Germans from East and West stand on the Berlin Wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, 10 November 1989.
Germans from East and West stand on the Berlin Wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, 10 November 1989.
09/11/2019 08:43 GMT | Updated 09/11/2019 16:09 GMT

7 Extraordinary Stories About The Fall Of The Berlin Wall – Told By The People Who Lived Them

Fears of a “new Hitler”, a toy London bus and buying bananas for the first time.

The concrete barrier was torn down, David Hasselhoff sang a song about freedom and western democracy triumphed over eastern Communism – that, in the smallest of nutshells, is the fall of the Berlin Wall.

During the 30 years since, the events of 9 November 1989 and the days after have entered the popular and historical record as the defining moment marking the end of the Cold War.

But the reality at the time, unsurprisingly, was far more complex. There were fears of a “new Hitler”, a total media blackout by a paranoid Chinese government and even the completely novel act of East Berliners buying tropical fruit for the first time.

In Britain, knowledge of one of the most important moments in the 20th century appears woeful. A recent YouGov survey found nearly one in three UK adults have little or no knowledge of the fall of the Berlin Wall, with only one in five saying they know “a great deal”.

East German border guards are seen through a gap in the Berlin wall after demonstrators pulled down a segment of the wall at Brandenburg gate, Berlin, 11 November 1989.

To mark the 30th anniversary of its fall, HuffPost UK spoke to a number of people intimately involved with the events of that day, each with their own remarkable story that helps illuminate some of the less-celebrated aspects of what happened on 9 November 1989.

The reaction in newsrooms – nobody saw it coming

We were gobsmacked, utterly, utterly gobsmacked. They said it must be a mistranslation or a misunderstanding, that it simply was not possible.Robin Lustig – Presenter on the BBC's The World Tonight in 1989

The Berlin Wall had divided Germany both physically and ideologically since August 1961. It was the concrete manifestation of the “Iron Curtain” that separated the democratic nations of the West and the communist countries of the East, and symbolised the front line of the decades-long Cold War between them.

By 1989 there were signs that this tension – fought with the threat of mutual nuclear annihilation and proxy wars in countries like Afghanistan and Vietnam – was finally beginning to thaw.

The Soviet Union, led by Mikhail Gorbachev, was slowly opening up and encouraging its satellite communist states such as Poland and Hungary in eastern Europe to do the same.

But in 1989 the thought of Berliners being able to freely cross from one side of the city to the other was still unthinkable – even on the night of November 9 1989.

A section of the wall pictured in 2004, kept intact and showing the barricade consisted of two walls and a so-called 'death strip' in between where dogs patrolled and East-German border guards where allowed to use their weapons to stop people who tried to escape to the West. 

Robin Lustig had only recently started as a BBC presenter on The World Tonight when the news began to trickle in from Germany. 

“We were gobsmacked, utterly, utterly gobsmacked. We had no idea it was coming.

“The production team at The World Tonight that evening included two native Germans and when the news agencies reported that with immediate effect East Germans would be allowed to cross into the West, my colleagues simply refused to believe it.

“They said that must be a mistranslation or a misunderstanding, that is simply not possible.

“So they actually went somewhere down into the bowels of the BBC to find the original German text of what had been said and came up looking completely shell-shocked saying ‘we just don’t believe this is happening’.”

In the years since 1989 it has been established that the East Germans never actually intended to allow people to cross the border that night. 

When announcing that visa restrictions were to be lifted, East German politburo member Günter Schabowski panicked when asked when the new policy would begin – he hadn’t actually been told.

In the pressure of the moment, he said, “Immediately, without delay.” 

Thatcher’s reaction, and fears of a ‘new Hitler’

I think [Margaret Thatcher's] instinct and gut feelings were ‘just don’t trust the Germans, it’s too, too risky’.Sir Christopher Mallaby – British Ambassador to West Germany in 1989

It wasn’t just the BBC that was caught by surprise – governments, including the UK, were left scrambling to keep pace with developments on the ground. 

Then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was initially opposed to unification, fearful of what a resurgent unified Germany could do – this was, after all, a century in which the country had led the world into two catastrophic global conflicts.

Amberly Books
Sir Christopher Mallaby pictured in 2007.

