Eyewitness To History: The Fall Of The Berlin Wall
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Twenty years ago this morning, a grim fortification divided the city of Berlin and stood as a symbol of the Cold War itself. On that November 9th, an East German official responded to the movement of hundreds of thousands of people across other Iron Curtain borders and said there will be looser restrictions in East Germany too. When, reporters asked? Immediately, he said. Once the news got out, crowds swelled at checkpoints. And at around 11:00 p.m. local time, befuddled border guards started to let them cross to the West, first one at a time, then in an uncontrollable torrent. They greeted relatives and friends, greeted strangers as friends. The celebration became an indelible moment and an unstoppable force, and one that brought about incredible change.
This hour, we'll talk with people who were there when the wall fell, who've considered its significance - with a photographer, an American diplomat, a newspaper editor, a German writer, President George H.W. Bush's chief of staff and with you.
Tell us your story. If you were there, what do you remember? Our telephone number is 800-989-8255. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site. That's at npr.org. You can click on TALK OF THE NATION. We'll also take questions from an audience with us here in Studio 4A. And thanks to you all very much for coming in today. Appreciate it.
We begin with - let's go first to New Hampshire. Peter Schneider is a well-known German writer and a former leader of the student protest movement in Berlin. He's kind enough to join us today from our bureau in New York. And Peter Schneider, nice to have you with us today on TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. PETER SCHNEIDER (Writer): Hello. I'm glad to be here.
CONAN: And I said New Hampshire because that's where you where on this day 20 years ago.
Mr. SCHNEIDER: That's right. But this is the only invitation I ever said story about - that I accepted through the United States. No, actually, I had predicted the fall of the wall but I didn't trust my predictions, of course.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SCHNEIDER: Writers are not so confident as politicians are. Anyway, so I was working at my office, actually rewriting an article for the New York Times that was called �If the Wall Came Tumbling Down.� Somebody sticks in his head and says, did you hear? The wall is open. The Trabi(ph) cars are vandalized (unintelligible). I said, no. This is crazy.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SCHNEIDER: I don't believe your word. And then, I started to believe it and I must confess to a very egotistical moment. I said, my God. Couldn't they wait until I've finished my article?
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: History rarely is that cooperative. The Trabis you talk about were the Trabant that cars were made in�
Mr. SCHNEIDER: Yes. That's right.
CONAN: �in East Germany, that they were - well, would they - they did not compare with Rolls-Royces, let's put it that way.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SCHNEIDER: That was true. They were out of plastic.
CONAN: Yes. And, well, in that way anticipating many of the cars that would come in the future, though�
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: �not that quite so well-engineered. Anyway, I am sure you got back there as soon as you could. What was it like when you arrived at the site of the wall in Berlin?
Mr. SCHNEIDER: Exactly. I've - as soon as I could, I went back to Berlin and I took the chance to ask everybody I met: How did you live November 9th? And I collected these extraordinary stories in a reportage that was later published. And I remember many of these wonderful accounts that they've given to me.
For instance, there was this East German who had checked out a book from the American Memorial Library which, of course, was in West Berlin. And she could never return the book because the wall was constructed the next day. Many books�
CONAN: I've - those fines have mounted up.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SCHNEIDER: Well, right. When it was - when it came down 20 years after, the first thing that old German did was to return the book.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: So those fines didn't mount up. Compound interest has not returned to get him.
Mr. SCHNEIDER: Yes.
CONAN: Let's talk now with somebody who was there. Stay with us, Peter, if you would.
Mr. SCHNEIDER: Yeah.
CONAN: This is Carol Guzy, who is a photographer staff, photographer of the Washington Post and was in Berlin that day. And she's been kind enough to join us here in Studio 4A. Thanks very much for coming in.
Ms. CAROL GUZY (Photojournalist, The Washington Post): Thank you. (unintelligible).
CONAN: And as you were - were you there ready to photograph the fall of the wall? What brought you to Berlin that day?
Ms. GUZY: Well, I actually had been there previously covering a story and mistakenly thought there would be enough of a lull to come home because I was weary and then all of a sudden - boom.
CONAN: The wall�
Ms. GUZY: The wall was coming down. We got - my colleague and I, Rich Lipski, got back on a plane and flew for the first day that they were taking out the first chunk of the wall.
CONAN: And that must have been an extraordinary scene.
Ms. GUZY: It's something that certainly stirs your soul. It's the most profoundly poignant story I think I've ever covered both as a journalist and just on a personal level. It's kind of a wow moment, I call it, where you put the camera down and you just take it all in and you realize that your eyes are witnessing history.
CONAN: This is - this was a structure that was part of your psyche well before you ever arrived in Berlin. I'm sure it is something that was the symbol of the Cold War. It was something that a lot of us had thought was - achieved the level of permanence.
