Three decades on, Germans remember surprise fall of Berlin Wall

Three decades on, Germans remember surprise fall of Berlin Wall
By Elena Gyldenkerne

BERLIN (Reuters) – Sascha Moellering witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall at the Brandenburg Gate on Nov. 9, 1989. But it took about another 10 years for the border between the communist East and capitalist West to come down in his mind.

His mother was watching television at home and saw images of people shaking fences at the border after Guenter Schabowski, a senior East German communist official, accidentally announced the opening of the wall at a news conference.

“At some point my mother looked at me and asked: ‘What are you doing here? Go! This is history! And you have to go’,” Moellering recalled ahead of the 30th anniversary of the event which ultimately led to German reunification.

“There were a few thousand people standing on the wall singing and dancing to Beatles songs, ‘Give peace a chance’, of course, and the mood was really great,” he said.

Pressure had been building on the East German government for months to let its citizens travel freely when Riccardo Ehrman, a journalist at ANSA news agency, asked a clearly underprepared Schabowski about current travel rules.

Stumbling over his words, Schabowski said the East German government had decided to let citizens leave through any of the border crossings – and he believed the new rule would take effect immediately. Dumbfounded and euphoric East Germans rushed to the border to get a glimpse of the West.

“I am not sure that I really contributed but maybe, if I did help it a very, very little bit, I am incredibly proud,” Ehrman told Reuters.

It later turned out that the announcement was not supposed to be made until 4 a.m. the following day. Schabowski had also meant to say East Germans could apply for visas in an orderly manner.


Hans Modrow, the last Communist premier of East Germany, was taken by surprise.

“I was walking when a young man came to me and said ‘Have you heard? The border is open!’ (And I asked) ‘Where does that come from?’ (And he said) ‘Yes, the border is open, should I go?’ And I said: ‘Why would you go?’,” he told Reuters.

Susanne Roebisch, who was from East Berlin but was one of the few who managed to get permission to move to West Berlin with her family in 1985, remembers saying goodbye to everyone she knew as a 14-year-old, never expecting to see them again.

They got a shock when they heard the wall had been breached.

“We all sat there, thinking: ‘What? The wall is open now? Was that a clear statement? Did he say everyone can go from East to West and West to East? What?’,” she said.

Her father, who kept a detailed diary, made a note in the page for Nov. 9, 1989 reading: “The border is open”. The entries for the following days show they received a steady stream of visits from family and friends who lived in the East.

But while the physical wall came down quickly, it has taken much longer for Germans to feel like East and West have really become one country.

A majority of Germans in the former communist East still feel like second-class citizens, even though they are catching up economically with western regions, a government report showed in September.

Helmut Kohl, the chancellor who united Germany, pushed through political union. But factors including outdated economic structures and a way of life imposed on citizens by communist rule, have hampered integration.

Moellering said it took him a long time to see East Berlin as part of Berlin. “The feeling – as a young boy who grew up sheltered in Lichterfelde, on the other side of the town – was that it (the East) was a completely different world.”

“It took me about ten years to erase the border in my head.”

(Writing by Michelle Martin; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Thirty years after it fell, the Berlin Wall still divides Germans

Thirty years after it fell, the Berlin Wall still divides Germans
By Paul Carrel

LEIPZIG, Germany (Reuters) – When Matthias Rudolph joined political protests in Leipzig in 1989, he wanted to change the Communist German Democratic Republic. Thirty years on, he enjoys the freedoms the fall of the Berlin Wall brought, but is not entirely happy either.

Like many Germans in the former East, Rudolph, 55, laments the way reunification unfolded – “there wasn’t a new start” – and describes a divided society today that he believes drives some disaffected easterners toward political extremism.

“I didn’t want to do away with the GDR but rather to reform it,” said Rudolph, who was spied on by a colleague and detained for protesting as East Germany limped into its final months. “Personally, I wanted a different GDR, a more democratic GDR.”

