I was travelling around the world in 1989, and found myself with my good friend Michael Gray in West Berlin, the day the wall came down. Twenty years ago. Michael and I were fairly innocent country boys, to be caught up in this historic event was perhaps one of the great highlights of our trip, and certainly has been one of the more memorable events in my life. I keep a journal of my travels, and have transcribed my adventure below.
Hope you enjoy it.
Thursday November 9th 1989
At last our time was filled and we boarded the train at 13:43. An elderly couple were in the cabin also, German. Just out of Hamburg the door was flung open and I assumed wrongly for the ticket. I passed it to a gun bearing man, who flipped it over and said ‘passport’. He looked at the passport, then handed it back. The train rolled on to Buchen and stopped. We then passed over the border to East Germany. The border is well defined. A mammoth fence with electric barbed wire stretched as far as my eyes could see. What looked like a canal was also visible. Then passed a tower with a man dressed in khaki beret peering out. This is commie country! The deeper we went into the country the more obvious it became that these people live with less. As the train raced through villages I noticed there was nothing new. Apart from high rise housing, all the houses and buildings were drab and old.
Our passports were checked by DDR officials and a transit visa was issue. All a bit exciting.
After 17.30 the train ground to a halt, then slowly crawled along a long stark white wall, about three metres high. The Berlin Wall.
It disappeared and a city lit up like Luna Park. This is capitalism and the West!
Very odd how this city survives in the middle of DDR.
We stopped at the Zoo Station, it was dark and raining, and that feeling of ‘fuck what do we do now?’crept in. We chose a hostel and found the ‘S-Bahn’ but couldn’t find a place to buy a ticket, so we returned to the main stations, at last we found it, a bit of a problem not being able to read German. Armed with the phrase “Englisch sprechen” Michael approached the counter and bought two tickets.
A long tram ride landed us at the station, way out. We followed the signs to the Youth Hostel and for a pricey 21DM we booked in.
Friday 10th November 1989.
The other occupant of the room arrived at 6.30 a.m. He was pretty quiet so he didn’t disturb us. He woke up as we were heading down for breakfast. His English wasn’t too good, but we understood that the wall had been opened. I took this to mean the borders had been opened. All a bit exciting really.
We bought two tickets for the train and returned to the main station. There seemed to be a lot of people about. We found a newstand, but could find no hint of any ‘wall opening’
I was going to change some money at the station, but the line was too long, so I went to a bank down the road. This completed and my money short 5m for the service, we boarded the next U-Bahn on line 6 to Checkpoint Charlie.
As we and hundreds of others climbed the steps to the surface, we glimpsed a scene of jubilation and a fucking lot of confusion. The Checkpoint wasn’t visible from our exit, so we simply followed the throng and found this famous place.
The crowd pushed forward, a sign atop a building announce our arrival at Checkpoint Charlie.
People were standing on the roadside, and on the road, thrusting flowers into cars as they entered the American sector. Others were drinking champagne frmm the bottle, a few plastic cups full of bubbly found their way into open car windows. Every time an East German car drove through a cheer erupted, lots of clapping and snapping of cameras. The mood was electric.
We pushed our way forward, it wasn’t possible for us to fully understand what was going on – we could only guess.
Michael and I stood in front of the wall. The object of so much mistrust and hatred. It was (is) covered in graffiti and very colourful graffiti.
We climbed the platform and looked in the DDR, it looked pretty much the same, but just a little more drab than West Berlin. Back to Checkpoint. The MP’s where trying to keep the way open, but it was nearly impossible. The worlds media was present. TV cameras, tape recorders, cameras, note book and pencils all this added to the confusion. A cameraman took a photo of a group of people standing sipping champagne from plastic cups, other press cameras came from nowhere, so we tried to get our beaks in too.
Michael wanted to get into the middle of the action, so I took his camera bag and he pushed his way through. It seemed like hours that I stood, watching car after car of East Berliners driving through. The crowd were amazing, full of spirit. One small boy raced up to a car and shoved an American dollar into it.
I can’t believe that we saw this happening. A truly historical event was unfolding, and we were in the middle of it. Witnessing history in the making.
Three DDR army men stood just inside the white line dividing East and West. Every now and then they would push people back over the line. We had no idea if we were able to cross into the East, so stood and watched for awhile. People seem to flash passports at the border guards and they allowed them passage. Michael plucked up enough courage to confront the more pleasant looking guard, flashed the passport, and we crossed into Communist territory.
Another guard directed us into a small room, Passport Control. There were oddles of people standing, waiting. The line didn’t seem to be moving very quickly. Our turn arrived, the man asked “Just for the day?” and a visa was issued. Out the door, round the corner to customs – walked right through there and had to change 25dm into 25DDM.
