AP WAS THERE: The Berlin Wall crumbles
EDITOR’S NOTE — The Berlin Wall came down Nov. 9, 1989, heralding not just the reunification of East and West Berlin, and East and West Germany, but the eventual fall of the USSR and the Iron Curtain.
The wall had carved an absurd, brutal path through Berlin’s heart and the hearts of so many of its people. Seeming as permanent as death, it separated East Germans from the supposed ideological contamination of the West and stemmed the tide of people fleeing the German Democratic Republic of East Germany. Instead the wall proved to have the transience of a wound — one that would leave a scar, one that caused pain, but one that would, over time, heal.
Between the time it was erected in 1961 and its fall in 1989, at least 136 people died at the Berlin Wall, according to the reunified city’s Senate Chancellery. But after Nov. 9, East Germans could not only attempt to cross it, they could climb on top of it, attack it with hammer and chisel, or dance on top of it with their West German brethren.
The Wall’s demise was preceded by weeks of protests. Hundreds of thousands of East Germans had taken to the streets, demanding free elections, the right to travel without restrictions, and other democratic reforms. Protesters in the eastern city of Leipzig, the site of some of the largest protests, shouted, “The Wall must go!”
Twenty-five years after its original publication, the AP is making available this story, written by AP newsman Nesha Starcevic. Hours before this story was published on the AP wire, Starcevic had been the first to report the wall’s destruction with a flash bulletin: “East Germany began tearing down the Berlin Wall on Friday.”
Communist East Germany on Friday permanently lifted travel restrictions on its citizens, and workers began punching a hole in the Berlin Wall that for 28 years separated families and divided East and West.
All day Friday, more than 100,000 jubilant East Germans climbed over and rushed through borders for the first time in three decades and amiably chatted with stony-faced guards who once had orders to shoot those trying to escape.
Communist leader Egon Krenz told a huge rally in East Berlin his new reforms “will not be turned back.”
West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl flew to West Berlin and hoped to speak with Krenz, who has stunned the world with rapid reforms intended to appease pro-democracy demonstrators and end the exodus to the West. The Communists promised free and secret elections.
Communist officials said Thursday that for the first time since the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, citizens could travel freely to the West until a new travel law was drafted. On Friday, they made the open-border policy permanent.
“It is permanent and will be the foundation of a new travel law,” East German Interior Minister Friedrich Dickel said on East German television.
West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher told a cheering crowd of 20,000 outside West Berlin’s City Hall that East Germany had begun poking holes in the Berlin Wall by creating new crossing points.
Genscher, his voice at times barely audible over the roar of the crowd, said the East Germans already had begun expanding the Glienicker Bridge crossing, which had been used by diplomats and is famous for spy exchanges between East and West.
On Friday night, West Berlin police said East German workers had begun punching a hole through the wall at Bernauer Strasse for a new checkpoint in the Wedding section of Berlin. “The wall is being punched through there,” said a police spokesman, who asked not to identified.
Genscher listed the names of the streets to be opened to growing jubilation from the crowd gathered to hear him and others speak. Work on the checkpoints, including one used to transport garbage from the West to East Berlin, would be completed by Nov. 14, he said.
“Dear fellow citizens, when the hour of freedom sounds in Europe, all will say, ’The Germans were there,” Genscher declared, his voice hoarse from emotion.
Kohl said “the spirit of freedom now reigns all over Europe — Poland, Hungary, and now, East Germany. We claim this right for all people in Europe ... we claim it for all Germans.”
President Bush said the developments in East Germany mean his meeting in Malta with Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev in December will take on “even more importance.” He said the changes in the East bloc “make clear that the process of reform initiated by the East Europeans and supported by Mr. Gorbachev and by Americans and by our allies is real.”
Secretary of State James A. Baker III praised the lifting of travel restrictions and called it “the most dramatic event in East-West relations” since World War II. But he added that “there’s a long way to go before there is true freedom and true political pluralism in East Germany.”
In Moscow, Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennady I. Gerasimov welcomed the decision and said it would help stem emigration and do away with “stereotypes about the Iron Curtain.”
Arriving in private cars, motorcycles, taxi, or by foot, many East Germans got their first taste of the West. Most travelers apparently planned to return home.
East German roads were swamped with cars heading for the West German border. But West German border officials said only about one-tenth of the newcomers planned to stay. So far this year, more than 200,000 East German refugees have gone West.
East Germans thronged police stations across the country to wait for passes which officials promised nearly everyone would be able to get.
Thousands more entered West Berlin or West Germany by simply getting a stamp at a border control point, and many crossed into the West beginning late Thursday without any special documents at all.
“We’ve just decided to leave our jobs for a little while, have a look around and then go back over,” said a young East German who went to the West German town of Herleshausen along with four compatriots.
“We don’t know what our boss will say about that. Perhaps he’s over here too,” said the young man with a laugh.
One young East German drove with his child into Herleshausen for a 15-minute visit just to buy a West German newspaper.
“I’m going over to pick up some brake pads you can only get in the West,” said an East German motorcyclist as he crossed at Helmstedt, West Germany.
In Berlin, many East Germans just wanted to shop or see the sights. A group of East German workers took turns visiting West Berlin.
“Everybody wanted to go so we decided to do it in shifts,” said a young worker who declined to give his name. “But we’re still fulfilling our quota of work.”
East German border guards abandoned their usually stern demeanor and chatted with throngs of their countrymen filing through border control points.
“You don’t have to work today?” one Communist guard said at the Invalidenstrasse control point in Berlin.
“No, I’ve got the day off,” replied the East German who was on his way to the West.
The ruling Politburo sacked four more officials, including one full member appointed just this week, and launched a broad investigation of “gross mistakes” made by the leadership under ousted party boss Erich Honecker.
Honecker, who directed the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, has been the target of increasing criticism by his fellow Communists since he was replaced by Krenz on Oct. 18. He has been accused of “gross mistakes.”
Another long-time East bloc leader, Bulgarian Communist Party leader Todor Zhivkov, resigned Friday after 35 years in which he led Bulgaria through the Cold War and made it the Soviet Union’s closest East bloc ally.
AP Corporate Archives contributed to this report.