The Night The Berlin Wall Tumbled – Twenty Years Ago

17 12 2009


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 by David Dastych, Warsaw Correspondent

 Originally published by the Canada Free Press and reproduced by the Polonia Media Network with permission of the author

“A stone from the broken Berlin wall
Whispered last night;
Don’t look at me with such hatred
My wounds are the mark of history…
(From an anonymous poem “Berlin Wall”)

 Warsaw, Poland: That night, November 9-10, 1989, I slept in a Communist prison unaware of what had happened in Berlin. It was my third year in a special prison ward at Barczewo Penitentiary, near Olsztyn in Northeastern Poland. In 1989, and especially after the historic parliamentary elections of June 4 marking the regime change in our country, prisoners called the “enemies of the state” were treated more liberally. We had access to newspapers and a TV set, to religious services and we could meet each other and talk. Compared to a strict regime I had to endure in the Warsaw Central Jail, at its special ward for political convicts where we were deprived of any news media and completely isolated for many months of the investigation, this prison really merited its popular nickname: “Barczewo Hilton.”

On June 12, 1987, when President Ronald Reagan made his famous speech at the Brandenburger Tur [Brandenburg Gate] in West Berlin, I was kept in confinement for the third consecutive month with no access to any news, Polish or foreign. Ronald Reagan was the U.S. President then and on that day he appealed to a new, elected in 1985, Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev:

“General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” And then he added a few prophetic words: “As I looked out a moment ago from the Reichstag, that embodiment of German unity, I noticed words crudely spray-painted upon the wall, perhaps by a young Berliner: ‘This wall will fall. Beliefs become reality.’ Yes, across Europe, this wall will fall. For it cannot withstand faith; it cannot withstand truth. The wall cannot withstand freedom.”


 The erection of a wall in Berlin was a big surprise to all. Still on June 15, 1961, the communist East German leader, Walter Ulbricht, declared in a press conference: “Niemand hat die Absicht, eine Mauer zu errichten!” [“No one has the intention of erecting a wall!].” But two months later, after many phone calls to Nikita Khrushchev, on Saturday, August 12, 1961, the leaders of the GDR attended a garden party at a government guesthouse in Dollnsee, in a wooded area to the north of East Berlin, at which time Ulbricht signed the order to close the border and erect a wall. The records of these talks between Ulbricht and Khrushchev indicate that the construction of the Berlin Wall was an idea that came from the Soviet leader.

Jumping the Berlin Wall









At midnight, the Police and units of the East German Army began to close the border and by Sunday morning, August 13, 1961, the border with West Berlin was closed. At first there were only barbed wire entanglements and fences, but then over a longer period a barrage of reinforced concrete walls was extended to 156 kilometers (97 miles), encircling West Berlin and dividing the city on a length of 43 kilometers (27 miles). Turrets of the armed guards, minefields, complicated system of barriers and chain fences, iron gates separating railways and roads divided East Berlin from West Berlin for the next 28 years to come. With the passing of time, the Berlin Wall was protected by self-shooting devices, strong search-lights and ultra-red sensors. But still people tried to force it by ingenuous tricks or just bravery. But many of the escapees lost their life when they acted on a natural and very human instinct – a quest for liberty. During the 28 years of the Wall’s existence, over 5,000 attempts to escape were noted, and the confirmed death toll of the victims reached 136.

 One of the victims was Peter Fechter, 18, wounded by guards at an attempt to escape and bled to death without being helped on no-man’s land. In a short story about that boy, its author pretended Peter wrote his own memoir:

 “If you come to Berlin, you can see the spot where I died. I was only eighteen years old when, on the 17th of August 1962, I tried to cross the Berlin Wall into West Germany, with my friend Helmut Kulbeik. He made it into the West and survived, whereas I was shot in the stomach and lay dying in the sand in the death strip, shouting Hilfe! Hilfe!’ [Help! Help!] until I had no breath left to shout with. Hundreds of people stood in the West by the wall, shouting ‘Murderers’ at the guards who had shot me, although I was not yet dead. Had one of them come to help me, perhaps I would have survived, and there would have been no murder. Instead I slowly bled screaming to death while they shouted. Neither my screams or their shouts did anything to save me (…) In life, I was a brick-layer. I built walls. But on that day in 1962, nothing would have made me happier than to tear down the wall that tore me and my country apart.”