Ms. GUZY: Exactly. Yes. It was astonishing and remarkable that the wall came down and so symbolic. It - when I was there, though, actually for the first day I was in this crushing crowd and I couldn't see a thing. And one of the pesky problems about photography is you have to actually see your subject. So I looked around and saw this very large sturdy German tripod staring at me. And he was very gracious and put me on his shoulders and spent probably the most memorable moment of his life with my Nikons clanking around on his forehead.
CONAN: You can see some of Carol Guzy's pictures of Carol Guzy that day at our Web site. Go to npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And let's go now to somebody else who was there. And Congressman Joe Crowley, a Democrat from New York, has called in to the program. Nice of you to join us today.
Representative JOE CROWLEY (Democrat, New York): Great to be with you. Thank you.
CONAN: And what were you doing in Berlin?
Rep. CROWLEY: Well, I actually had started out in London. I was rekindling an old friendship and I was on the way back from Cambridge, back to London, when we heard on the radio about that was going on. And all of us at once decided we're going to go to Berlin but only two of us woke up early enough the next morning to catch the 5:30 flight with a bunch of journalists and photographers.
And via Frankfurt, we landed in Berlin and I met two guys from then-Senator Pete Wilson's office. I didn't - we didn't know who they were. We struck up a little accord with them. And we all four of us got a hotel room, threw our bags in - about three blocks from the wall. I had never been to Berlin before. I walked down to the wall. I was in cowboy boots and a leather jacket and someone handed me a sledgehammer. He just started swinging away.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Rep. CROWLEY: I was in the state legislature at that time and I was a young - I was 27 years old at that time. And, you know, it was just like a real surreal moment, not really knowing what would happen and what the consequences of hitting the wall would be. But there were these throngs of people at that time and excitement. And I ran into a reporter from CBS radio, New York Newsradio 88, who just happened to recognize me. And she said, I know you. And I said, I'm Joe Crowley. You're Assemblyman Crowley. I said, yes. And she stuck a microphone in front of me and that's how my parents and my family found out I was in Berlin.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: You give us 22 minutes, we'll give you a�
Rep. CROWLEY: Exactly. Something like that.
CONAN: �a change in history.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Peter Schneider, let's go back to you for just a moment. This is not where you grew up necessarily, but this was something that was far more personal to any German than it was to any American.
Mr. SCHNEIDER: Well, yes. I mean, it was very different for West Germans and East Germans. I mean, the East Germans, for them it was the ultimate border which could never be crossed. And it really felt like - when they came, it felt like prisoners who came out of the prison and were free from one moment to the other.
We in West Berlin, especially the ones in West Germany who didn't really see and feel the wall, it was different then. We got kind of, yeah, familiar - I once wrote, you know, the war for me was, after a while, only a reason to change direction with my car.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Well, soon, you would be able to drive right through where it used to be.
Mr. SCHNEIDER: Right. By the way, it took a long time. Once you got used to all these stupid ways to go around the checkpoint and the (unintelligible). Once you have used all these different ways where you were allowed to go, it took me, like, 10 years to go straightforward.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Now let's get a caller in on the line. 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. And we're having a little difficulty with our technology here, and we'll get that straightened out in the next break.
But, anyway, let's go back to Congressman Crowley. Congressman, when you were there, there was sort of a moment of infection, the giddiness that everybody is talking about. Carol was talking about it, too. Nevertheless, there are moments when you had to say, oh, my gosh, this is going to change everything.
Rep. CROWLEY: Well, you know, I distinctly recall deciding, amongst all of us, we would go into East Berlin. We tried to get in to East Berlin, and we went up through checkpoint Charlie, the infamous, the famous checkpoint Charlie, and waiting in line. And at that time, I was a little nervous because I had a prescription drug on me and I thought that maybe I might be - you know, you didn't know what the consequences of anything would be. And, you know, I went through anyway, and you could see the stark difference between both sides.
I remember walking through and seeing an outdated playground for kids. Everything was rusty and everything was kind of stale. We were really hungry and we saw what looked like a restaurant, and they had outside, in the window, cakes. And it's - boy it looked good. And got inside, and the cake was terrible.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Rep. CROWLEY: And it just reminded me - it was so bland. It was like the country - that part of the country we were in. And then going back into East -into West Berlin that night and the party atmosphere was like - it was like New Year's Eve at Times Square, and people just joyous and happy. It was just an incredible moment to think about now.
CONAN: Well, Congressman Crowley, thanks very much for calling in to share your memory.
Rep. CROWLEY: Thank you. Great to be on the show.
CONAN: Appreciate the time. Congressman Joe Crowley of New York.
Here's an email that we got from Pam in Cincinnati, Ohio. My recollection of the Berlin Wall was as a 10-year-old getting ready to deliver the afternoon edition of the newspaper to my neighbors. I'm sure I had no sense of just how big a deal it was, but I do clearly remember looking at the picture of the scene - maybe one of Carol's pictures - it was in color, which was rare then, and knowing this was important.
