Michael Meyer: The unanswered phone calls and misunderstood memos that helped bring down the Berlin Wall





[Michael Meyer, Newsweek's bureau chief in Eastern Europe in 1989, is the author of The Year That Changed the World.]

Too often, we see history as inevitable. What was had to be, the culmination of seemingly tectonic forces. We tend to forget that history is also defined by the logic of human messiness. Happenstance, chance, even accident always loom large in grand events.

Consider the iconic image that will play and replay on our TV screens over the coming weeks: Berliners dancing atop the fallen wall, marking the end of the Cold War 20 years ago. I was there, that night to remember: Nov. 9, 1989.

The scene was Checkpoint Charlie, the famous border crossing in the heart of divided Berlin. A heaving crowd of East Germans faced a thin line of Volkspolitzei, nervously fingering their weapons. The standoff had just entered its fourth hour. "Open up! Open up!" the people cried out. Past the police and their guard dogs, past the watchtower and barbed wire of the infamous death strip, on the other side of the grim-gray Berlin Wall, came the answering call from an equally boisterous mob of West Germans: "Come over! Come over!"

Blazing TV lights suddenly flipped on from the West, silhouetting the wall and the guards, intensifying the eerie scene. Inside his lighted, glassed-in command post, the captain of the East German border guard, a beefy guy with a square jaw and the dark bristly air of a Doberman, stood dialing and redialing his telephone. For hours he vainly sought instructions. Certainly he was confused. Most likely he was frightened. The crowds before him had broiled out of nowhere, grown so fast, unlike anything he had ever seen, and now they pushed so close that their breath, frosting in the night, mingled with that of his increasingly anxious men.

Similarly panicky calls flew from checkpoints up and down the wall. What was happening? What should be done? But there were no answers. No instructions came back from the Interior Ministry. Top officials had gone to the opera or to the bowers of their mistresses. As Communist East Germany entered the final, existential crisis, its leadership was AWOL...

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