WHERE WERE YOU WHEN: The Berlin Wall crumbled

Former foreign correspondent Anne McElvoy celebrated with chunks of the Wall in her vodka. 

The Berlin Wall crumbled
East German border guards demolish a section of the wall to open a crossing point, as West Berliners celebrated. Image: GERARD MALIE/AFP/Getty Images.

Berlin felt like waking in a dream. Strangers were hugging each other shouting, ‘The Wall has gone!’

I had been fascinated by East Germany since I was a child. It was formed after the Second World War when the Allied powers took control of a section of Germany, with Great Britain, the United States and France forming what became known as the West side, while the Soviet Union took East Germany. Berlin lay within the East but as the capital city, it was also divided. In 1961, the Communist regime began building the high concrete wall, which encircled West Berlin, supposedly ‘to keep Western fascists from entering East Germany’. It meant residents could not leave. How odd was that?

While studying at universities in East Berlin and East Germany during the mid-80s, I found a country in lockdown, ruled by a rigid leadership that denounced critics and arrested peace activists who questioned the regime. When I returned to East Berlin in 1989 as a newspaper correspondent, the mood was edgy and people were louder about their dissatisfaction.

But that summer, Hungary (also a Soviet satellite state) relaxed its Iron Curtain border dividing the Soviet Union from the rest of Europe, allowing thousands of East Germans to cross through into Austria and the West. It was the beginning of the end. In November, Gunter Schabowski, the main Berlin party boss for East Germany’s Socialist Unity Party, told us journalists at a press conference that residents could apply for passports ‘from immediately’.

I rushed to the Wall and shouted that the border was open but the guard refused to budge. When the announcement appeared on the evening news many more people headed to the border, shouting that they wanted to cross. This time, the guards stood aside and I joined hordes of East Germans walking into the West to cheers and embraces. Car horns blared and rock music rang out of the tenement buildings.

‘Wall-peckers’ started hammering away at the concrete structure. People handed around vodka, with chunks of the Wall in the glasses. Berlin, reunited, was throwing one enormous party.

Also that month…

Gabe Ginsberg/Getty Images
  • The House of Commons was televised live for the first time.
  • Rocketman actor Taron Egerton (above) was born in Birkenhead, Merseyside.
  • Children’s TV show Byker Grove began broadcasting on the BBC.