And this from Karen(ph) from Weiden in Germany. My husband and I were traveling home from West Berlin through East Germany on the U.S. duty train. Usually, we saw very little because all the precautions were taken to keep East German citizens away from the decadent West. But that evening, every train station we went through was burgeoning with people catching trains to the West. Every train we passed was full of people having the party of their life. Once we got home, we could see we'd missed the party. For the next week or so, the air was blue with the smoke from the Trabi cars and their two-stroke engines - again, those Trabants that are made in East Germany. That from Karen, currently living in Weiden, Germany.
Well, were you there? What's your story of the fall of the Berlin Wall? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. Stay with us.
I'm Neal Conan, eyewitness to history. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
It's 20 years to the day since the Berlin Wall was first breached, a now-famous East German press conference announced new oblique travel laws. Within an hour, East Germans were gathering at crossing points. Groups became crowds, then slowly, the trickle became thousands pouring through the crossings from both sides.
You could see a history of the Berlin Wall in photographs in a gallery at our Web site. That's at npr.org. We're relieving stories of that day, stories of jubilation and uncertainty. And we want to hear from you if you were there: tell us what you remember. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation at our Web site. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And let's go to a question here from the studio audience in Studio 4A. Go ahead, please.
Ms. PATRICIA CASEY SUTCLIFFE(ph) (Audience Member): Hi. My name is Patricia Casey Sutcliffe. I live here in D.C. In the - on the actual day, November 9th, 1989, I was a German major at the University of Redlands in California. But I had spent the summer before that - I'd spent six weeks in East Germany at something called a labor camp that was organized by the United States Committee for Friendship with the German Democratic Republic. And I got to spend three weeks living and working with people from various parts of the Eastern Bloc and even got to spend - about the last three days of my stay, I got to live with an East German family.
And I remember when it actually happened, when the wall fell, I had such fresh memories of just having been there and having been led through the various sights to see by East Germans who were approved to do so. They took us up into the Brandenburg Tour and showed us the usual movies to show why the Berlin Wall had to be in place. And I couldn't believe it. There in California, I was so far away, and yet I had just been there and I - it was amazing to see that.
PATRICIA: One of the things that was interesting for me was that - especially in those last three days at - with the family, they were talking about the people who are already escaping over the border from Hungary into Austria. So even in August and in late July when I was there, there was some discussion going on and people were saying, well, are you going to go? Are you going to go to Hungary? Are you going to go over to Austria? And the family that I was staying with were actually very happy and talked about how they wanted to remain, because they had everything that they needed. And I kept in touch with them for a little while after�
PATRICIA: �all that happened.
CONAN: And did they continue to feel that way?
PATRICIA: I know that they broke up. That is one thing that I know. So, you know, the pressures of life after the wall came down sort of messed up their marriage, in any case. Unfortunately, I didn't stay in touch with them much beyond that.
CONAN: Well, thanks very much. Appreciate that. Peter Schneider, a German novelist who's with us from our bureau in New York, the George M. Roth Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at Georgetown University. There was a system - you were, in even younger days, of one of the student rebels who led protests in 1968, challenged the government of West Germany pretty much. There was a system that was in opposition to it, and the fall of the wall meant the removal of that system.
Mr. SCHNEIDER: That's right. The - it - by the way, many - I was very much interested in what your participant in the auditorium told us, this couple that broke up. Of course, I mean, many people in the GDR felt this was a catastrophe that the wall came down. And most intellectuals on the left in West and in the East Germany, they were not very fond of the unification. They were maybe fond of the coming down of the wall, but not for unification.
This equated Germany would be very dangerous. It would be - and especially our neighbors Mitterand and the Miss Thatcher, they hated the idea of a unification. So the only ones who really went for unification were the men and women from the street of East Germany.
Mr. SCHNEIDER: And it - where Helmut Kohl and his�
CONAN: Helmut Kohl, then the chancellor in Germany.
Mr. SCHNEIDER: �and the vice chancellor, and father Bush - not to be confused with his son - and the Gorbachev and his foreign minister, of course, Shevardnadze. Without these people, we would never have had the unification.
CONAN: Let's go next to J.D. Bindenagel of - now vice president for Community, Government and International Affairs at DePaul University, but at that time, deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Berlin, East Germany. And he joins us now from the studios if Deutschlandradio Kultur in Berlin. And good of you to be here with us today.
Mr. J.D. BINDENAGEL (Vice President, Community, Government and International Affairs): Thank you, Neal. I'm delighted to be here.
CONAN: And what it's like in Berlin today?
Mr. BINDENAGEL: It's pouring down rain and Chancellor Merkel has just gone from the Bornholmer Strasse checkpoint to - with Gorbachev and others to the Brandenburg Gate to celebrate.
