Berlin – still emotional after 25 years

The fall of the Berlin Wall 1989THE lump is still quick to form in my throat – the raw emotion of being on the spot to see the Berlin Wall coming down is almost as fresh today as it was 25 years ago.

Maybe it's part of getting older, but it seems only yesterday that the barrier dividing Berlin began to crumble and news of the astonishing events started to ripple around the world. And I was determined to be part of it and try to be much more than just a distant bystander.

I was working as a sub-editor on the Manchester Evening News when word came through that the Wall was being breached and the office was soon buzzing with excitement, with hopes of an Iron Curtain breakthrough tempered by fears of a bloody backlash.

Then a brief news item dropped on my desk, telling me that a small company which specialised in business flights to Germany was organising a one-off, first-come-first-served day trip to Berlin at the weekend. Within minutes, all the seats were taken – and four of them were mine, because I wanted my family to share possibly the biggest moment in history they might see in their lifetime.

My wife and two daughters dashed out to update their cold-weather wardrobe, while I readied the car for the drive to East Midlands Airport (from the Pennines north of Manchester!) to catch our crack-of-dawn flight.

The Berlin Wall in 1986Hand luggage only, so we were soon on board and on our way towards a city that had been divided for as long as I had been alive, remembering stories of the Soviets' barbaric onslaught in the final battle for Hitler's capital; its desolate aftermath, with the epic Berlin Airlift launched to save its isolated population from starvation; and the Cold War traumas of divided families, with desperate youngsters being gunned down as they tried to escape a regime that was so paranoid it had to keep its subjects caged behind barbed wire – and an obscene concrete Wall.

Keyed-up and not knowing what to expect, our first big shock came as we approached the East German frontier, with the rigid, life-or-death rules about staying strictly within a tight air corridor being suddenly relaxed, so straying off the designated route was no longer akin to running the gauntlet, with the risk of being blasted out of the sky by a hostile MiG fighter jet.

Our pilot, who would have a made a great holiday firm courier, gave us a running commentary as he indulged in a hitherto unheard of  'tour' of the elaborate border defences, swooping down to just a few hundred feet and corkscrewing so passengers on both sides of the plane were able to enjoy a spy's eye view of the watchtowers and their waving guards, looking out over massive minefields, concrete tank traps and razor wire entanglements laid out like some sort of demented, abstract artwork snaking across the countryside through field and forest.

Central BerlinLegs still shaking after touchdown, we boarded a coach for an impromptu guided tour of Berlin's major sights, including the huge, 260ft high Teufelsberg – the Devil's Mountain – made of heaped-up rubble from the carpet-bombed city, and the thousands of allotment gardens; as well as an officially-sanctioned ride into the Eastern Sector, with its still-visible wartime damage and bleak post-War concrete architecture in stark contract to the brash, bright and deliberately-showy modern face of the beckoning West. It looked dowdy, down-at-heel and depressing, with shabby shops, few people on the streets and even fewer cars.

It didn't take us long to find out where most of the people and cars seemed to have gone – they were streaming through gaps in the Wall in search of the bright lights of freedom.

The gaps were created at strategic points in the heart of the city, and we quickly headed towards the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag Building, iconic landmarks which  were focal points for curious crowds from both sides of the border.

We joined the crowds at one crossing point and were soon in tears along with everyone else as families of bemused East Berliners streamed through, both on foot and packed into crude, smoke-belching Trabant cars, to be met with cheers and shouts of encouragement and countless bunches of flowers.

Brandenburg GateThey were also met by the British Army, armed to the teeth with mugs of hot tea. Trestle tables had been set up on each side of the breach and grinning squaddies with their sleeves rolled up dished out gallons of the English answer to champagne as a divided people finally started to come in from the cold.

The visitors who flooded in for hour after hour were overwhelmed by their reception and could scarcely believe it was real to be greeted with open arms and such genuine delight. As they stood around in nervous groups and warmed their hands on their tea, they gazed in amazement at the obvious affluence around them, and then gradually plucked up courage to take advantage of their unexpected liberation and explore the glittering side of the city they had only ever sneaked looks at on television.

Shop windows beckoned, with retail therapy very much on the agenda, and many major stores were soon under siege, but expensive goods stayed on the shelves as the eager buyers snapped up what to them were the real luxury items – things like plastic colanders and washing-up bowls, soap and sanitary towels, toilet rolls and toothpaste  and many other everyday 'throwaway' basics we take for granted.

Reichstag as seen from across the Spree riverSome East Germans were under orders to stay where they were told, but they were the border guards, still officially on duty and still cradling their AK47 assault rifles. Looking uncomfortable and not knowing what to do with themselves, they stood aside as people streamed past them, with truckloads of reinforcements standing by at a discreet distance, visible from the prefabricated grandstands built for tourists to peer over the Wall at the 'enemy'.

Many of the guards were young conscripts, around the same age as the students busy hammering chunks from the wall, who also waved, blew kisses and offered them  cigarettes through the gaps that were staring to appear. Occasionally, a head poked through and a young soldier would peer at the amazing goings-on, but shyness was the order of the day, even with kisses on offer. There was more fraternisation and excitement at Checkpoint Charlie, another symbolic Cold War landmark and scene of many a spy-swap and heartbreak.

Away from these hotspots, there was less activity along the Wall as we walked in its dark  shadow. But along its length, it was under attack from young people from across Berlin, across Germany and across Europe, with one beaming French lad offering me a chunk of painted wall as he sat astride the top and chipped lumps of the concrete away with a borrowed builder's hammer.

Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial ChurchWith that precious souvenir safe in my pocket, we walked on until we were alone in almost an eerie silence, the Wall still looming above us, but not as menacing, until we came to a cosy-looking café/bar, which looked welcoming in the fading daylight.

The welcome, though, was a little guarded and it wasn't long before we called a taxi to take us back to the city centre, with the driver asking us why on earth had we risked wandering into Kreuzberg – then a run-down, shady area notorious for its red lights and population of Turkish gastarbeiters, or migrant 'guest workers'.

Suitably chastened and with little time before the flight home, we headed for the Ku'Damm – the famous Kurfürstendamm avenue – with its touching Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church preserved as a reminder of the past, but with shops and bars as part of a vibrant, affluent present, along with thousands of mesmerised extra tourists.

One enterprising local art student and his girlfriend were selling hurriedly-hand-printed t-shirts bearing a sketch of the Brandenburg Gate and the words Durchbruch Berlin November 89 – Breakthrough Berlin November 89.

I'm so grateful and proud I was there – and I've got the t-shirt.

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David Graham

Professional journalist

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