling I had that night. As I look at the world twenty years later, it appears my anxiety was not entirely misguided.
It must be said that Bush the father’s administration deserves high marks for smoothly persuading Europe and Russia to accept German unification; for quietly getting perhaps half a million Russian troops and their weapons out of Eastern Europe; and especially for helping to secure the former Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal. Nevertheless, the voices of American triumphalism – the boasts that “We won the Cold War,” and “We are now the only Super Power” (and therefore we can do what we please) were soon to be heard and by the turn of the century they would once again dominate U.S. foreign policy. The lesson that the Cold War was not “won” but ended - in part because Reagan reversed course from confronting Gorbachev to seriously engaging him and supporting his reforms - remains totally lost on those who falsely claim victory for the policies of confrontation. No matter how many times these people are proven wrong, they keep coming back to haunt us.
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