(A portion of this comes from a story I wrote as a reporter covering the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, in November, 1999.)
The timing of a mistaken announcement, confusion at a checkpoint, and the will of a people to seek freedom spelled the end of the Berlin Wall.
Fate has given the world times when large groups of loved ones, cut off from each other for decades by government oppression, are rejoined unexpectedly because of a moment when all the right pieces fall together serendipitously.
Case in point: Berlin, November 9, 1989.
To the Ossis, it was a monster, standing menacingly between them and freedom. To the Wessis, it was a constant reminder that a third of their homeland had been abducted, possibly forever.
Feared and loathed for years by East Germans and West Germans alike, it was one of the defining symbols of communism, whose collapse in 1989 stunned the world.
The monster was the Berlin Wall, a concrete barrier that had divided a nation but also served as a reminder of a barrier between worlds.
On the night of Tuesday, November 9, a crowd of 40,000, which included 1,000 youths who were in town for a European Youth Festival, helped mark the anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall (the Mauerfall as the Germans say it), as they gathered beneath the historic Brandenburg Gate.
The blink of an eye
Like a singer who labors for years in obscurity and then lands the break making her an overnight success, the Berlin Wall vanished November 9, 1989, in the blink of an eye that took almost three decades to shut.
To many Germans, Harald Jaeger is the man who opened the Berlin Wall. To others, long waiting for the Wall to fall, it was proof that timing is everything.
Jaeger was an East German lieutenant colonel in charge of his Bornholmer Strasse checkpoint on the night of November 9. On that night, partly in a moment of confusion and partly out of frustration and fear of a riot, he stood back and allowed the first of thousands of East Germans to pour across his checkpoint into West Berlin, and freedom.
Jaeger has often been said, “I didn’t open the wall. The people who stood there, they did it. Their will was so great, there was no other alternative but to open the border.”
With that decision, 28 years of East Germany’s isolation from the West came to an abrupt end. To be sure, there were many years of international negotiations that had preceded this night, but those talks had always come to a stalemate.
On this night, however, the timing was perfect for a long-oppressed people to risk facing down a disillusioned border guard colonel and punch out the monster of the Berlin Wall.
These East Germans had gathered at Jaeger’s checkpoint after they heard a government minister, Gunther Schabowski, announce (mistakenly as it turns out) that East Germans could cross into West Germany immediately.
Col. Jaeger heard the announcement while eating supper and was shocked by it. There had been no indication this was coming. It was such a stunning announcement that he raced to his office to get confirmation and to receive orders on what he and his border guards should do now.
His shocked reaction was understandable. If this order were true, nearly three decades of East German policy about “protecting the people from the fascism of the West” by keeping them inside the Wall was upended.
If Jaeger was confused, the people of East Germany were not. They had just heard a member of the country’s ruling party say they were free to walk past the Wall and into the West.
Still awaiting a response to his request for orders, Jaeger was at his Bornholmer Strasse post where he was confronted by about 20 East German citizens who had hears the announcement and demanded to be let through the checkpoint.
Before long, the numbers grew dramatically and within a few hours, the 20 had grown to some 10,000, and they began shouting to “Open the gate!”
Still no confirmation came of Schabowski’s announcement, nor did any orders to shoot people if they tried to cross the checkpoint. This despite the fact that official records showed that 135 East Germans had been shot for trying to illegally pass this sector over the past 28 years.
Finally, Jaeger’s superiors told him to defuse the situation at the checkpoint by allowing just some of the noisier people through the gate but to stamp their papers in such a way that they wouldn’t be allowed back into East Germany.
That tactic failed miserably as the crowd saw those before them pass through. It was clear the crowd wasn’t going to leave without a fight.
Jaeger was caught in the middle with pressure from above to avoid a riot, while also disallowing the passage of anyone else through the gate. Jaeger did the only thing he felt he could do. He ordered his guards to stand down and let the crowd pass through.
It never closed again
Once that door opened, it never closed. Word quickly spread through the city that Bornholmer Strasse was open to the West, and thousands more came and passed through unharmed. Before the night was over, more than 20,000 East Germans were walking the streets of West Berlin.
Once the floodgates were open, they never closed as the government bowed to years of mounting pressure from the people and from the West. The fall of European Communism would fall soon, and Germany would be officially reunited into one country.
But on this particular night, November 9, 1989, there was only the euphoria of a pent-up people embracing the sweet taste of freedom.
Images streamed around the world of elated East Germans dancing in the streets of West Berlin and hugging their long-lost relatives and friends.
Nearly three decades of government negotiations had failed to accomplish what a single night’s serendipitous timing did.
I am a writer, college professor, and author of several nonfiction books, including three on the decade of the 1960s. Several wonderful essays of gifted Retrospect authors appear in my book, "Daily Life in the 1960s."