 For the first time I visited East and West Berlin in summer of 1960. Then, after 1961, I came back many times looking at the infamous Wall that reminded me of the high walls surrounding the Warsaw Ghetto during the Second World War (in fact, I only could look at the pictures of these walls and watch films about the Warsaw Ghetto, but its view stayed on in my memory forever.)


 My several visits to East Berlin before 1989 could have ended badly. In the first and second half of the 1960s, after coming back from the United States, I got in touch with some young East Germans (I was also in my 20s then,) who carefully planned an escape to the West. During some visits to East Berlin, we “inspected” the frontier installations. One night, near the passage to West Berlin at Heinestrasse, I stepped on something that caused alarm in the area. Guards were rushing to the place of the intrusion, but we managed to escape by a fast car waiting with a running engine nearby. On another occasion, traveling on a city surface train (the S-Bahn), I tried to stop the train at a place where there was still no wall, but some barbed fences. The emergency brake in the wagon did not stop the train, but it signaled “danger” to the guards. We couldn’t stay on the train until the next stop, so we jumped out of it when it slowed down, and escaped … unfortunately back to the Eastern side. After “poking the wall” several times, we were discouraged to try to cross the frontier in Berlin, and my German friends had to wait for freedom until 1989, when they were allowed to leave the FRG [Federal Republic of Germany-The West] Embassy in Warsaw and traveled by a special GDR [German Democratic Republic—The East] train to West Germany, after an agreement reached with the East German government. I also had to wait, but until the year 1990, when, after being freed from prison, I made my first trip to the West after 19 years, exactly to the (already united) Berlin.

 Yet, in the past years many Berliners and other East Germans got out safely by using all kinds of tricks and various vehicles. I remember a story about a young West German, who came to East Berlin to “ex-filtrate” his Eastern girlfriend. He used a low sports car, got his girl in to lay on the floor and sped up under bars at the Heinestrasse checkpoint busting his car’s rooftop, but reaching the West side without any injury. This and some more escapes by cars caused the frontier guards to adopt concrete-enforced zigzagging throughways at the checkpoints. But the ingenuity of the freedom-loving escapees was always a step forward from the frontier guards’ engineering improvements. People dug long tunnels or used undiscovered cellar passages and sewers, some constructed hot-air balloons to fly over the wall, and Thomas Krueger, a sports pilot, flew a Czech-made Zlin light aircraft to the RAF [Royal Air Force] Gatow airfield in West Berlin. I don’t remember the name of a sportsman, who jumped over a lower section of the Wall in a pole vault. Still another man, an engineer and experienced swimmer, swam over the sea frontier to the shore of the Federal Republic from a beach in East Germany. One even bolder attempt to cross over the GDR-FRG land frontier was made by an operator of a bulldozer, using its thick steel shovel as a bullet-proof shield.

 But, only a small number of the escapes were successful. The last escapee to be shot while trying to flee to West Berlin across the Berlin Wall on February 6, 1989, was Chris Gueffroy. But, the last to die was Winfried Freudenberg, who died in the crash of an improvised balloon aircraft, by which he crossed the border into West Berlin on March 8, 1989.

 There is a Memorial in Berlin to all the victims of the damned Wall.


 I would love to be in Berlin on the historic night of November 9-10, 1989 but, alas, I was still confined to prison at that time. In the “Barczewo-Hilton” we had newspapers and a TV and during the months preceding the fall of the Berlin Wall we could follow the events. I also made notes in a diary to commemorate the unusual and happy events that turned the page of history in Europe.

 There are some conspiracy theories about the collapse of the Berlin Wall and of the East German Communist regime. On last Saturday and Sunday, I watched some television documentaries about these events. In a new documentary, produced by Jens Nicolai, “The Fall of the Berlin Wall – from Divided Germany to Reunification,” the German post-war history was presented in a credible way. As to the events preceding November 9, 1989, the documentary reported:

 “By East Germany’s 40th anniversary celebration in the autumn of 1989, the rage and discontent among the population had reached critical mass. After the decades of fear and intimidation, the masses dared to protest openly. The communist regime scrambled to keep the situation under control. At a press conference on November 9, 1989, the politburo announced new travel regulations. The East German people heard it on live television and streamed to the checkpoints along the Berlin Wall. There was no holding them back. Toward 22:30 [10:30 p.m.], the border guards at the checkpoint on Bornholmerstrasse opened the gates. It was one of the happiest moments in German history. But things could have come very differently.”

