April 29, 2007 / 4:40 AM / 11 years ago

WITNESS: The piece of paper that brought down the Berlin Wall

Douglas Hamilton, the Reuters Chief Correspondent for the Balkans, covered the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In the following story, he recalls the momentous events of November 9, 1989.

In this file photo, a woman photographs flowers which have been placed at the wall memorial at Bernauer Strasse in Berlin, November 9, 2006, to mark the 17th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

By Douglas Hamilton

(Reuters) - It was a flimsy piece of paper that swept away the Berlin Wall.

The statement from East Germany’s official news agency ADN ran to four paragraphs and was as matter-of-fact as some Post Office advisory.

“You’ll all have seen this?” grumbled Guenter Schabowski, the government spokesman, as he waved the dispatch at a crowded news conference in East Berlin on the evening of November 9, 1989.

“No! What is it? Read it out!” demanded the foreign press.

So he did, mumbling at speed in a harassed tone punctuated by cries from scribbling reporters to slow down.

East Germans would be given permission for private journeys to the West without “fulfilling preconditions”, ADN said. They would get permits at short notice and could have “permanent emigration” visas too, if they wanted.

When would this begin? “Immediately, as far as I know,” replied the bemused Schabowski, a member of the Politburo who we assumed would know.

Correspondents raced off with the news. But whole minutes ticked by before the penny dropped. This was no travel policy tweak: after 28 years as a lethal divider between East and West, the Wall was coming down.

And so began a night of little wonders.


Checkpoint Charlie in the American sector of post-war Berlin was one of the most menacing strongpoints in the Iron Curtain.

A gateway for Westerners entering East Berlin and the stuff of Cold War spy novels, it was a forbidding barrier of razor wire, machinegun nests and watch towers erected by the East German state to deter citizens bold enough to dream of escape.

When I passed through earlier that November, on a freezing night that made my boots creak, its unsmiling guards had no idea their intimidation skills would soon be obsolete.

Neither did I, though we all sensed change was accelerating as East Germany’s crumbling communist power structure confronted a wave of popular resentment over a bankrupt economy and state repression.

There was never any question that the concrete wall thrown up overnight on August 13, 1961 by the German Democratic Republic was built to fence in East Germans, not to keep out West Germans.

Over the years, 1,000 people died in desperate bids to defeat lethal man-traps along the “death strip” which split Germany and separated drab, provincial East Berlin from the glittering capitalist showcase that was West Berlin.

A bare hour after Schabowski’s grumpy delivery, I was back at Checkpoint Charlie. Cold fluorescent light reflected in the steel-rimmed glasses of the guards as I timidly approached.

“People are going to read this and say: ‘There must be some mistake’,” muttered an officer with a sub-machinegun, clutching a crumpled copy of the ADN announcement I had handed him.

My German colleague Herbert Roessler and I glanced at each other and concealed our smiles.

“It’s not good,” said a junior guard who peered over his superior officer’s shoulder to read the note. “We’ll lose our jobs,” he added, and he was right.

It turned out that travel freedom had not been intended to start quite as “immediately” as Schabowski had told the world’s media. But the genie was out of the bottle.


Thousands of East Germans, acutely attuned to news, had phoned in to state TV which had to interrupt programs several times to re-read the ADN announcement.

Now they were flocking to police stations across East Berlin for travel permits that were being issued as fast as humanly possible, until overwhelmed officials simply discarded the formality.

Ecstatic crowds zeroed in on the few locked gates they knew existed in the Wall, a human tide drawn to West Berlin’s neon brightness, laughing, crying and dancing in the streets.

At the narrow gate on Invalidenstrasse, West Berlin’s mayor used a loud-hailer to urge cheering Westerners to let the East Berliners through first.

Fume-spewing East German Trabant cars drove slowly in among rivers of incredulous Berliners. Strangers embraced like long-lost lovers.

The East Berliners discovered a consumer cornucopia in the brightly-lit stores of the West. They could not afford much. But it seemed to me they all bought bananas, a luxury they rarely saw.

“It was like touching a forbidden flame,” one East Berliner told me as he walked happily home, knowing a new future had just opened before him.

His sense of wonder made me ask myself what it was I had witnessed that night.

It was the power of freedom, the genuine article.

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