Secret British government documents published in 2009 revealed the deep anxiety from by Thatcher and then-French president François Mitterrand, who wrote to tell her unification could turn Germans into the “bad” people they were during both World Wars.

Sir Christopher Mallaby*, now 83, was British Ambassador to West Germany in 1989 and reported directly to Thatcher but embraced the idea of a united Germany. 

The same documents mentioned above show Thatcher found his views “alarming” at the time.

He told HuffPost UK:

“I was at a reception in Bonn given by the Financial Times who had a new correspondent arriving. I came home from that and my wife had been watching television and she said ‘the wall is open’ and I said ‘how many bottles of whisky have you drunk?’. 

“And then we turned on the telly again and I telephoned the general in charge of our troops in west Berlin, a marvellous man called General Robert Corbett, and he and I talked about what would happen and what would be the role of British forces in Berlin if things began to change rapidly.

“I had a personal problem which was that my ultimate boss, Margaret Thatcher, was not at all in favour of the unification of Germany and I was, because I was very keen on some of the effects this would have.

This was a a hell of a change a gigantic change in the map of Europe and it we looked like having a major triumph for democracy if we played our cards right. 

“Margaret had... I wouldn’t say it was an opinion so much as a feeling, I think her instinct and gut feelings were ‘just don’t trust the Germans, it’s too, too risky’.

“I thought there was not a danger of the recurrence of another Hitler but rather lots of absolutely marvellous effects that would be very beneficial.

“But that was not Thatcher’s view. Why? Because her teenage years were during the Second World War. 

“Looking at West Germany, [the thought of a new Hitler] was absurd. West Germany was a very successful, very well-tried, very stable democracy – a real new beginning in the history of Germany, and yes that made the idea of a new Hitler completely dotty. 

“On the other hand, it wasn’t only fearing another Hitler, it was also fearing German domination of Western Europe even if in a positive way. That is a less dotty proposition because the great economic success of Germany did raise questions like that.”

Not everyone wanted to party in the streets of Berlin

For the first two hours I was on my own and that was good enough because I could shed my tears peacefully alone.Volker G. Heinz - jailed by the Stasi in 1966 for helping smuggle East Germans into the West

During the 38 years it stood, 140 people died trying to cross the Berlin Wall while nearly 5,000 succeeded. 

Volker G Heinz*, now 76, moved to West Berlin in in the 60s to work as lawyer and through his work he came into contact with those who were helping people to escape through tunnels dug under the wall.

Berlin Wall

Despite knowing being caught could mean imprisonment, torture or even death at the hands of the feared East German police, the Stasi, he offered to help.

“After a number of months one of them came back to me and said ‘I think we need you now’. And that of course was the big test for me – do you want to stick to your word or run away when it becomes and bit dangerous.

“But I was so convinced that what I was doing is the right thing to do, like today when people pick up drowning refugees in the Mediterranean. It is a basic humanitarian duty in my opinion.

“What gave me that inner strength was ultimately that although there were people who took a lot of money, it protected me in a sense that I denied it right from the start.

“It’s a good feeling to do something for nothing.”

After helping more than 60 East Berliners escape, Heinz’s luck ran out and he was caught by the Stasi and spent a year in prison before he was released in a prisoner exchange.

Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters
The museum of the original escape tunnel from West Berlin to East Berlin at Brunnenstrasse, discovered by former Communist East Germany's Stasi secret police in February 1971.

By the time the wall came down he had moved to London to train as a barrister and watched events on the television at home.

“Strangely enough that very night I had an appointment for dinner but before I went to dinner I saw Berlin was in uproar and there was live coverage. I rang my friend and said ‘look, forgive me I must be glued to this television set. If you have time please come and join me’ and that’s what my friend indeed did a couple of hours later.

“But for the first two hours I was on my own and that was good enough because I could shed my tears peacefully alone.

“For someone for whom the wall was in a sense the enemy and who had repeatedly tried, mostly successfully, to supervene it, to help people escape, it was a very moving moment indeed.”

Amberly Books
Volker G Heinz.

Heinz also has another remarkable and unexpected tale of the wall.

“One of my refugees went back. You wouldn’t believe it but he went back, some love affair he couldn’t deal with.” 

