EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece by Bennett Owen appeared in the December 22, 1989, issue of National Review. (You can dig into NR’s archives anytime here.)
West Berlin – It began as a trickle. On East German TV, a government spokesman had ended an evening press conference by saying that citizens of the GDR could travel freely, and by 9:30 p.m. on November 9, the first East Berliners strolled across a bridge at Bornholmer Strasse. They’d heard the news in a bar and walked down to the nearest crossing to see if it was really true. It was. A small crowd greeted them as they reached the Western side. “May I come in?” asked one politely.
“To walk across this bridge into West Berlin is the most normal thing in the world,” one man said — and then added, “Things haven’t been normal here for 28 years.” A youngster coming across pointed to the Wall he’d just passed through and commented, “This used to be the end of the world for us.” At first, most said they just wanted to come over and walk on the Kurfurstendamm, Berlin’s answer to Fifth Avenue. But as the news spread, the border crossings quickly became jammed with people. The soldiers who once had orders to shoot to kill were reduced to stamping passports and directing traffic. They laughed when asked if they’d been handed their pink slips yet. By midnight, the celebration had begun in earnest. Thousands of Germans from East and West gathered at the Brandenburg Gate, drinking cheap champagne just steps away from crosses commemorating those whose dreams of freedom couldn’t wait this long.
“I have seen the future and it runs through the heart of Berlin.” Through that kind of graffiti the Berlin Wall spoke with cynical eloquence, and last January, in the icy half-light of winter in Berlin, it appeared to say that the Cold War was as cold as ever. George Shultz, on a final tour of Europe as secretary of state, declared the Wall should come down. East Germany’s Erich Honecker defiantly replied that it would be standing 100 hundred years from now, and at the same time a series of incidents dramatically underscored his words. Two young men who tried to flee across the Wall in the southern part of town were shot (one of them fatally), and in the days following, more shots were heard at border crossings in other parts of the city. In late January a man tried to swim to the West across the River Spree in the center of town. He made it to the western shore but was exhausted, and as he tried to pull himself from the water East German soldiers pulled him into their patrol boat by the hair. The border guards were taking their orders from the East German chief of security, a dedicated Marxist by the name of Egon Krenz.
Despite the show of force, escape attempts were a daily occurrence. Of the dozens who tried through the winter and spring of this year, two spectacular attempts come to mind. In one, a would-be escapee was killed when he fell from a makeshift hot-air balloon. In another, two brothers living in West Germany flew two ultra-light planes into East Germany, where they picked up a third brother and flew him back to freedom. By the end of summer, though, that kind of desperation had evaporated as East Germans by the hundreds of thousands made an end-run through Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Egon Krenz became the new leader of East Germany, but, as a West German magazine put it, he is a shepherd without a flock. Desperately (and futilely, as later events have shown) seeking to regain control of his people, he threw open the Berlin Wall.