CONAN: And - in the pouring rain. So I don't think that's going to dampen spirits too much.
Mr. BINDENAGEL: It does not dampen the spirits. This is a very exciting anniversary of a very important and exciting event.
CONAN: Where were you that day, and where were you when you heard the news that people were going to the wall?
Mr. BINDENAGEL: Well, that evening, I began at a reception in West Berlin at the Aspen Institute, where we have leaders from both East and West Germany, including Honecker's own lawyer, Wolfgang Vogel.
CONAN: Erich Honecker was the party chairman in East Germany at that time. Yeah.
Mr. BINDENAGEL: That's correct. And Wolfgang Vogel was the spy-exchanging lawyer that he had. Shcharansky was his most famous case. And on the way, at the end of the reception, Wolfgang told me that the Eastern government had decided to change and liberalize its law in order to deal with the pressure of all these people trying to flee and to go - to travel. And this was hot news. So I drove quickly to the U.S. embassy, only to find there that Mr. Schabowski had made a statement and the news that I have was being announced as we were listening. And�
CONAN: That's from an ex-German official who mistakenly announced this policy was going into effect immediately.
Mr. BINDENAGEL: That's right. And he was not speaking very well. He was mumbling and he didn't know what he was really saying and he was all over the map. And then he was finally asked the question: And when this travel law effective? And he said, immediately, or so forth. So immediately. And that unleashed a lot of interest in the journalists who were there. And Tom Brokaw from the United States went back to the Brandenburg Gate and began to announce that the wall was open, because he just heard it directly from Gunter Schabowski, the press spokesman.
And we in the U.S. embassy, of course we're looking for what did the government have to say? Well, they didn't really know. They didn't have anything written. It took us an hour and a half to get a statement from the Eastern German government that you have to have a visa to travel, and Germans - East Germans didn't have passports. So it was very hard to get a visa. But we thought, sure enough, they will follow through. They're good, orderly people. They will get visas, and the next day they will be travelling.
And so we reported this to the White House and the State Department. We called our friends in West Berlin, the administrator of the West Berlin mission of the United States and the ambassador. And so we felt that we had informed President Bush of the things that were happening. But there were two questions were outstanding. One was would the Soviet Union intervene�
Mr. BINDENAGEL: �if the guards at the checkpoints decided to defend themselves? And they had a shoot-to-kill order to do that. So we were very careful to make sure that we were on top of all the news there was to come. Then I went home. And on the way home up Schoenhauser Allee in East Berlin, and that crosses a street called Bornholmer Strasse. And in East Germany on a Thursday night, it's usually a very dark. Nothing's ever happening. And I looked down the street, and there were Trabants, this plasticized, pressed wood two-stroke probably(ph) smoke-belching car parked everywhere, which is very unusual. And then I looked down the street about three or four blocks to the checkpoint itself, and there was a camera on the other side and people yelling, tor offnen: open the gate. Open the gate.
I thought at that point I knew that something was going to happen. I hope that it wasn't a shoot-to-kill order being executed, but I knew that seeing the television on the other side, that the television was record what was ever happening. I rushed home, got on the phone, woke up the ambassador, called West Berlin and called White House again to say we'd like to revise what we had just said.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BINDENAGEL: And things may be happening right now, as we're speaking. And sure enough, they broke through Bornholmer Strasse and into the cameras of Spiegel Television, which was broadcast around the world, confirming what Gunter Schabowski, the spokesman, had said: You can travel, announced on television and then seen on television, but not what the East German government wanted to do.
CONAN: Well, one of the officials who was getting the news from J.D. Bindenagel, then the deputy chief of U.S. Mission in East Berlin, was John Sununu, then the White House chief of staff under the first President Bush. And he joins us now on the line from his home in New Hampshire, where he's chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. And good to be with us today.
Mr. JOHN SUNUNU (Chairman, New Hampshire Republican Party; Former White House Chief of Staff): Well, it's nice to be on.
CONAN: And we're - given the time difference, it was much earlier in the day here in Washington, D.C. Were you are little astounded with this news from Berlin?
Mr. SUNUNU: Well, no matter how much you prepare and hope for an event like that, when it happens, you're always surprised, at the moment. But it was obviously a very positive and pleasant surprise.
CONAN: And were you worried, as Mr. Bindenagel was telling us, about possible Soviet reaction to this?
Mr. SUNUNU: Well, there had been a lot of discussion about what could happen if such an event occurred. But to tell you the truth, I think there had been a lot of positive interactions with Gorbachev over the months before that. And I think we felt comfortably that even though there may be strong verbal statements, I think the president - President Bush and Brent Scowcroft and Jimmy Baker were quite comfortable that this was just part of a sequence of events that had - even though the timing wasn't known, had some level of inevitability over time.
