Where were you on November 9th 1989?

Readers from Germany and Great Britian share their experiences.

Germans from East and West stand on the Berlin Wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.
Germans from East and West stand on the Berlin Wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.

“It was an exciting, but also a threatening time. There was change in the air. The mood fluctuated between fear and hope. Our daughter, who was 18 at the time, was one of the people who was picked up by the police, loaded into a car, and taken to a state security detention camp on her way home on the evening of November 8 — we live near the Gethsemane Church where the vigils took place. She was released only the next day. That was the Monday of the big demonstrations with 70,000 people in Leipzig. Many people feared a blood bath as the propaganda had only mentioned “unscrupulous elements” and “hooligans”. However, it became the decisive day. We know that the tanks didn’t roll in. Hope for change was soaring. Some were hoping for reforms (the mass demonstrations in Berlin on November 4), others just wanted to get out! Then the wall came down, and those hoping for a reformed version of socialism were overrun.”

“When we got to the border, the border was just opening. Everything was quiet, there was excitement in the air. Everyone went slowly further and further. On the bridge there were people with champagne glasses welcoming us. There were already buses ahead of us. Most people changed to the underground at Osloer Straße, which was jam-packed, and went to the zoo. At the stations everywhere, there were incredulous people. The zoo was teeming with people. We ended up in a big restaurant — I think it was called Jo am Zoo. There, by chance, we met friends who had gone to the west some time earlier. We were constantly being given something, including a 10 mark commemorative coin that had just come out that day, as we later found out.

It was three in the morning when we got back home. The taxi that drove us was free. The next day everything went on as normal: the children and the teachers went to school, I went to the office.”

“If anyone asks me whether the fall of the wall fulfilled hopes, I have to say: because I hadn’t counted on this development — I don’t think anyone had — there were no hopes to be filled. We all took seriously Honecker’s threat that the wall would stand for fifty, or a hundred, years. Of course most people were happy about the collapse of the system.”

“Of course there are still residual differences, regional and social. In Berlin you feel it less, as people there were much closer to the East than people elsewhere in West Germany, who have always been less interested in the East. Differences are good, too. What you notice more strongly is a difference between East and East: between those who supported the system and had fully adapted, and those who were reluctant to accept it. But the latter couldn’t confront the system, they had to earn money, they couldn’t expect their children to play a double role. Resistance is not mass culture. These things will have an effect for a long time.”

Helmut Lück

„I was 12 years old when the wall came down. Me and my family had visited East-Berlin four weeks before that event. It was a strange time as one could sense that things were changing but no one knew what exactly would happen.

At one war memorial where soldiers were marching someone was mocking the soldiers by imitating their walk (it was like John Cleese in Monty Python’s sketch about the ministry of silly walks). I thought that would have been impossible months earlier. When we took the bus back to West-Berlin, an East-German police officer was controlling our passports. When he left the bus, he said “Auf Wiedersehen” (see you again later) and one visitor in the bus replied, “Hopefully not”. I thought there would be severe consequences, but nothing happened.

I saw the fall of the wall on TV and it seemed like a miracle to everyone. One of my relatives in East-Germany had just risked his life to escape to the West a few weeks before! We all thought, if there is any civil unrest then the army will stop it like they did in the past.

There was also an indirect effect as my later PhD supervisor, who was from East-Germany, decided to forfeit his offer of study at Lomonosov University Moscow and continued his studies in the UK instead.“

Marcus Kaiser
Two People Stand on ladders and look about the Berlin Wall 
Two People Stand on ladders and look about the Berlin Wall

“When the revolution began in autumn 1989, everything became exciting and interesting all of a sudden. You read Neue Deutschland (unimagined market opportunities for a previously unpopular paper). You switched on GDR televisions, which brought interesting reports. From one piece of news you fell powerlessly into the next one. However, I like thinking about the restless time. One of my acquaintances from Rheinland wrote to me that he liked watching the “real camera”, as the problems portrayed from the viewpoint of one’s own country gave a very different picture of the GDR.

At workplaces, in canteens or within my friend circle, there was a lot of intense discussion. The worst was that precisely the ambitious people who had taken advantage of their positions of power, came out with new sayings all of a sudden: “We have to re-think democracy.” What news! Until then, the Party had been their everything. “Something will change soon.” It’s funny that it was exactly those who went on about a rethinking the loudest that made the rethinking necessary. I really noticed who was talking only to their own advantage. It makes me sick when I think of that.”

“At the time I didn’t believe the news about the border opening at all. You read new news all the time. The situation was changing fast. What was brand new in the morning, had already passed in the evening. It was only the next morning at work that some colleagues had been in West Berlin the night before.

