Saturday 29 April 2017

Tears and hugs from strangers as the wall came down

After picking up three hitch-hikers and a speeding ticket in a mad dash to Berlin, John Downing was on hand for the 'Irish Independent' to witness the joyous scenes as a divided city became one again

New dawn: West Berliners crowd in front of the Berlin Wall as they watch East German border guards demolishing a section to open a new crossing point between East and West Berlin, near the Potsdamer Square, on November 11, 1989
New dawn: West Berliners crowd in front of the Berlin Wall as they watch East German border guards demolishing a section to open a new crossing point between East and West Berlin, near the Potsdamer Square, on November 11, 1989
Thousands of young East Berliners crowd atop the Berlin Wall, near the Brandenburg Gate on November 11, 1989

I woke to the sound of Sabina remonstrating loudly with an East German traffic cop. It took me seconds to get my bearings, but even my atrocious command of German could not prevent me realising what was happening.

My rented pea-green VW Golf, now being driven by one of three young German hitch-hikers I had picked up, had been stopped for speeding midway along the 100-mile no man's land corridor between the East German border and the celebrated enclave which was West Berlin.

It was just coming up to 11pm on Wednesday, November 8, 1989. And all of us had a date with history - or was that a date with the "end of history?"

I had met Sabina, her brother and his girlfriend, at a motorway café somewhere east of Dortmund. Sabina just strode up to me and asked if I was going to Berlin and could they have a lift.

I said "Yes" and "Yes" without a moment's reflection. I was not yet half-way through an eight-hour drive from Brussels to Berlin, which had started very badly when I took a wrong turn on the traffic-choked Brussels ring road.

It did not help that I was nursing an epic hangover all that day, and only got a very belated injunction from the Irish Independent newsdesk to "get to Berlin" just before 10am.

Planes and trains were booked solid. A planned laundry trip was cancelled as I packed my cleanest dirty clothes into the hire car, promising myself to eventually investigate German laundrettes.

After we crossed the east-west German frontier at Wolfsburg, which also involved a two-hour visa queue, I happily concurred when Sabina offered to drive, and I dozed fitfully in the front passenger seat. That little gesture cost me 25 Deutchmarks - the western cash, not your soon-to-be-defunct East German funny money.

Unsurprisingly, there was no receipt. Clearly the traffic cop believed it was time to make provision for his own future in the every man for himself atmosphere of an old order looking increasingly shaky.

I had been fixated by the unfolding series of dramas in the old East Bloc even before being posted to Brussels to report for Independent Newspapers in June 1989, just five months earlier. Informally, it was for a two-year term which eventually was to turn into 10 years.

But that night, soon after I crossed the Belgian-German border near Augsburg, I lost radio reception of my main journalistic crutch, the BBC World Service. I cursed my inability to follow the comprehensive rolling news on German state radio.

In that pre-internet world, I tried in my muddled head to synthesise all those masses data which had been pumping out over the previous months. In the early 1980s I had visited West Berlin and twice made the trip through "Checkpoint Charlie" to the East.

East Berlin looked tawdry and dilapidated and the 'Wall' was an ugly moral outrage emblematic of the political bankruptcy of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). But the Stasi security police were omnipresent, stymying dissent; the East German economy was widely reckoned to be the healthiest of the East Bloc states, and crucially Moscow was backing their regime.

Almost a month to the day before this ill-organised Berlin pilgrimage, the GDR leader, Erich Honecker, had boasted at the 40th anniversary of the state's foundation, on October 7, 1989, that it was the 10th best world economy. Supporters in the west, including many in West Germany who upheld their Ostpolitik cooperation policy, knew this was exaggerated.

But they were unaware that the GDR's best export was bogus economic data, and did not know the extent of its economic meltdown, which meant its days were numbered. We all did know, however, in the autumn of 1989 that two big things had changed for the East Berlin regime.

The first was that Moscow, under Mikhail Gorbachev, would no longer back the GDR in its resistance to a growing internal citizens' revolt. Second was that neighbouring Hungary's abandonment of the communist regime had caused tens of thousands of East German dissidents to flock to that country.

They were being welcomed and facilitated in travelling on to West Germany. Hungary's transition was crucial to the unravelling of East Germany and the fall of the Berlin Wall. As we neared Berlin, I switched back to the driving seat and kept to the speed limit. I felt I should be gleaning more political insights from these German students, but instead we were telling "Trabant jokes".