CONAN: I wonder, in the midst of the - obviously, events were happening very fast and you're getting dispatches and trying to keep up with the news, was there a moment that evening when there, in the White House, you and the others sat back just for a second and said, you know, it's 50 years. We won.
Mr. SUNUNU: Well, let me say this, which I think is a very important part of the historical record. George Herbert Walker Bush was really very focused and concerned about not making things difficult for Gorbachev and the Russians as they moved through this process and not putting into the context of gloating, which may give Gorbachev some difficulty with his military back in the Soviet Union. And so frankly, we had been talking so much about trying to maintain that frame of reference in the whole process that we almost talked ourselves into the context that we weren't going to assume it was over till it was over.
And I think if you recall, there was that famous news conference scene in the Oval Office where a reporter from - I believe it was CBS - started berating George Herbert Walker Bush, President Bush for not being euphoric about the collapse of the wall. And the president was trying to maintain that discipline of creating a perception in a climate which was not one of gloating or we finally won or this - rubbing this in - if you will, in the nose of the Soviets and Gorbachev. And so, to tell you the truth, we really didn't belief it was going - it was over until it was over, and even though the wall coming down with such a visibly historical event, there was still a whole sequence of things to come afterwards and concerns about what was going on internally in the Soviet Union and some of the internal pressures and, you know, we had following this in the months ahead. We had those - the aborted coup and all that.
So the fears were not unfounded and we were trying to be as disciplined as we could to respond in a way that helped move it along in a steady pace constructively rather than just trying to gloat at each milestone.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Now, we're talking about the fall of the wall, 20 years ago today, with Carol Guzy, staff photographer for the Washington Post who was there, J.D. Bindenagel, then the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Berlin, Peter Schneider, a German writer and with John Sununu, then the White House chief of staff. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And John Sununu, before we let to go, I wanted to ask, this email we got from Jim in Fort Mill, South Carolina: Margaret Thatcher's opposition to reunification of Germany has been kept quiet. Any comments on why?
Mr. SUNUNU: Well, I don't - I'm not sure opposition is the right word. I think concern is a more appropriate characterization of Lady Thatcher's position at the time. She - remember, Great Britain, the United Kingdom had suffered from an aggressive Germany a couple of times in the early 20th century, World War I, World War II. And so she was not as trustful, perhaps, as the U.S. on this side of the ocean might have been. I think the support of the French for it was surprisingly strong. And over time, she was - came around to being more comfortable, particularly when she spent some time talking to Kohl and the rest of the Germans about the process.
So, yeah, there was concern, but I don't think - I think opposition maybe too strong a word.
CONAN: John Sununu, thank you so much for your time today. We appreciate it.
Mr. SUNUNU: Thank you.
CONAN: John Sununu, White House Chief of Staff under the first President Bush, now chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, with us from his home there. And J.D. Bindenagel, I wanted to get back to you before we let you go, and that is to get some idea - the press of events, the next few days in Berlin must have been ferocious.
Mr. BINDENAGEL: They certainly were ferocious. There was a lot of uncertainty, because at the time of the breach of the wall, John is right. We were very elated to see that there wasn't any shooting and that fear of Soviet intervention was coupled with Gorbachev's order - that we learned later - to keep his troops in the barracks. But in the next few days, many things were happening. The first is on the first day, the GDR tried to - East Germany tried to establish its rule again, its authority. And they ordered the visa requirement to start at 8 o'clock in the morning on Friday. Then came 8 o'clock in the morning, and there was chaos at Bornholmer Strasse and the other checkpoints, and they decided it would be noon.
At noon, they said Monday. So, you could see the power of the government flowing from the seat of government to the street. And that became a concern, but people, as you know, the pace of the revolution was breathtaking. But the Germans were very orderly. And they had rules to follow. They were crossing -there were new crossing points. The wall was being opened at many other new places, and people were able to go back and forth. There was a East - the West Germans offered East Germans a hundred marks when they came, welcome money.
And so there was another push to come into West Germany and West Berlin. And -but there was a sense of elation and excitement, not one of fear. The fear had gone away from the East Germans at that moment, because they were not arrested. They were not shot. Things were happening. But there was a sense that all of the dastardly deeds that the East German government and the secret police had been doing was gone, and desolation(ph) with it.
CONAN: We'd find out more about them later, but in any case, J.D. Bindenagel, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.
J.D. Bindenagel now the vice president for Community, Government and International Affairs at DePaul University, 20 years ago was deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Berlin, East Germany, and joined us today from Deutschlandradio Kultur in Berlin.