On Saturday morning I, too, was standing at the Wittenbergsplatz underground station. With the welcome money in my pocket, I strolled along the Tauentzienstraße and the Kurfürstendamm and looked at the windows of luxury shops. I was ashamed of my country people who got in line for the welcome money several times and then swarmed the discount stores and shoved others to get groceries, as if there would be nothing to eat the next day. It’s no wonder that the media in the West presented us GDR citizens as greedy, banana-munching buffoons who only came to get D-Marks.

I was determined not to use my welcome money on any trinket. It had to be something very special and beautiful. Like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, I looked at the jewellery display in KaDeWe, and soon learned my first lesson in capitalism: without money, you can only press your nose against the shop windows! It was enough for a gold chain, however.”

“I spent Christmas in Baden-Württemberg where I had relatives and where my parents were now living. I hadn’t seen my father for a year. He had been “bought free” and released directly from prison into West Germany. I was relieved to see my parents well and that the time of fear was finally over.

We had a lot to discuss with colleagues and acquaintances: work, the country, and how everything would go from there. How long would we have our jobs for? How expensive would our apartments be? Sparkling shop windows are one side of the story, but how would we manage with our money? What would come of our future? Those were the questions that concerned us.”

“I notice especially in my working life that people from the former GDR, despite excellent education, have it harder to get into higher positions, for example. We had excellent schools and vocational training. That doesn’t interest anyone. Our work experience doesn’t interest anyone, either. We are too modest because we weren’t brought up to constantly bring ourselves forward.

I was presented with a completely different female role model. It was natural to us women that we’d be employed. I couldn’t, and still can’t, imagine being dependant on a man. We must not let that be taken away from us.

Today we have many problems as well, on a global scale: the climate, raw materials, refugees from the third world. Today, too, we should have solidarity with different nations, like we learned as children in the GDR.”

Kerstin Supranowitz

„As pictures of people streaming through and over the Berlin Wall were shown live on television, my daughter, then 6 years old, was visiting her German Oma, near Bonn, at that time the capital of West Germany.

My late mother-in-law, thrilled and, at the same time, alarmed at the prospect of so many people exercising their new freedom ( her own antecedents had fled from then East Prussia), said „Where will they all live?” My daughter said, „Oma, they can live with us!””

Richard Wilton

“I didn’t belong to any group that protested actively against the situation in the GDR. In my opinion, it’s historically false to equate the GDR with Nazi Germany. But after 40 years’ existence and 30 years of isolation, the GDR had come morally to an end and was moving dangerously in the old direction. I was starting to feel increasingly uncomfortable. Then the “Showdown” at the 40th anniversay, with demonstrations in front of the Palace of the Republic and the consequent crackdown on demonstrators. It became clear to even the simple party members of the Socialist Unity Party that the system had to change.

I wasn’t a party member but an engineer who did his job as well as he could every day, and with my 35 years, saw a life ahead of me that should offer me more than my life until then had.

The party leadership was being changed in a spectacular way. For the first time, the GDR press and television became interesting to us. It was an incredibly exciting time, even when one was just an observer. The Stasi and a “united Fatherland” were no longer on the agenda. An important theme was travel arrangements, as, at least in Berlin, the limits of free travel were constantly in front of our eyes. The opportunity to see the other side of the wall again after 30 years was within my grasp — Christmas in West Berlin?

Then November 4th came around, and at my work it was clear that we’d join the demonstration. At the meeting point, I could see only a few people, but then people started coming gradually from the adjoining streets. I stood in the middle of the demonstrations at the Palace of the Republic and could not get to Alexanderplatz. I drove home and there I had the biggest surprise: the demonstration was broadcast on television! Then I knew that the old GDR no longer existed.”

“There was mayhem in the streets by the wall; it wasn’t something for a family with a small child. I preferred to be an on-looker of this theatre. Either the tanks would come in and I’d be far away, or the situation would calm down and I could go on my trip in peace and quiet.