The first thing many East Germans did in the West was... shop

Beside my car passed a boy, probably about four years old with his parents and he was pulling a trophy, a trophy from his visit to West Berlin. And this was a rather large plastic London double decker red bus.Sir Christopher Mallaby – British Ambassador to West Germany in 1989

During the wall’s existence, any East Berliners who made it to West Berlin were given Begrüßungsgeld – “welcome money” once a year worth around £80 today.

This financial assistance was conceived to assist the relatively small number of escapees who made the perilous crossing but when the wall fell and tens of thousands of people flooded across, the West German authorities admirably fulfilled their promise.

Sir Christopher Mallaby recalls his first trip to Berlin after the wall fell, on the 11 November.

“I arrived in very cold weather and absolute darkness, very early on that morning and we landed [by helicopter] beside the wall on the western side and there were crowds of people there.

“I saw tonnes of East Germans queueing in front of the banks which were just about to open and they were going to ask for the their greetings money and then go off and do some shopping.

“I asked people around me, easterners who had come for a day visit, what they would spend their money on and the first thing they said was ‘tropical fruit’.

“The people of East Germany watched West German television constantly. The authorities in East Germany thought that was a good thing for them because it would make the East German people a bit more comfortable and less jealous but of course it just made them much more jealous.”

Later that day Sir Mallaby and his wife crossed the border by car to attend a concert in the British embassy in East Berlin.

“And then there were such a crowd of people returning from east Berlin that they couldn’t possibly be checked by the east German guards. They were all looking very pleased with their lovely presents that they were bringing back and right beside my car passed a boy, probably about four years old with his parents and he was pulling a trophy, a trophy from his visit to west Berlin. And this was a rather large plastic London double decker red bus.

“And that made me think ’right, well now we know where we are – if that’s possible, for people in a very unsuccessful communist country to come out and buy things like that, we are looking now at a melting pot where east and west Europe will become quite close together.”

In China, the authorities imposed a media blackout – and it’s still taboo to this day

There was not a single squeak in China when the wall came down in Berlin.Professor Steve Tsang – Director of the SOAS China Institute

Anyone watching the news in China that night or in the days after would not have heard anything about the fall of the Berlin wall.

The communist government was still dealing with its own popular protests, climaxing in the Tiananmen Square massacre in April of that year, in which troops killed hundreds of civilians who were demanding greater political freedoms.

Professor Steve Tsang is the Director of the SOAS China Institute. He was in England in 1989.

“I think a few in China did know in some way, I don’t think the blackout was 100%. And some people did have to think about whether they would try and copy it.

“But you’re talking about less than six months after the massacre in Beijing when people were still being hunted down for the protests in the spring and early summer. And the idea that they would come out, it requires more than courage. 

“That was still a time when people could still remember hearing about friends and relatives being crushed by tanks.

“There was no way that someone like me would have put any of my Chinese friends or contacts by asking them about something like Berlin.

“The mere fact that if I even sent them a letter to ask would have put them at risk. Why would I do that?”

Even 30 years on, the topic is still taboo. 

“The party today is a lot stronger, a lot more confident. They simply don’t want it to be brought up and if you don’t want to get into trouble, you don’t bring it up. If you did then trouble for doing so now is quite different from the trouble you’d expect back in 1989.”

Reuters Photographer / Reuters
People climb the Berlin wall at the Brandenburg Gate as they celebrate the opening of the East German border November 9, 1989.

It was a momentous day, but Russia had bigger things to worry about

After that day nothing changed.Andrei Petrov – Member of the USSR Supreme Soviet in 1989

The events in Berlin were just one part of the ongoing Cold War – the Soviet Union was also dealing with popular protests in its satellite states of Eastern Europe.

Andrei Petrov was a member of the USSR Supreme Soviet in 1989 and now works for the European Dialogue think tank.

“I don’t remember where I was when the Berlin Wall came down, I think I was in Africa with a delegation, I don’t recall that night properly.

“Our feelings, they were not so much concentrated on the events in Germany because that was just a part of everything that happened with the communist wall, just a part of that. It was significant and important, but it was just a part of that. Events in Poland and Czechoslovakia and so on, the stormy life in the Soviet Union.”

He adds with a laugh: “That was a very good time.”

*Sir Christopher Mallaby and Volker Heinz both written books about their experiences. Living The Cold War and The Price of Freedom are both available from Amberley Publishing.

(Infographic supplied by Statista)