Twenty Years Later
by Nathan Empsall, Mon Nov 09, 2009 at 07:18:09 PM EST
NBC News is commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall by sending Tom Brokaw back to Berlin and posting his entire broadcast from November 9, 1989, as well as some documentary clips, on its website. Here is the first of twelve clips from and about that astonishing night.
A very interesting Washington Postpiece from USC Prof. Mary Elise Sarotte last month suggested that the whole event was a complete accident. What happened, in short, is that a bureaucrat misinterpreted his notes at the end of a long and boring press conference and unwittingly said the Wall was open; journalists jumped on it and reported the story; and East Germans flooded the checkpoints before Soviet officials had the chance to wake up and correct the situation. By the time the official apparatus was apprised, it was too late to change the flow of society.
At the Bornholmer Street border-crossing station in East Berlin, guard Harald Jäger, on the job since 1964, had watched Schabowski on television. Dumbfounded by the remarks, he told his fellow guards that the official's words were "deranged," and he started calling around. His superiors assured him that travel remained blocked, and he and his colleagues were armed as always.
But soon Jäger and his team were busy waving back some would-be crossers who had heard the western reports... Before long, the guards at Bornholmer Street were outnumbered by thousands of people; the same thing was happening at several other checkpoints. Overwhelmed and worried for their own safety, Jäger and his fellow guards reasoned that the use of violence might quickly escalate and become uncontrollable. They decided instead at around 9 p.m. to let a trickle of people cross the border, hoping to ease the pressure and calm the crowd. The guards would check each person individually, take notes and penalize the rowdiest by refusing them reentry. They managed to do this for a while, but after a couple of hours the enormous crowd was chanting, "Open the gate, open the gate!"
This is where we were just twenty years ago. It is truly amazing how fast politics and life can change.