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John Downing: I was there the day the Berlin Wall came down

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This Nov. 11, 1989 file photo shows East German border guards looking through a hole in the Berlin wall after demonstrators pulled down one segment of the wall at Brandenburg gate

This Nov. 11, 1989 file photo shows East German border guards looking through a hole in the Berlin wall after demonstrators pulled down one segment of the wall at Brandenburg gate

The combo shows east Berlin citizens crowding the new passage at Bernauer Strasse in Berlin where East German border police tore down segments of the wall on Nov. 11, 1989 and  people walking at the crossing Bernauer Strasse and Oderberger Strasse on Oct. 26, 2014 - 25 years after the fall of the wal

The combo shows east Berlin citizens crowding the new passage at Bernauer Strasse in Berlin where East German border police tore down segments of the wall on Nov. 11, 1989 and people walking at the crossing Bernauer Strasse and Oderberger Strasse on Oct. 26, 2014 - 25 years after the fall of the wal

AP

This Nov. 10, 1989 file photo shows East and West Berliners celebrating in front of a control station on East Berlin territory, during the opening of the borders to the West following the announcement by the East German government that the border to the West would be open.

This Nov. 10, 1989 file photo shows East and West Berliners celebrating in front of a control station on East Berlin territory, during the opening of the borders to the West following the announcement by the East German government that the border to the West would be open.

.A young West German girl smiles at her father as she points to a large hole in the Berlin Wall in this November 11, 1989 file photo.

.A young West German girl smiles at her father as she points to a large hole in the Berlin Wall in this November 11, 1989 file photo.

Berlin Wall in 1989

Berlin Wall in 1989

Front page of the Herald on Friday 10 November 1989

Front page of the Herald on Friday 10 November 1989

Page 4 of The Evening Herald on Friday, November 10, 1989

Page 4 of The Evening Herald on Friday, November 10, 1989

This Nov. 11, 1989 file photo shows East German border guards looking through a hole in the Berlin wall after demonstrators pulled down one segment of the wall at Brandenburg gate

THE grey-uniformed border guard was the personification of niceness. The one giving me grief was the over-dressed American television journalist from one or other of the big US networks.

The total role reversal, which saw stony-faced East German border guards stripped of their super powers and suddenly eager to please western media, told how the old order had been stood on its head.

We were at Checkpoint Charlie just hours after the infamous Berlin Wall had come down in November 1989, all of 25 years ago this week.

I was despairing at the impossible queues, fearing I would never get into East Berlin, and back out, to file a report to Dublin in time. Then I spotted the US network television crew being shepherded through and I moved instinctively.

shouted

"Press, press," I shouted waving an out-of-date journalists' union card and joining the US gang. The pompous American television man was livid.

But the border guard could not have been nicer, waving me through after a brief glance at my card. Within minutes I was walking along Rosa Luxembourg Strasse on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall.

I was on the other side of a zone where hundreds had been killed between 1961 and 1989 in their efforts to get west. It was an exhilarating feeling - the only downside was that I had no clue about what to do next.

It was in a side street half an hour later, in an area I would soon learn was Prenzlauer Berg, that I met Dirk. I was puzzling over a street map and he offered to help.

pumping

With a mix of his minimal English and my worse German we chatted briefly. Minutes after that we were sitting in his local bar making some kind of conversation. God knows how, but he was pumping the most marvellous stories about his life past, present and future.

He was going to get a car and move west. He would go to Vienna, to Rome, Paris... there would be no stopping him.

I had not the heart to tell him how horrifically expensive his plans were.

A man at a nearby table muttered what was unmistakably foul language, even with my limited German. Then he got up and left.

Dirk explained that he was the father of an old neighbour and school friend. The man had been "very senior in the government service" and was now "very worried", Dirk explained.

We had not even finished one beer, but already I was learning about the crazy mix of future hopes and fears in East Berlin in November 1989. From there we moved on to a more upmarket cafe where I met several more East Germans.

The stories kept coming. There were far more visiting West Germans in that second cafe which was a deal posher.

A couple of elderly German women, one unmistakably western by her clothes, the other clearly from the east, conversed earnestly at an adjoining table. It soon transpired that they were sisters, hoping to replace the regular visits, which had become increasingly infrequent due to advancing age, with more permanent and unregulated contact.

The ladies talked at length over the remains of a meal. When they sought their bill they were told it had been paid by a group of west Germans who had already left the cafe. It was a day of great generosity and openness. I eventually parted from Dirk and his friends, after promises to link up again. I breezed through Checkpoint Charlie and hailed a taxi.

The taximan was a classic example of the ageing hippy community in West Berlin. Originally from Munich, he had successfully dodged West German military service by moving to the alternative enclave of West Berlin in the mid-1970s. He had lived for many years in a squat in a large house in the centre of Berlin's counter-culture, Kreuzberg.

This had once been a chic area, but by 1989 the results of being marooned for decades in the western shadow of the notorious wall had made it hippy central. Now he too was talking about the potential changes ahead and he was far from euphoric to say the least.

"I hope they make a new society in united Berlin. Not all this neon and shopping nonsense we have in the west," he said.

hnews@herald.ie


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