We know a lot of you have called. We'll get to your calls in just a moment. Our guests continue to be Carol Guzy, a staff photographer at the Washington Post and Peter Schneider, a leading German writer who's with us from our bureau in New York: 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. Where were you when the wall fell 20 years ago, today? Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: Today on TALK OF THE NATION, we're observing the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Here's an email from Christine in Lithia, Florida. My husband and I were 20-year-old newlyweds in the fall of �89. He was an Army specialist who'd just received his orders to report for his next duty station, Field Station Berlin, on November 19th, 1989. He was even able to spend New Year's Eve night at the wall joining East and West Berlin, sledgehammer in hand.
We spent the next three years in newly free and soon-to-be-reunited Germany. Our biggest regret is that after returning to the U.S. as married college students, we soon got tired of lugging around three huge chunks of the Berlin Wall. A landfill somewhere has priceless chunks of concrete. So, anyway, I think we've got our problem solved with our telephone system and Sven is on the line, Sven calling from Ann Arbor.
SVEN (Caller): Hi, Neal.
CONAN: Hi, Sven.
SVEN: Yeah. I'm from East Berlin. So I grew up on the other side of the wall, and I was 17 in �89. And my memory is actually more connected with the summer and early fall of '89 where I was part of the protest movement, organizing demonstrations and handing leaflets and all that. And so that all came to an end after the wall came down. And then I was just exploring the new West Berlin and finding our way around there. So that was a kind of a change in events on that day, I would say.
CONAN: Yet it was a day - you were young, I was younger, but we all recognize that history was made that day, no?
SVEN: Absolutely. I mean, we'd been working towards the goal of changing the government, and November 4 was the one-million-strong demonstration in East Berlin, which challenged the first draft of the travel laws that were put out or put in front of the legislatures there. And I think what then happened on November 9 was the second draft with Schabowski came out and kind of fumbled the position it meant to start. But yeah, it was very historic and very life changing.
CONAN: Sven, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
CONAN: And Peter Schneider, this day, I guess a lot of people saw it coming that as soon as people start to coming across the border in Hungary and various other places, this seemed inevitable that it would happen. Did it seem inevitable to you?
Mr. SCHNEIDER: No. And by the way, I think we were very lucky that it happened the way it happened. It could have - the whole thing could have come just another way. And I think in history, generally, nothing is inevitable. You know, we have thought about so many things, they couldn't stand, they couldn't exist, but they did. In fact, if anybody would have shot a gun on November 9th, the whole story could have taken another outcome.
And I think we were so extremely lucky that this didn't happened. The Germans behaved very orderly, and even the East German army behaved orderly, but most important that Gorbachev had said no tanks. We will send no tanks if anything is going to happen. This was the most important announcement, and this actually cleared the way for everything that happened afterwards. I even think we could have had two Germanys afterwards, maybe to the very day. History has taken a very fortunate course for the Germans, and as far as Germans can be happy, I think we are fairly happy.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SCHNEIDER: And we were never better off in our history than now.
CONAN: Peter Schneider, thank you so much for your time today. We appreciate it.
Mr. SCHNEIDER: Thank you.
CONAN: Peter Schneider, a former leader of the student protest movement in Berlin, now the George M. Roth Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at Georgetown University, the author of many novels. And, well, it was our pleasure to have him with us today.
But let's go to another with long experience in this: Josef Joffe, publisher-editor of Die Zeit. He's a Senior Fellow at Stanford University's Institute for International Studies - of course, in Germany when the Berlin Wall went up and then when it came down. He wrote about both those events in a piece for The Washington Post, which you can find on our Web site. Josef Joffe, with us today by phone from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Thanks very much for being with us today.
Professor JOSEF JOFFE (Political Science, Stanford University): Hi, there. I'm looking out at a Berlin Wall here on the campus made from wood and plywood. And it brings back not-such-fond memories.
CONAN: A replica of the Berlin Wall (unintelligible).
Prof. JOFFE: Yes, yes, yes.
CONAN: I remember, National Public Radio, I was London Bureau Chief in the years just before this, and National Public Radio had a tight budget - I think that persists to this day. But, we used to, when we would travel in the Eastern Bloc, we would fly into Tempelhof in Berlin and then schlep our equipment across the - through the checkpoint and then go to Schonefeld in East Germany and get the cheap East German flights to Moscow.
Prof. JOFFE: And the stuff was a lot heavier then than it is with many camps today.
CONAN: I remember walking through the check point in a snowstorm with Deborah Amos, my producer. We are on our way to Poland to interview Lech Walesa and wondering why I was walking in this direction.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. JOFFE: No more war stories like that.
CONAN: Okay. Now, there is - there was an element - did you perceive the Berlin Wall as if it was permanent?
Prof. JOFFE: No, no. I mean, look, even if you'd - I mean, yes, I mean, yes. If you'd ask me even October of 1989, is the wall going to come down, is GDR going to disappear, let alone is the Soviet empire going to disappear? I would have said, no. This situation is forever. So - and I think that pretty much reflected the thinking of most of the, you know, chattering classes(ph) not only in Germany, but also in Europe.
