WITNESS: Reuters and the many drafts of history

Tom Heneghan was Reuters chief correspondent in Germany in 1989 and directed coverage of the Wall’s fall from East Berlin. He is the author of “Unchained Eagle: Germany after the Wall” and is now Religion Editor, based in Paris.

BERLIN (Reuters) - The night the Wall fell, Reuters reporters in East and West Berlin hammered out thousands of words depicting the end of the Cold War’s worst eyesore and the joyous street party on both sides of the once-fearsome border.

As I stumbled back to my hotel in the gray morning that followed, the old saying “journalism is the first draft of history” echoed in my head. This was History with a capital H, a stunning world-changer that nobody could have predicted.

Over the days and weeks of relentless work that followed, that idea never left our heads. On an adrenalin high, we pumped out what seemed like an endless stream of reports on how Berlin and Germany were changing right before our eyes.

It wasn’t until a year or so later, after the scramble to reunite was over, that the “first draft” part of that cliched description of journalism really began to sink in.

Reporting major events under deadline pressure, journalists rarely have all the facts. We know we have to go with what we have. We focus on the big picture and tell it as best we can.

So it can be humbling when, sometimes years later, the main actors in a drama or historians studying it write second, third and fourth drafts of the same history, revealing details that would have made stop-the-presses headlines if known at the time.

Some details of those confusing days are still coming out. Only last month, Britain and France released documents showing how worried their leaders were by a reunited Germany.


On November 9, 1989, journalists on the spot saw how East German politburo member Guenter Schabowski inadvertently sparked a rush to the Wall by announcing East Germans could travel to the West and telling a journalist the new rule was valid immediately.

What we only found out much later was that Schabowski, as he replied to that question, silently asked himself: “I wonder if this has been cleared with the Soviets.” He didn’t know!

Later that evening, as the world’s eyes zeroed in on the partying at the Wall, East Germany’s distraught communist leader Egon Krenz was pacing the long corridors of the Central Committee headquarters alone mumbling “What should I do now?”

What a gem that would have been in our story that night -- but I only found it five years later in a book about the Wall.

The day after the Wall opened, East Germany secretly ordered combat alert for the elite ground forces and paratroopers trained to seize West Berlin in an East-West war.

This would have been bell-ringing news if we’d known it. The Wall fell without bloodshed, but nobody knew that day that the military and Stasi secret police wouldn’t intervene. By the time this was published in 1994, it was only a footnote to history.

Another of those “what if?” episodes occurred that evening, when Chancellor Helmut Kohl, former Chancellor Willy Brandt and other politicians addressed a crowd at West Berlin’s city hall.

Just before he was to speak, Kohl got an urgent call saying Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was asking if it was true that protesters had attacked Soviet military bases in East Germany. Unable to leave, he sent his word that the rumor was false.

Knowing those details then would have changed the story from how the crowds cheered Brandt and jeered Kohl to how the chancellor may have helped avert a possible military crackdown.


Germany had hardly reunited in October 1990 before leading players in the drama rushed out books detailing their part in it. By 1991, several leaders in East and West published memoirs adding salient details to a story still fresh in our minds.

Kohl recounted the period to a parliamentary inquiry in 1993 and wrote his memoirs of it three years later. In 1998, shortly before he was voted out of office, he had a 1,667-page volume of secret papers released to burnish his “Father of Unity” image.

Condoleezza Rice, a U.S. national security advisor and later Secretary of State, co-authored a 1995 study adding more details on American and Soviet diplomatic work on German reunification.

With the Wall’s 20th anniversary approaching, Britain and France released some of their classified documents on 1989-1990. The French papers revealed little but London’s book made headlines for its gossipy peeks into closed-door summits.

At an Elysee Palace lunch in January 1990, one document revealed, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher insisted that Germany’s rush to reunification must be slowed down.

Agreeing, French President Francois Mitterrand warned the Germans were turning “bad” again, winning so much influence in Central and Eastern Europe that they “might make even more ground than Hitler” and leave Europe as divided as in 1913.

“It was agreed that neither side would say anything to the press about the substance of the discussion,” it noted.

Journalists in Germany at the time knew Thatcher opposed the unity drive and Mitterrand wavered, but neither could stop it. The British book reveals nothing to change the analysis we made back then based on public statements and diplomatic contacts.

But even 20 years later, reading those quotes makes my fingers itch. What great stories they would have made.

Editing by Ralph Boulton