The Leipzig protests are widely seen as the beginning of the end of the GDR. Yet, almost 30 years after the Berlin Wall fell on Nov. 9, 1989, a psychological divide remains between east and west: easterners still feel they came off second best.

“There was no reset,” said Rudolph, who complained that reunification was a missed opportunity to remake Germany with a new constitution.

“For west Germans, nothing changed other than post codes. For east Germans, everything changed,” the energy company employee added.

For west Berlin resident Angelika Bondick, 63, whose flat looks over the former Bernauer Strasse checkpoint, the fall of the Wall brought more tourists but no major upheaval. In GDR times, she regularly visited family in the East anyway.

If the dismantling of the Wall signaled the end of the Cold War, it also opened up new routes to walk her dog.

“It’s nice that we can walk in whichever direction we want now,” she told Reuters from her balcony.

The East has endured far more upheaval.

Late chancellor Helmut Kohl, the architect of reunification, promised east Germans “flourishing landscapes” in 1990 but the “Aufschwung Ost” – or eastern economic recovery – proved far slower and more painful than he had imagined.

Two million people, especially young people and women, have left the region since reunification in 1990 and few big global firms have moved in.

After cash injections of 2 trillion euros ($2 trillion) over three decades, the East’s economic output per capita is still three quarters of western German levels. Productivity is lower, and unemployment 2 percentage points higher than in the west.

A government report on the state of German unity last month cited a survey showing 57% of east Germans felt like second-class citizens. Only 38% in the East saw reunification as a success, including only 20% of people younger than 40.

Rudolph said he does not feel like a second class citizen.

“But it is also true that you always have to explain yourself. That’s not nice either,” he said. “I thought that would be over in a few years, but it wasn’t.”

Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk, a historian and author of ‘The Takeover – how East Germany became part of the Federal Republic’, said the economic shock of reunification disrupted the whole social fabric of eastern Germany.

“There was not a unification process on a level playing field but rather an alignment process … what existed in the west was practiced in the east one-to-one,” he said, adding that some easterners now felt they were not “full value citizens”.

“Since 1990, many east Germans have been trying to be more German than the federal Germans ever were – and that results in an open nationalism and racism,” Kowalczuk added.


Easterners’ sense of inferiority provides fertile ground for extreme parties. In the eastern state of Thuringia, which holds a regional election on Sunday, polls show a majority of voters support the far-right AfD and the far-left Linke.

In Thuringia and two other eastern states that held elections last month, the AfD has co-opted slogans that were used during the 1989 protests that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, including “Wir sind das Volk!” (We are the people!).

The AfD, which is far stronger in the east than the west, is urging voters: “The East rises – complete the change!”

Adopting the word “Wende”, used to describe the fall of East German Communism, the AfD calls for “Wende 2.0” – effectively urging voters to do away with the established parties in a “drain the swamp”-style pitch.

Christian Hirte, the government’s commissioner for the eastern states, says: “It is my firm conviction that the overwhelming majority of eastern Germans do not want anything to do with far-right crackpots who are violent.”

But he acknowledges that xenophobia is an issue damaging to eastern Germany’s attractiveness as a business location.

“We have to tell citizens clearly: it is in our own national and regional interests to be open,” he said.

The message has not got through to everyone.

A report by the ZEW institute earlier this year showed the probability of an asylum seeker becoming a victim of hate crime in eastern Germany is 10 times greater than in the west.

Images like last year’s far-right riots in Chemnitz – the worst such clashes in Germany in decades – and this month’s attack on a synagogue in Halle by a far-right extremist have reinforced the picture of a disenchanted and radicalized east.

In the latest episode of far-right intimidation, police said this week they were protecting the leader of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives in Thuringia after he received a death threat that ended “Heil Hitler!”.

That kind of language is anathema to Dagmar Simdorn, 81, who grew up during World War Two and then lived in the GDR, just a few hundred yards from the Berlin Wall. She still notices differences between easterners and westerners.

