The fall of the Berlin Wall didn’t start in Berlin in November 1989. It started months earlier … in places like Turkey, Poland, and Hungary.
In 1989, The Wall Street Journal/Europe’s editorial page, where I worked, was uniquely positioned to cover the events that unfolded in that period. Our editor, Seth Lipsky, had been based in Europe for years, on both the editorial and news sides of The Journal. His wife, Amity Shlaes, a features writer and editor for the page, was in the midst of writing a book on West Germany, and our colleague Peter Keresztes had walked his family out of Budapest in 1956, over the mountains into Austria to escape that communist regime.
I was the junior staffer of the office, about 16 months out of college at the time, but Lipsky wanted all of us to be reporting. Earlier in the spring, he’d sent me to Turkey to cover the forced exodus of ethnic Turks across the Bulgarian border at Edirne. The expulsion would turn out to be one of a number of breadcrumbs leading up to November. Gorbachev’s glasnost had opened the doors to any number of stories to track in 1989. Whether intended or through the will of dissident and pro-democracy groups that had long pressed for freedoms behind the Iron Curtain, holes were beginning to appear in the curtain.
I had been fortunate enough to be one of the first Western reporters to meet up with a small coterie of Solidarity candidates running in the summer of 1989 in the first free elections held in Poland in decades. They told me that their political hopes were modest. Win some seats, make some noise, and put the government on notice. Two days later, they were swept into the majority.
About six weeks later, on September 11, the Hungarian government lifted restrictions on travel to Austria. Peter Keresztes had been tracking events in Hungary for several weeks. He had such sources as Christian missionaries who smuggled Bibles into the East, Hungarian dissidents working for Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty in Munich, and distant family members, all sending him details that indicated that Hungary was about to explode.
Thousands of East Germans had already entered Hungary over the summer on rumors that the government intended to loosen its hold on the Hungarian-Austrian border, thus creating a new opportunity for captives of the East to escape to the West. The Hungarian militia and even East German border guards crossing over the border had made attempts to block the flow of German “tourists,” but with little success. Pictures of East Germans driving and walking over the Austrian border, celebrating along the way, went global.
With Poland collapsing, Hungary caving, and Czechoslovakia teetering, East Germany became a focal point. On October 18, head of the GDR Erich Honecker stepped aside, after a period of almost daily
protests in the streets of Berlin. Two weeks later, more than half a million East Berliners would gather in Alexanderplatz demanding further reforms similar to what they were seeing elsewhere in the East.
The GDR had passed a law intended to loosen travel restrictions to the West, in part to track with Hungary’s decision, but it was unclear when the law would be enacted. On November 9, a GDR Politburo member – seemingly off the cuff – told reporters (including some from Western outlets) that as far as he knew, the law was already in force; people could cross the border now, if they wanted to.
That news broke around 7 p.m. in Brussels, and by 8 p.m. it wasn’t just a trickle of people headed to potential crossings. By 9 p.m. we were hearing that an estimated more-than-25,000 East Berliners were gathered at the border crossing at Bornholmer Straße. By 10 p.m., some of the checkpoints were letting East Germans through.
At that point, those of us in the office were attempting to get to Berlin as quickly as possible, but many of us had to wait to get the next day’s paper laid out and to the printer. Most of us flew down to Berlin early the next morning. Driving in from Tegel, headed directly up the Tiergarten toward the Brandenburg Gate, one could hear the tap, tap, tapping from the large and small hammers, pickaxes, and shovels of “Mauerspechte” (wall woodpeckers) before you saw them.
Getting closer, one could see steel barrels had been placed farther back from the Wall, with fires going to keep onlookers warm. Glühwein was for sale, but just as likely to be handed to you in celebration (if someone else hadn’t offered you swigs of champagne). This was the scene all along the Wall in central Berlin. Within hours, the hammers and pickaxes gave way to gas-powered concrete cutters along the wall from the Brandenburg Gate to Potsdamer Platz, which were taking out massive slabs of the wall on which Trabis would drive into the West.
On the Kurfürstendamm, the lines were out the doors of department stores and shops, with East Germans lining up for many of the basics that were in short supply in the East. Many said they would return home to the East not knowing when or if they could return. Others seemed far more confident that what had taken place over the past 24 hours was something more permanent, a way of life that could not be contained any longer even if the Wall remained in some form.
And that theme was what informed the editorial we dictated over a public telephone that would run in all editions of the paper, with the title: “De Facto Reunification.”
Here ACG Board member Ed McFadden, Director, Strategic Communications at Patomak Global Partners and the longtime Chairman of the American-German Young Leaders Steering Committee, recounts his time as Assistant Features Editor at The Wall Street Journal/Europe during this seminal time in Europe.