Outside we were greeted by long lines of people waiting to cross the border, perhaps to freedom.
East Berlin has a total lack of, well, anything really. There was no advertising of any sort. No big billboards. The cars were mainly the same model. It was easy to pick Westerners. The shops, however, were a surprise. A lot like our own, full of the latest gizmo’s and fashions.
Down Friedrich Street along rows of dilapidated buildings. Some were being restored. We found Unter den Linden and followed this as far as we could. A crowd was gathered at the end of the street, around the Brandenburg Gate, a huge archway. We could make out the graffiti free wall on the other side, and here we could see people standing on top of it, yelling and cheering. The area was well guarded, so access wasn’t possible. We watched for awhile then headed to the centre of town. Mostly old buildings.
Had lunch in a cafeteria. Ordered the only thing on the menu that we understood – beefsteak, which was merely a meatball. We then found Nikolaikirche, Berlins oldest building from about 1230 CE. It houses some old stuff, but we didn’t understand too much of it. Se we moved around it fairly quickly. Next commie stop was the international clock. We found Australia’s time. As we were walking away, a man said ‘hello’ to us. He instantly sounded Australian, so we spoke with him and his wife for awhile. Discovered they came from Heywood, although they now live in Melbourne. He asked about Noel Gustus, if we knew him. We said he died not too long back and then discovered that he was his Best Man when they got married. Hell of a way to find out.
It was around 17.30 and dark. Had a ‘wurst’ for tea and spent our last DDM on a slice and coffee. As we were walking back to the border, we passed the Altes Museum. There was a lot of activity, the sound of people singing drew us closer. The courtyard was lit with big lights, there were TV cameras around and oodles of people. We pushed our way in, and gathered from the red flags that it was a party gathering. We followed an American TV reporter around for a bit. He was asking East Germans what they thought. He was also a prick. He turned and asked Michael, “Do you speak English” for some reason Michael lied. He doesn’t know what made him say no. I stopped another reporter and asked if he could explain to me what was happening. He said he didn’t really know, but that Egon Krenz, the Premier, would be appearing at 18:30.
This we had to see.
The square was crowded now, and the speakers began. Three quarters of an hour later Mr. Krenz arrived.
We didn’t have a clue what was said, but the crowd gave us some indication of it. Some speakers where cheered, others booed.
Saturday November 11th 1989.
Down to the wall again, and Checkpoint Charlie. There weren’t as many people there today, but still lots. We stopped in the centre of Berlin on the way to change a cheque. There were great hoards of people outside the banks. East Germans changing money we guessed. We pushed our way through mile-long queues to the American Express Office. Here Michael found out that the East Germans were lining up for 100 marks, a welcome gift from the German Government.
We walked along a section of the wall. There seemed to be crowds of people there. We stopped and watched one man chipping at the wall with a small hammer. As bits began to crumble he picked them up and put them in his bag.
That’s a good idea we thought, so we souvenired parts of the wall as well.
The crowd was thick along the wall. Our normal quick pace was hindered by thousands of people. The ‘anti-fascist barrier’ was covered in graffiti. Every now and then a group of people would be bashing into it with a hammer, in one case a bloody big mallet. In several places small holes had been knocked right through, affording views of the other side. Climbing one platform we could see the guard towers and security fence to keep us out, or them in.
One section had been sealed off by the police, and workmen were paving the old road. We asked about this and were told a a section of the wall was to be moved tomorrow at 8.00 a.m. to allow access to people.
At the Brandenburg gate, there were more people. Yesterday from the East we could see people standing on top of the wall. Today the only people on top were the DDR Army, and lots of them. Every time the guards moved the crowd cheered and clapped. We spent ages just watching. The world’s media was doing the same.
Sunday November 12th 1989
We slept in and missed our train, when trying to rebook we discovered that the next train was also full. This put a hole in our plans, we had no choice but to stay another night. We should have guessed as there must be a heap of people wanting to leave the country.
In the afternoon we went back into Berlin and to the Brandenburg Gate. The situation had changed a little – the area in front of the wall had been fenced off and patrolled by the West Berlin police, the border guard had been halved. The Easterners seemed a lot happier today. Sharing a joke and picking up flowers to which they got cheers. We went along the wall to the place where a new gate was being opened. As we drew closer we could see that it had already been opened. We couldn’t get close but could see the new gap. Heaps of people were making their way through it. Michael jumped on top of a toilet block to get a photo. We were satisfied. An early return to the hostel and bed. A week later I picked up a copy of Time magazine in Italy. It was only then that we knew the full extent of what we had been a part of.