Our story begins in 1985. Mikhail Gorbachev, a somewhat progressive character, at least in that particular period of history, becomes the leader of the Soviet Union. He introduces the policies of “Glasnost and Perestroika”… “Restructuring” and “Openness “. What he actually does is that he pulls out the red army from all buffer zones and satellite states, such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and eventually East Germany.
He started in Poland, where in the city of Gdansk, they legalized trade unions, which was what actually kick started their solidarity movement. Now the neighboring countries see these changes and start demanding their own. Hungary and Czechoslovakia relax their border policy, which practically meant that Hungarians could now easily go up to Austria and East Germans could do that as well, which was something quite unheard of at the time. That made about 12000 East Germans head to the West German embassy in Vienna in order to escape out of the back door and defect to the west… Why? Well because unlike its eager neighbors, East Germany seemed to be stuck in its own complex situation and in a much tighter spot due to the fact that it’s whole identity was based on communism and it’s leaders were worried that if things get out of hand with this whole freedom “stuff” they will surely be absorbed by their far more powerful neighbor… West Germany… Which is exactly what happened anyway.
Now in reality it’s the East German government that didn’t wanna change, but what about its people?? They’ve been living in a prison for 3 decades; well they’ve had enough, so they do something illegal, something that they haven’t done since 1953… Protest! And it starts out in a grassroots movement in Leipzig. People marched through town saying “wir sind das volk” (we are the people) and “keine gewalt” (no violence). This was a peaceful process and all throughout the summer of 1989, hundreds of thousands and after that millions of East Germans were protesting. How did the government respond? Same as most governments do… with violence … Go figure. And so they sent in the army, however this time there’s one important difference, it wasn’t the red army, it was the East German army. A curfew is imposed, the army surrounds the protestors, people are scared, and everyone’s expecting violence… The army however never opened fire. After all, these recruits were East Germans as well and the notion of oppressing their own countrymen was too much for them. And if you can’t control your army, you can’t control your country. Now the leader of East Germany Eric Honicker, a bit delusional, made a statement that year about how the Berlin wall will last another 100 years… Well he was off by about 99 years and 2 months… He resigns for “health issues” and the government finally realizes the need for change, although it wasn’t quite sure how to go about it without actually making considerable changes to the system. First they came up with this clever visa policy that any East Berliner can apply for to go and visit the west side, however you were not allowed to travel together with your wife and kids so that you’ll always have a reason to come back to East Berlin once your visa runs out! Devilishly clever isn’t it?! Anyway, they announce this new procedure to the world on November 9th, 1989 in a press conference held by the press secretary Gunther Scherbatsky, at the end of which he was asked by the journalists: “What are you planning on doing about those protests happening all over East Germany?”, he takes a minute before vaguely responding: “uhhhmm… Border policy will be ‘relaxed’”. Hands quickly rise across the room, they want clarification… “So what does relaxed mean exactly?”… “Does that include the Berlin Wall?” At this point Scherbatsky looks like he’s seen a ghost, he has “Oh Shit” written all over his face. He needs to give an answer, he doesn’t want to look stupid, so he makes one up! “As far as I’m aware… Yes, I think so!” And that next question was the trigger that set a chain reaction which would forever change the lives of East and West Germans, the region and the world. The question was “when? When will you start applying this policy?” And again this guy was so much under pressure from all sides that he had to come up with an answer, so he says: “As far as I’m aware… It’s effective immediately, now and without delay”. Imagine that! This guy could’ve easily gotten away with one of the classics, like “We’ll get back to you on that” or “we’re still studying the matter”, but no, he just said now, and the Germans could not believe what just happened, jaws fell onto the floor.
Instantly tens of thousands of people rushed to the wall only to see that nothing has change, the wall was still there, and so were the guards on patrol and checkpoints. You can imagine what the guards must’ve felt when they saw all these people coming running towards them. The only word that comes to mind is… “Scheisse!” (Shit). The people got to the wall and started shouting “Let me in!…Let me in!” and it finally happened in a place called ‘Bonfonde strasse’, at 10:30pm, 2 guards look at each other, completely confused and overwhelmed and they pretty much say: “pffffffft” and they let them through! It was an incredible achievement, not a single shot was fired, and if you don’t think so, just turn on your TVs right now and see what’s happening in the rest of the world. The fact of the matter is that political change is rarely peaceful so we really have to hand it to Z Germanz here. So friends and family were reunited once again at last after 3 decades. Lots of hugs, tears and kisses…and since it was the 80s, lots of shoulder pads and massive permed hair as well! Checkpoint Charlie was opened just a few hours later and East Germans were rushing in to do some late night shopping while West Germans were so happy to see their compatriots, that they greeted them with beers and cigarettes, with tears in their eyes. In the next few hours, the symbolic “Brandenburger tor” (Brandenburg Gate) part of the wall was taken down, changing the geopolitical scene of Europe, the world, and initiating the countdown to the end of the cold war.
Today, 25 years later, what remains of the wall serves as a reminder of man’s insanity in darker times, a symbol of a great nation coming to terms with its past, and an amazing city determined to re-invent itself.