The Trabant, or "Trabi," was the East German national car which was a synonym for lack of comfort, sluggishness, noise, dirt and unreliability. In autumn 1989, the queues of Trabis flooding into Hungary grabbed world headlines.

Once the symbol of the GDR - it was about to become the symbol of its downfall. My efforts were really adapted Lada jokes.

The difference between a Trabi and a Jehovah's witness? You can close the door on a Jehovah's witness. My favourite was and still is: How do you catch a Trabi? Stick chewing gum to the autobahn.

Sabina won the game: "Brave little Trabi - you sacked Honey," a reference to the ousted Erich Honecker, who was actually proud of the Berlin Wall, forced to resign three weeks earlier.

We parted in West Berlin amid much laughter. And in the way of things, that was the last I ever saw of them.

What followed is something of a speeded-up blur. History records that the Berlin Wall was smashed open the following night, Thursday, November 9, 1989.

I'd love to tell you I was sitting astride the wall at that fateful moment, holding the coat of the big lad attacking the mass concrete with an axe. The truth, more predictably, is that I was in a pub about three miles away.

But in mitigation, the pub had a television, so I did see it. And, yes, I did shed more than one tear amid the cheers and hugs liberally dispensed among strangers.

In further mitigation, I had been at the wall earlier that afternoon. We all knew it was coming down - few thought its fall was that imminent.

After a few fitful hours sleep in a little hotel near the old Nazi airport at Templehof, I was in a taxi and bound for Checkpoint Charlie.

The taximan gave me an exemption to have breakfast on the run, and his warning about crumbs and spills was mild.

In sharp contrast to two other trips through Checkpoint Charlie years earlier, the grey-uniformed border guard was the personification of niceness. Now the one giving me grief was the overdressed American television journalist from one or other of the big US networks.

The total role reversal, which saw stony-faced East German border guards stripped of their super powers and were suddenly eager to please western media, told how the old order had been summarily ousted. I had despaired at the impossible queues, fearing I would never get into East Berlin, and back out, to file a report to Dublin in time. Then I spotted the US network television crew being shepherded through and I moved instinctively.

"Press, press," I shouted waving an out-of-date journalists' union card and attaching myself the US gang. The pompous American television man was livid.

I resisted the temptation to tell him he was "auld and fat", but I was heartened to be joined by a fellow interloper waving another journalist card.

This was a large Polish woman, who was returning from West Berlin laden with bags. The border guard could not have been nicer waving us all through with only the briefest of glances.

Within minutes I was walking along Rosa-Luxemburg Strasse on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall.

I was on the other side of a zone where hundreds had been killed between 1961 and 1989 in their efforts to get west. It was an exhilarating feeling - it was just that I had no clue about what to do next. It was in a side street half an hour later, in an area I would soon learn was Prenzlauer Berg, that I met Dirk. I was puzzling over a street map and he offered to help.

With a mix of his minimal English and my worse German we chatted briefly. Minutes after that we were sitting in his local bar making some kind of conversation. God knows how, but we were getting through and he was pumping out the most marvellous stories about his life past, present and future.

He was going to get a car and move west. He would go to Vienna, to Rome, Paris … There would be no stopping him. I had not the heart to tell him how horrifically expensive his plans were. A man at a nearby table muttered what was unmistakably foul language. Then he got up and left. Dirk explained that he was the father of an old neighbour. The man had been "very senior in the government service" and was now "very worried", Dirk explained.

We had not even finished one beer, but already I was learning about the crazy mix of future hopes and fears in East Berlin in November 1989. From there we moved on to a more up-market café where I met several more young East Germans.

The stories kept coming. There were far more visiting West Germans in that second café.

A couple of elderly women, one unmistakably western, the other clearly from the east, conversed earnestly at an adjoining table. It soon transpired that they were sisters, hoping to replace the regular visits, which had been increasingly allowed due to advancing age, with more permanent and unregulated contact.

I eventually parted from Dirk and his friends, after promises to link up again. I breezed through Checkpoint Charlie and managed to hail a taxi almost immediately.

The taximan was a classic example of the ageing hippy West Berlin community. Originally from Munich, he had successfully dodged military service by moving to the alternative youth enclave of West Berlin in the mid-1970s. Now he too was talking about changes ahead.

"I hope they make a new society in united Berlin. Not all this neon and shopping nonsense," he said looking about.

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