November 9th, 2009
05:32 PM ET

The night the Wall fell down

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 symbolized the end of communism across Eastern Europe.

David W. Fitzpatrick
CNN Special Investigations Unit

There’s a lot to read and a lot to see today about the events 20 years ago on Nov. 9, 1989 when East Germany (technically a splendid oxymoron called the German Democratic Republic) took no action and the infamous Berlin Wall was reduced to a footnote of history.

I was there for those tumultuous and joyous events as a producer for the CBS Evening News and above all else, the one thing that sticks in my mind is not the tremendous geo-political fallout, but rather the voices and faces of the people of both East and West Berlin.

When I arrived in Berlin after an overnight flight from New York and then on the only Western airline allowed into West Berlin (remember Pan American World Airways?), enormous crowds had already started to build near the Wall and the adjacent Brandenburg Gate.

One of the first people I recognized — and he, being a seasoned politician enjoyed the recognition — was the mayor of West Berlin, Willy Brandt. His long time symbol was a red rose that he always wore in lapel of his suit. He was beaming as we approached with our camera crew and in perfect English began to give us an interview drenched in politics and logic, but mostly void of emotion.

But the huge crowds around him began almost immediately to cheer. They didn’t hear what he said, of course, but the presence of a Western camera crew and soon thereafter three or four other camera crews meant something big was about to happen.

All throughout the day and into the early evening, there was tremendous anticipation both in the crowd and, of course, in the growing cordon of Western journalists. We could see the East Germans had placed powerful water hoses on top of the extended ladders of fire trucks and wondered whether those hoses would be trained on Germans who were by then taking to the Wall with sledge hammers, picks, whatever they could muster.

As night fell and the reality emerged that no violence would take place and that in fact the Wall would in fact be torn down, the crowd began to sing and dance and cry.

In the darkness, West German authorities along with East German bureaucrats had decided that the subway that had linked Berlin for decades but had been blocked by the Wall, would be open. There would be no checkpoints. Each East Berliner who could make his or her way to the West would be given 50 German marks — not an inconsiderable sum in those days.

East Berliners streamed through the dark streets, many of them holding lighted candles. As far as I could see, there were candles in the distance. And they sang. Sang loudly as I recall. They were singing, many of them, the anthem of the American civil rights struggle of the 1960s — “We Shall Overcome.”

Picture it in your mind. Candles. Huge crowds coursing through the streets. And an American song on their lips. It was as moving a moment as I had experienced covering the disasters and wars of the world.

The next morning all was more or less peaceful. There had been only a handful of arrests among the tens of thousands who had surged across the old dividing line between East and West. And with their 50 marks, what had most East Germans purchased? Not alcohol, although there certainly was a lot of that around. As dawn broke, you could not find a piece of chocolate or any fresh fruit throughout the whole city of West Berlin.

soundoff (4 Responses)
  1. Asad

    I was only seven when it happened, but I remember watching it on TV. I think I got the fact that this was news and important somehow, but I really had no sense of what the Cold War was and what it would mean for it to be over.

    November 9, 2009 at 8:47 pm |
  2. Betsy Noxon

    Thanks for sharing your perspective! I was just 20 years old in 1989 – studying in Luxembourg with Miami University of Ohio. The news of the Berlin Wall coming down spread like fire through our small school. Students were figuring out train schedules to get there that night. My family was coming in to visit, so I had to postpone my trip to see the Wall by a week.
    On the 17th of November, I traveled with friends via train to Berlin. There were no available seats, so we sat in the hallway – freezing. A long, dark, cold train ride to see history being made. Even a week later, crowds gathered around the Wall and Berliners were still chipping away at it. Everyone wanted a piece. We got a few pieces ourselves and some photos. Soldiers were still stationed on the East side, but just pacing back and forth. East Berlin was a dark, bleak city- like nothing I'd ever seen before – or since. We were able to look over the Wall as ladders were stationed at various spots.
    We saw and felt their celebration, exhilaration and joy for freedom, although at age 20 we couldn't possibly comprehend how the German's felt. Quite a remarkable moment to be a part of.

    November 9, 2009 at 4:19 pm |
  3. socialbling

    It seems so much longer than 20 years ago, we have come so far in many ways yet are only beginning to touch the surface in others.

    November 9, 2009 at 2:18 pm |
  4. Annie Kate

    Seems like when the wall came down the Cold War did as well – maybe memory has blurred the lines between the two since those exciting days but it did seem that with Berlin whole again and traffic going back and forth across the old checkpoints that the world had taken a giant step forward from WW2 and had finally staked out a path of tolerance, peace, and self-determination. Germany, whole again, seemed to be the closing step to WW2 and it was so good that it was finally over.

    November 9, 2009 at 1:09 pm |