CONAN: And we were all wrong.
Prof. JOFFE: We were all wrong, which just shows you, it's good that we only write for the day as it were, and that the stuff that we print on becomes wrapping paper tomorrow.
CONAN: You also wrote, interestingly, in the piece in The Washington Post that there's an element of nostalgia for the old days among some in Germany, even to this day.
Prof. JOFFE: Well, some means a kind of sense of nostalgia, the way the Israelites had a nostalgia for the flush parts(ph) of Egypt. If you look back 20 years, everything acquires a halo, and it was such a wonderful protective state and there was no joblessness and everybody had a place in daycare. So, you tend to idealize the past, and that's why we talk about the flush parts(ph). What more serious indication, I think, is the most recent national election in Germany where the post-communist, post party that - called the Left Party, which has grown out of the Eastern Communist Party, cornered quite a - it took in quite a big take, about 26 percent, in East Germany, and 12.4 percent in Germany as a whole.
That kind of shows you that the East Germans might have their own party and that that - this party plays on the resentment of the market economy of the liberal state and works on a program of, you know, statism and higher taxes and more redistribution. That - these are the numbers that indicate that, you know, there is - one quarter of the voting public in Eastern Germany would - kind of remembers East Germany in a very rosy light. So, using my metaphor about the 40 years in the desert and the flush parts(ph), give it another 20 years and I think this will have disappeared.
CONAN: Josef Joffe, we know you have an event to go to there in front of that mock Berlin Wall.
Mr. JOFFE: Yeah.
CONAN: We appreciate you for taking a few minutes to be with us today.
Mr. JOFFE: It was a pleasure.
CONAN: Thanks very much. Bye-bye.
Mr. JOFFE: Bye-bye.
CONAN: Josef Joffe, the publisher-editor of Die Zeit, with us today on the phone from Miami University, the one in Ohio. Let's get a question from here in the audience, studio audience in Studio 4A.
Ms. KRISTEN VERCLUSSE(ph) (Audience Member): Hi, my name is Kristen Verclusse, and I'm from Washington, D.C., but I actually grew up in Hamburg, Germany. And so I was 10 years old when the wall came down. And I remember more the reactions of my parents than my own reaction. And I was watching the news with my mom, and she was crying because she was so happy. And my dad actually told me that we had relatives in the East, which I wasn't aware of until then because we weren't allowed to have contacts with them because the East German government had prohibited that.
And so he was so excited that he just drove to the inner German border, which was also opening up, just like in Berlin, and was hoping that his cousins would be able to come through - which we later found out they couldn't because they hadn't got in the car yet, which, you know, the required waiting period in East Germany hadn't passed yet. But my dad was actually pretty worried that it was going to be violent before the wall came down. And so he had us get visas from the U.S. embassy in case we had to leave Germany, in case there was a civil unrest. And we got the Visas on November 9th, 1989. So kind of ironic.
CONAN: Those are collector's items in themselves. Do you think that people, younger than yourself, must have no recollection of this at all?
Ms. VERCLUSSE: Yeah, some friends were younger than myself, and they just knew this from history books. But I think it's when the parents, you know, tell stories and you see exhibits in museum, exhibits in Germany, that it's kept alive really well, and hopefully it'll, you know, be an experience that can be also passed on to other generations.
CONAN: Now here's an email we have from Jim in Raleigh, North Carolina. Please say something about the other areas of Germany separated by the fence that ran for hundreds of miles between the two countries - that inner German border that we were just hearing about. Before the change, one would see peaceful German villages in the distance, villages politically separated from neighbors a few miles away. I am a retired German teacher. The first time I was in Berlin after the wall was 1992, with a group of fellow German teachers.
The bus picked us up at the airport and took us to our lodgings in East Berlin. We drove through Brandenburg Gate. The bus got very silent as we approached the gate, and the group burst into applause as we drove through. The moment still gives me goose bumps.
Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go to Clayton, Clayton with us from Little Rock in Arkansas.
CLINTON (Caller): Hello. I was leaving in Berlin at that time. I moved over to Berlin in 1988. I was a postdoctoral fellow of Macht Blonc(ph) Institute, and I was down at Brandenburg Gate the night it opened. And something that people don't - haven't mentioned this that, in fact, they are right. It was little more organized than that. They actually had at the time, I think, if I remember right, the wall was impassible to people who lived in Berlin. But West Germans could go in.
That flipped around once they decided they were going to start taking the wall down, and they let Berliners in - West Berliners into East Berlin. Now, I had an actual living permit. I lived there as a German. And so one of the questions I asked is what about the people who lived there with living permits? And they said, okay. We'll let them in, too. And actually, I went over to East Berlin, two or three - or maybe a week, week-and-a-half before the wall even came down. We were passing in and out, back and forth across the wall.
