As U.S. Faces Trump Wall: The Fall of Berlin Wall 27 Years Ago

Retro sepia The Berlin Wall (Berliner Mauer) in Germany
Retro sepia The Berlin Wall (Berliner Mauer) in Germany

Twenty-seven years ago today the Berlin Wall, which had stood, brutally dividing that city, began to fall. Soon it would be gone and the two sides of Berlin, and Germany, reconciled. My new book, The Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall and Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill (Crown), focuses on what came before, going back to incredible episodes of bravery (and many murders) in the 1960s. But it also carries the story to its logical, and inspiring conclusion.

Here is a brief excerpt from The Tunnels:

The tide of history could not be resisted any longer. Neighboring countries had opened their borders, and tens of thousands of East Germans crossed into Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Mass protests swelled in the GDR, first in Leipzig and then Berlin. Honecker was pushed out of his leadership position. Their rock concert ploy having failed, GDR officials decided to open another safety valve by making visas more easily available. On the night of November 9, 1989, a government spokesman named Schabowski went on TV to preview the new policy but bungled the message, accidentally conveying that everyone was free to pass through checkpoints without any approval--and that they could do so "immediately."

Hardly believing their ears, thousands of East Germans promptly started streaming to checkpoints. At Bonholmer Strasse, more than 20,000 rushed the gates. Among them was a young chemist named Angela Merkel, an activist in the pro-government Free German Youth for many years who had lately turned against the state. Nearing midnight the guards could hold them back no longer. Formalities were abandoned at other crossing points into West Berlin. Residents on both sides of the Wall were delirious, overwhelming checkpoints throughout the city. Some climbed on the Wall and danced, others smashed it with sledgehammers.

A pastor came upon a group of East Berliners nearly flat on the ground near Bernauer Strasse. He thought they had suffered an accident until he learned that they had unfolded a map of West Berlin, spread it out and were studying it intently before crossing. All they had ever had was an "image" of the West in their minds, he later said, "and they didn't know where things were exactly. It was as if they'd dug a tunnel and emerged on the other side."

On that night, legendary escape helper Hasso Herschel was cooking a meal in his kitchen, with the television on in the living room, when he heard the first reports. He initially could not believe them--he felt it was like a Hollywood movie unfolding. He called a few friends. "And twenty of us, thirty, even old diggers, we went to all the checkpoints and drank champagne and spent money until 11 o'clock in the morning," he would recall. "I couldn't imagine the Wall would stay open. I thought they would close it in another day or two and it would stay closed. But when that didn't happen we felt it was maybe even the end of the Cold War, and all other wars, it was our hope, our dream."

The same night, Burkhart Veigel, then an orthopedist living in Stuttgart, cried for hours in front of his TV, terribly moved. This was exactly what he had dreamed about for decades: "I wanted freedom for the people. Suddenly, they were free. It was the most important experience of my life." The next day, when his children asked him why he was still crying, he told them for the first time "what I had done back then."

A friend of former tunneler Joachim Rudolph in the East had a brother living in West Berlin. The day after the Wall opened, Rudolph offered to drive him and his wife to the West to see his brother. At the border on both sides thousands of people continued to gather so it was very difficult to pass by car. Rudolph told the couple they should press their East German passports against the window and display them to people outside. When the celebrants in the streets saw this they burst into cheers, and knocked on the car roof in approval- "an amazing situation," Rudolph later said.

During the following days and then weeks, police on both sides began to remove parts of the wall to build more border crossing points, at Brandenburg Gate, Potsdamer Platz, and elsewhere. "Very often I was there to watch it," Rudolph said. "Many cars with satellite dishes and reporters were there, and many Berliners came to watch. I remember in that time this terrible weather, but I was there at night many hours with an umbrella--and next morning I had to go to work. In my life I never will forget that exciting time."

Crowds of East Berliners ransacked Stasi headquarters, then secured rooms with files holding hundreds of millions of pages. Countless other documents had been shredded by Stasi staffers in their final days there, until the shredders burned out from overuse. Over 170,000 Stasi informers would be found identified by name in the files--about 10,000 of them under the age of eighteen--but estimates of the actual number of informers went as high as half a million, and even much higher if occasional collaborators were included.