BERLIN – “There is such a lot of unbelievable things here,” 27 year-old Jay Baumgarten told me.
Jay was the first newcomer from the East I spoke with in West Berlin after the Berlin Wall fell twenty years ago. It was an incredible moment. For decades East Berlin had been effectively sealed off to the world thanks to the Wall surrounding it. Now that barrier was coming down.
I actually got word that the Berlin Wall fell late Thursday, November 9th, 1989, as I walked into the New York 6th Avenue newsroom of my then-employer (later to become CNBC), Financial News Network, just a few blocks away from the current home of Fox News. My boss told me to get on the first plane over there
As I raced to JFK airport I reflected on how much this story meant to me.
I’d grown up with the Cold War with all of its threats and fears. I’d taken German in school so I knew the lingo. I’d been on “vacation” a few months before to Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, sensing this was my last chance to glimpse full-blown Communist oppression in the East.
And, perhaps most importantly, this would be my first foreign assignment as a TV News reporter. It would be one of the most unforgettable.
I got to my West Berlin hotel late the next day, just off the then-still fashionable Kurfuerstendamm, and I headed over like a shot to the Wall, first by taxi and then, when the crowds got too thick, walking the huge Tiergarten park butting up against the Wall.
I remember that first moment so well. It was a bitterly cold night, the chill air hitting my face, but there was also an air of celebration. This was the first full night the Wall ceased to exist.
The Wall was still there all right but was already being chipped away by souvenir-seekers, or “wall peckers” as they were called, using hammers, chisels, whatever was handy to help art away a bit of this detested structure.
The Wall had become a stage for young Berliners to dance upon, sing and shout from. They couldn’t believe their luck. Their generation would taste a freedom in Berlin that just a few days before was a dream.
I walked parallel to what had been the “Death Strip,” the barren land along the Wall or what was called the “anti-Fascist Rampart” which had been a “shoot to kill” zone for tough East German security guards. In a matter of hours it had been pacified.
I climbed up the stairs of a viewing platform that was used by families in the West to wave to relatives they couldn’t reach in the East. Now I just saw soldiers lounging around with little to do.
Instead of barking military orders, rock and roll and singing filled the air.
I looked at the residential buildings in the West facing the Wall with their windows bricked up to fend off hostilities — buildings which would soon become hot real estate properties.
I wasn’t the first American reporter there by a long shot. Less than 24 hours after the Wall fell, I watched as Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and their staffs anchored their evening news programs from hastily erected platforms just in front of the Wall and the famous symbol of the city and the U.S-Soviet duel, the Brandenburg Gate.
It was a sign of just how significant this moment was for America after decades of life and death tensions.
The next day, Saturday, seemed like one big “retail therapy” day. East Berliners poured into the West in a steady stream of cars and pedestrians, through a breach made in the Wall near Potsdamer Platz.
In what was called “Welcome Money,” the West German government gave each person arriving a 100 Deutsche Mark present. Worth about $50 then, it was enough to fuel a shopping spree of undreamt-of scope for these product starved consumers. Supermarkets, drugstores, department stores and, it must be noted, West Berlin’s wide array of porn shops were filled with new customers.
On one of the following days, I ventured into East Berlin itself. I remember making the crossing at Checkpoint Charlie. There was no greater icon of Cold War tension. I was half expecting to see Richard Burton bundled up in a trench coat in a scene from “The Spy who Came in From the Cold.”
Now the place was just filled with people coming and going. Some heading into the East. Most heading out.
After spending just a few hours in the East, I could see and feel why everyone wanted out. The biggest impression I remember from that day was “grey.” Grey buildings, grey streets, grey clothing, grey skies — even grey people.
And yet folks we spoke with were not so shell-shocked or paranoid that they wouldn’t talk to us. They were stunned, for sure, about the turn of events. But also eager and happy for things to change. Upon leaving, though, I was never so happy to get back to the West.
Back in West Berlin, people we talked to also appeared stunned. Nearly everyone expected the Wall to last for a very long time. One American computer salesman based in Berlin just shook his head and said what had happened caught "a lot of people off guard.”
And there was a lot of hesitancy too. A Deutsche Bank executive I interviewed noted sceptically that no business could be done in the East, let along reunification with the West "unless you change the political system.”
But the train had already left the station. The last day of my trip to Berlin I returned to the Wall and the Brandenburg Gate to catch one more glimpse of history. I remember standing by a TV news truck and heard the team making plans to move on to the next stop for this “freedom” train in eastern Europe, Czechoslovakia.
In fact just a few days later the key protest in that country’s “Velvet Revolution” would take place. And the Soviet-backed regime would fall there too. Like it would in other regimes in the Soviet bloc.
A little more than a year after the Fall of the Wall I moved to Germany full time. I’d be anchoring a show called European Journal for PBS, and have a front row seat on the continuing historic changes in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, Germany.
I had a chance to speak with Richard von Weiszaecker, the German President when the Wall fell. He told me he thought the Wall was one of the “most stupid monuments built by political leaders.” He just didn’t think it would come down in his lifetime.
And I spoke with Helmut Kohl, the Chancellor of Germany at the time. He told me of his gratitude to President Reagan and his brave stand against Communism, including of course, that now historic moment at the Brandenburg Gate when the President beseeched then Soviet leader Gorbachev to "tear down this wall.”
I went to Berlin many times in the years after the Wall came down. I watched the city transform itself into a united European metropolis as Germany became unified as well. A new building seemed to pop up every month. And most traces of the Wall disappeared.
Trips I took to a television center in eastern Berlin sent me back and forth daily across where the Wall was. I would’ve been shot many times for making the same trips just a few years before.
But I also got to see the euphoria fade. As the German government poured more money into the East, things seemed to get worse. People were either fleeing to jobs and comfort in western Germany, or living with unemployment and even nostalgia for the security of past Communist life.
I remember covering the fifth anniversary of the fall of the Wall and it was a very somber affair.
For the 10th anniversary in 1999 I was able to tell the tale of Berlin for our new network Fox News Channel. It was still a mixed picture. New businesses led mostly by young people were bringing the former communist Berlin out of its socialist stupor. But even young people at the cold rainy celebration that night felt it not appropriate to cheer. Instead, one said, we should reflect and hope for the future.
So now it’s 20 years later and the festivities seem even greater than past anniversaries. Luminaries, eyewitnesses and yes, journalists, are weighing in with their recollections.
I know from recent trips to Berlin, the merging of the two halves of the city has truly taken place. The cool place for hotels, bars, clubs and shops has now moved solidly to the old Communist East. The bits of Wall that are left are being preserved for generations to come.
My friends in Berlin tell me the mood twenty years later is better too. The older people have either seen their lives improve or are resigned to their plight. The young people have never known anything other than a united free Berlin.
While tearing down one world and building up another has taken time, it all seemed, in those cold November days in Berlin, 20 years ago, to happen so fast and easy. Incredibly, it happened with no blood shed.
I remember what another man told me fresh out of East Berlin the day after the Wall fell.
“This must be a very rich land,” he said.
Richer because he and others were free to come and go as they pleased — without a Wall shutting them in.