CONAN: And so this was a recollection of this. It was a permeable barrier, but nevertheless highly restricted for those people in East Berlin who wanted to get out before November 9th.
CLAYTON: Yeah. And they - what they were doing, as - if I remember right, they were actually still letting some of the East Berliners come across, too. But they could only go in and out of Berlin.
CLAYTON: And so, what people didn't understand - I didn't understand when I moved to Berlin at that time was that I always thought Berlin was sitting right on the West and East border, which a lot of people did.
CONAN: No, it was an island. It was a (unintelligible).
CLAYTON: It was right in the middle of East Germany. So you had to go through the transit roads, and then you had to go in through the transit gates to go into West Berlin. So even if the East Berliners came back over to West, they couldn't get back out again, because they'd have to go back across the transit gates to get across back into East Berlin. So all they could do is go back and forth to West Berlin.
So it was like a week or something - I can't remember the exact time, but people were going back and forth and transiting - you had to go - so you had to go down to the East German office down in West Berlin and get a visa, and they would stamp it in your book, or give - I think if I remember, they stamped something in your passport. And then you would actually go through these checkpoints in the wall, and you go into East Berlin and you could passage parts of East Germany that were outside of Berlin.
CONAN: All right Clayton, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. We are talking 20 years after the fall of the Berlin wall. Were you there? Eyewitness to history: It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And one person who was an eyewitness, Carol Guzy, who's been very patient with us here in the studio in Washington, D.C. as she's listened to other people talk about their recollections. You were there taking pictures for the Washington Post. I wonder - you talked about that wow moment. You have the pictures that you took that day that I'm sure you've got on a gallery on your computer and other places, too, now. But I wonder what other - what memory do you have? Did you come away with a souvenir?
Ms. GUZY: Oh, my goodness, yes. I have a whole box full of pieces of the Berlin Wall and heart made from the barbed wire of the Iron Curtain. It's - they're cherished treasures to me now, of course. And it's interesting because the pieces of the wall from the east side are completely blank, it was there.
Ms. GUZY: And you have all the colors of graffiti from the west side. And also my personal memories, I mean, there was a street party one night where East and West Berliners were dancing and it was kind of like out of a movie set. And I believe the song was Tracy Chapman's �Talking about a Revolution.�
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. GUZY: It was just so amazingly cool to be there.
CONAN: I bet it was. There's somebody here in the studio audience in Studio 4A.
Ms. CLAUDIA VESS (Audience Member): My name is Claudia Vess, and I saw the wall in August of �09, and at that time, many parts of the wall had already been moved. So you could walk freely through that space that was between the two parts�
Ms. VESS: �of the wall. And I just want to say, since I've seen that area since then - and you can hardly tell where that space is now. But then, even in August, that space was a totally dead space. You would walk from the west, where the air was moving, where you felt like there was life. And as soon as you stepped over the mark, that space was absolutely dead. And when you walk to the east, people there looked at Westerners in a sort of strange way. It was an incredible experience.
CONAN: In those days, it's hard to remember, you could instantly tell someone from the east or the west by the clothes they wore.
Ms. VESS: Yes, you could.
CONAN: Interesting. Now, let's see if we can get one more caller on the line. This is Erin, Erin with us from Monterey in California.
ERIN (Caller): Hi, there.
CONAN: Hi, Erin.
ERIN: I was working in southern Germany, down in Heidelberg, but - running (unintelligible) program. And each year, we took the students to Berlin in November for a week studying East-West German relations. And so we had been there for a week with 50 19-year-old students, talking about that demonstration on November 4th and the implications for what's going to be happening in the next few months or few years, and then came back from a late dinner to the hotel, and here are my students running through the hall saying the wall's down, the wall's down.
(Soundbite of laughter)
ERIN: So we all just went out to the wall. And the woman who was talking about the music - one of my strongest recollections was hearing somebody playing the Beach Boys and hearing a bunch of normally very reserved Germans singing �Surfing (unintelligible).�
(Soundbite of laughter)
ERIN: So it was a wild night. We were there. And talking about going through the - that transit area, we got stuck - we left on the 11th, and I had 50 19-year-olds on a double-decker bus. Then we were struck on a 12-hour traffic jam, trying to get out of East Germany and into West Germany.
CONAN: Again, that - Berlin was an enclave inside East Germany.
CONAN: �so you had to drive through more of East Germany before you got back to the West. Thank you very much for that recollection, Erin. Appreciate it.
CONAN: Bye-bye. And I like to thank everybody who called in today and wrote us. We're sorry we couldn't get to you all. And, well, thank you very much again for you recollections of the fall of the wall. We would like to thank Carol Guzy, a staff photographer for the Washington Post. And again, you can see pictures of her at the wall that day at our Web site. Go to npr.org, where there's plenty more about this 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
I'm Neal Conan, NPR News in Washington. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.