 Helmut Kohl, then the Chancellor of the FRG, was visiting in Poland when the Wall tumbled and he rushed to Berlin, happy and completely surprised. Earlier in October, 1989, the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, participated in the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the German Democratic Republic and warned its supreme leader, Erich Honecker, that those who are late (at reforms) would have to pay. Poland’s military and state leader, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, disclosed in his recent (November 8, 2009) interview to an Italian daily La Repubblica [The Republic] that Gorbachev phoned him many times in fall of 1989. seeking his advice to calm the rage of Soviet top generals over the nearing fall of the Berlin Wall, a sure collapse of East Germany and the crumpling of the Soviet zone in Eastern Europe. Jaruzelski said that the Soviet leader trusted him as he was the only military man at the top of the Communist party and state at that time. U.S. President George W.H. Bush was also deeply involved in talks about reunification of Germany, both with Gorbachev and Kohl.

 In a debate, organized by the Adenauer Foundation in Berlin, before the 20th anniversary of the November 9-10, 1989, events, all three former leaders of states – Bush, Gorbachev and Kohl – admitted that there was no “conspiracy” in 1989 or earlier, leading to the collapse of the Berlin Wall and to reunification of Germany in the next year. To the contrary, the negotiations between Mikhail Gorbachev and Helmut Kohl were tough and difficult, backed by support of President Bush (to Kohl) and of General Jaruzelski to Gorbachev. All three former leaders concluded that the Berlin Wall fell in the consequence of German people’s pressure for reforms and change, their quest for freedom and peace.

 On the crucial day, November 9, 1989, a GDR Politbureau member, Walter Schabowski, announced new travel regulations allowing East German citizens to freely travel to the West. Before any official regulations were issued, thousands of East Berliners took their cars out and drove to the checkpoint on Bornholmerstrasse. After some arguing, the border guards opened the gate about 10:30 p.m. and crowds of people moved Westwards, stopped by nobody. The news spread quickly and in the next few hours crowds of people started to jump on the Wall and dismantle it at many places. The “flood” of people opened the frontier, and the later events led to the reunification of Germany. All that couldn’t be possible without the success of the Solidarity Movement in Poland and the regime change in Poland after the elections of June 4, 1989. Lech Walesa in his recent interview to Der Spiegel Online [The Mirror Online], published in English, said that “It’s good that Mikhail Gorbachev was a weak politician” (which is the title of the interview). I don’t agree with him. Gorbachev was a wise politician and he could properly judge the consequences of the toppling of the Berlin Wall. It took the wisdom of many politicians, military leaders and also of intelligence chiefs, including the Top Three (Bush, Gorbachev and Kohl) to avoid a dramatic conflict, even a war about the Wall, and to guide Europe and the world to a peaceful end of the Cold War.

 But Lech Walesa was right when claiming that, “The first wall to fall was pushed over in 1980 in the Polish shipyards. Later, other symbolic walls came down, and the Germans, of course, tore down the literal wall in Berlin. The fall of the Berlin Wall makes for nice pictures. But it all started in the shipyards.”

 On Monday, November 9, 2009, in Berlin Lech Walesa pushed the first one of a thousand of the symbolic dominos, commemorating the great efforts of the freedom-loving people who pushed the Berlin Wall and the Communist dominos down. And still let me recall one more story about ordinary people in East Berlin, who crushed the Berlin Wall:

 “Luckily by chance, my father and one of his cousins approached the concrete of the wall and was close enough to touch it. Then my father had just one wish, to take part in changing history himself. So in a blink of an eye, he climbed on his cousin’s shoulders with a splitting claw in his right hand. With a tight grip and immense energy he started smashing the splitting claw into the wall. Just like any other German revolutionary, he was actually destroying the wall. The lumps of the wall taken out by my father’s splitting claw were falling on the ground. The wall was losing its matter and was weakened moment by moment by both the emotions and physical strength of the people.”

 Because “We, the People” are the sovereign and the hard core of the changing history, I can’t add more.


[David Dastych is a former Polish intelligence operative, who served in the 1960s-1980s and was a double agent for the CIA from 1973 until his arrest in 1987 by then-communist Poland on charges of espionage. Dastych was released from prison in 1990 after the fall of communism and in the years since has voluntarily helped Western intelligence services with tracking the nuclear proliferation black market in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. After a serious injury in 1994 confined him to a wheelchair, Dastych began a second career as an investigative journalist covering terrorism, intelligence and organized crime. He can be reached at
  The Night The Berlin Wall Tumbled – Twenty Years Ago 





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