“But I think young people are doing better,” she said. “It’s easier for them. They are growing up in this time of freedom. They don’t know about East and West. That’s why I believe it’s so important to remind young people how things were then.”

(Additional reporting by Oliver Denzer; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Afghan-Pakistan border villages brace for Berlin Wall-style divide

Pakistani soldiers keep guard as citizens returning from Afghanistan at the border-crossing town of Chaman, Pakistan, October 5, 2017. Picture taken October 5, 2017. REUTERS/Drazen Jorgic

By Drazen Jorgic and Gul Yousafzai

CHAMAN/QUETTA, Pakistan (Reuters) – Thousands of Pashtun tribal people who for decades ignored the invisible line that bisects their dusty villages and demarcates the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier are bracing for a Berlin Wall-style divide of their neighborhoods.

Pakistan, worried by Islamist attacks, is building a fence to prevent militants criss-crossing the porous 2,500 km (1,500 mile) frontier along the disputed colonial-era Durand line drawn up by the British in 1893.

The fence, which Kabul opposes, will run down the middle of so-called “divided villages” where few people have passports and Pashtun tribal loyalty often trumps allegiance to the state.

Seven such villages are dotted around Chaman district, home to the bustling border-crossing town of Chaman in Pakistan’s southwestern province of Baluchistan. Other divided villages are believed to exist further north in the restive Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

Pakistani officials in Baluchistan are now working on shifting Pakistani citizens in the divided villages to their side of the fence and say security worries override concerns that it will break up communities.

“(A border wall) was there in Germany, it is in Mexico. It is all over the world – why not in Afghanistan and Pakistan?” said Col. Muhammad Usman, commander of Pakistan’s Frontier Corps paramilitary force in Chaman.

“These tribals have to understand that this is Pakistan and that place is Afghanistan.”

Yet scepticism about the fence abounds. Pakistan’s previous attempts to build one failed about a decade ago and many doubt whether its possible to secure such a lengthy border.


The appeal of erecting physical border barriers waned after the Berlin Wall was torn down in 1989. But in recent years, several populist leaders have advocated building walls to curtail movement of foreigners, most notably U.S. President Donald Trump, who wants a wall along the entire border with Mexico.

Hungary’s right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban recently fenced the border with Serbia to prevent Syrian refugees and other Muslim migrants from entering the eastern European country that acts as a gateway to the European Union.

Pakistan, in anticipation of the fence, plans to build more than 100 new border posts and Islamabad is recruiting in excess of 30,000 soldiers to man them, according to a senior military source.

“Trump is doing as per requirements of America; we are doing as per requirements of Pakistan,” added Usman.

Tense relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan boiled over in two divided villages in May during Pakistan’s census survey. More than 10 people were killed when Afghan border troops, objecting to the census, clashed with the Frontier Corps in Killi Jahangir and Killi Luqman villages near Chaman.

Kabul and Islamabad accuse each other of sheltering militants and providing safe havens for Islamist groups who carry out cross-border attacks.

Many residents in Killi Jahangir and Killi Luqman welcome the fence in the hope it will prevent bloodshed. But others are concerned it will hurt business and separate them from friends and family.

“There will no infiltration of terrorists or suspects from Afghan areas… but my own small business, which I was doing with Afghan people, will be affected,” said Abdul Jabbar, a Pakistani owner of a small enterprise in Killi Jahangir.

Pakistani officials have long struggled to impose security in the Pashtun tribal heartland. The area stretches for hundreds of kilometers, including rugged mountainous terrain, and has been a hotbed of arms and heroin smuggling for decades. U.S drone strikes have also targeted militants from al Qaeda and other groups in the region.

For the likes of taxi driver Abdul Razzaq, 30, having peace of mind offsets the loss of business due to the fence.

“Now I can sleep in my home without any fear,” he said.

(Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Nick Macfie)