We are the people – watching the wall come down

 20 years ago TV news suddenly became very interesting.  I was 18 years old and for all those years I had lived in a country that was separated into East and West.

I, however, did not see it as a separation. To me West Germany, where I lived, and East Germany were two different countries that had, other than their language and a shared, distant history, not much in common.

The idea, stubbornly maintained by old guard politicians, that there were two parts to one people in one country seemed to be just political rhetoric to me. There would always be two Germanys, I thought.

Most Germans at the time thought alike. East Germany simply looked too extreme and too backward in its thinking.

In a time when most governments were more concerned about letting foreigners into their country, East Germany’s regime had always been worried that its citizens might get out.

To many West Germans the German Democratic Republic  would have been just a butt of jokes, if it had not been for the so-called “death strip” of barbed wire fences, shoot to kill policies and, most symbolic of all, the wall that cut Berlin and Germany in half.

On 9 November 1989, I watched the evening news showing East Germans attempting to cross the border from East to West Berlin.

For weeks East Germany had experienced a mass exodus of its people, first via Hungary, when the country opened its borders to Austria. Thousands crossed the border. After Hungarian border guards stopped more from leaving, thousands more flooded West Germany’s embassy in Budapest.

When the East German regime restricted travel to Hungary, similar events unfolded in Czechoslovakia.

Illegal mass demonstrations followed, demanding freedom of speech, democratisation and, rather than a mass flight, the liberty to travel abroad and return.

For a month rallies had formed, during which the people of Leipzig, Dresden and Berlin marched, candles in hand, and shouted “no violence” to implore the riot police not to use any force against them. Not often with success.

All this played out day after day in the TV evening news, the major source for breaking news at the time.

I watched it with skepticism. How could this approach of non-violence, that all opposition groups subscribed to, have an impact on a totalitarian regime that would beat down and imprison any dissidents faster than the state’s supercharged Olympic athletes collected gold medals?

But by 4 November 1989 the number of protesters had increased to one million people gathering that day in the Alexanderplatz in Berlin.

Most of them echoing the rallying cry “we are the people”. It signified the demand of the people to be heard and to self-determine its future.

In the face of ongoing demonstrations and the forming of a growing opposition the communist government of the GDR showed cracks. Politburo members resigned, new ministers had to grant travel concessions.

In a press conference to foreign media it had announced that day that East Berliners could, after obtaining state authorisation, travel to West Berlin. When asked when this would take effect Guenther Schabowski, a member of the East German Politburo, replied, “as far as I know effective immediately, without delay”.

This was incorrect, because the border police had not been instructed when and how to apply the new regulations.

All should have been done the typical German way, through bureaucratic channels and with proper documentation only.

But not this time.

When the news was reported on West German TV thousands in the East watched illegally ,shunning their state propaganda channel.

Tens of thousands of East Berliners marched to the border control points.

Most of them just wanted to nip across the border for a few hours to have a look at the world in the West.

Border guards refused to let them across; more and more people arrived. The crowd grew restless and frustrated with the conflicting messages it was getting.

After midnight the crowd had swelled so much that border guards decided against orders by their superiors and opened the barriers.

The news showed people pouring through the gate, jumping, cheering in exultation and many with tears in their eyes.

The next day hundred thousands of East Germans crossed the border, some seeing relatives again for the first time in decades, others celebrating with strangers.

Even though there was no official border crossing at the Brandenburg gate, East and West Germans began to dismantle the border fortifications of what once was the world’s most highly secured border.

They scaled the Berlin Wall and began to hack at it with pickaxes. Many were waving German flags, something that Germans, due to their history, until recently have not felt comfortable with.

On that day I had no doubt that it was the right thing to do.

I watched the images with a feeling that I had been wrong, not only about Germany’s unification, but also, in all honesty, about not caring much about it before. The tears of so many people showed how much it meant to my compatriots.

I was also wrong about perceiving government and politics as something that is distinct from the people.

I had witnessed that if it is, no matter how brutal and dictatorial the regime, it will eventually perish.

“We are the people” was an important message.

Once the wall had come down it would be transformed into the new challenge for a unified Germany of: “We are one people.”