The empty streets on early Monday morning, the darkness and the mist that lay above the abandoned border — I remember all of that, rather than streams of people being swept over the border. A lonely border soldier stamped our documents in his box — we didn’t have passports — and then we walked into emptiness. We went through an opening in the wall and we were in the West. A feeling between dream and reality settled in. Could it be real when the wall was meant to stand for a hundred years still and no one had really doubted that? ”

“I’ve achieved a lot and I’ve seen more of the word than it would have been possible in the GDR. I know, however, that besides luck, I have my work to thank. Others had it worse. Some were too old to have success in their jobs or companies they worked in. In the GDR there were committed communists, who were sometimes also idealists, but also didn’t shy away from crime, people who just wanted to live in peace, non-conforming groups who rubbed against the state and political activists who went into prison for their beliefs. Today the polarisation in society is growing. When you still attribute political attitudes to the experiences and socialisation of life in the GDR. However, I’m happy that what happened in 1989 lead peacefully to a united Germany. That doesn’t, however, mean that I want to deny and forget the life I lived in a state that no longer exists as something shameful. My parents lived through national socialism and had to survive the difficult years after the war. I only experienced the peaceful collapse of my country and had to learn to live in a new system.”

Klaus Ewert

„I visited Berlin in 1988 and 1990 for international hockey tournaments at Steglitz THC. The contrast between the two visits was dramatic. In 1988 our hosts seemed desperate to demonstrate that they were free and independent but I had the feeling of existing in a siege mentality. There was an intensity about the social events that was almost overwhelming. In 1990 the atmosphere was far more relaxed. For the first time a side from the former GDR took part in the tournament. Their standards and style of play were far more physical and our hosts were extremely apologetic about their "Osti" colleagues, but very clear that they were fellow German citizens. The general atmosphere in the city was also different - I felt far more at home in 1990. I am extremely glad, and feel privileged, that I was able to experience Berlin in those two years and to understand something of the impact of the Wall.“

Ross Roberts

“We asked a border soldier about the opening. He answered that we could get travel permits from all police stations early in the morning the next day. Happy with that, we went back home. We had no intention of going to the police in the morning — we had to go to work, after all.

Around midnight I woke up to loud noise from the street. From the window, we saw many people running towards the bridge. The border opening was clearly not only at 6am.

In the morning we saw cars parked chaotically three abreast. Their owners were obviously already in West Berlin.”

Günther Wilke

„As a modern languages student at the University of Glasgow, I was sent to teach for a year in a German School in Dulmen near Munster. As part of the year abroad, we were given a tip to Berlin in the summer of 1970, where we took in the tourist sites and saw the musical "Hair".

Another day we crossed the Berlin Wall through Checkpoint Charlie. All went well in East Berlin, and we bought booklets and posters and had a quick bite to eat in a restaurant, where we were seen a bit like creatures from another planet, probably because of our style of dress. Returning to the border to cross back into West Berlin, I had no East German marks left to change back into West German currency, so I waited outside the exchange kiosk for my friends. I made the mistake of leaning on a small wall, and gazing off into space. One of the East German soldiers called down to me, brandishing his machine gun, and sharply ordered me back to the west side of the border because I was making him nervous!! Bearing in mind that I am 5 feet one and he was an intimidating-looking soldier armed with a machine gun, I wonder who was the more nervous of the two of us. Needless to say I did as I was told. Many years later I returned to Berlin with my family and was a bit shocked to see that Checkpoint Charlie had disappeared. I couldn't even find an old postcard of it, hard as I tried, although many other old postcards from the same period were on sale in the shops. Happy days!“

Helen McAvoy

“We spent the evening chatting. We looked at the pictures from the fall of the wall on TV with a mix of fascination, astonishment and — revulsion: there was too much beer, too many hooting young West Berliners who most likely hadn’t done anything to bring the wall down, and too many tasteless bananas given to Trabi occupants travelling in from the East.”

“In the morning this happened: our relatives from Leipzig appeared at our door, a couple with three children, who had set off at six in the morning to drive to West Berlin for the first time.

When the family was leaving after breakfast, American soldiers came out of the house opposite, and congratulated us and our relatives. When they were getting into the Trabi, the olde boy noticed that he had stepped in a big dog dump, of which there were plenty on the pavements at the time. Shock and horror, but the teenager said grinning, “At least it is West shit.””

Utta Winter

„This time 30 years ago my husband, Gunther Kloss, had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He was born in Germany in 1933 and had lived through the Second World War in Halle, where his father was the head of an aircraft factory, suffering heavy bombing. In 1945 he and his parents were taken at the point of a gun by the American invading forces to West Germany where they lived with his grandparents during his teenage years. After graduating from Tubingen University he came to England and made his career as an academic in the U.K., teaching European Studies. He sent students to study in German universities, both West and East, and in fact we had visited Dresden and Leipzig in the previous year. As the events of that autumn in Germany unfolded and his condition deteriorated I read him the news every day. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany came literally at the end of his life and gave him great joy. After his death he was given a posthumous award by the European Union in an acknowledgement of all he had done to create links between English and German universities. A true European!“

Diana Kloss