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‘A panicked border guard using his gun was our biggest worry'

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‘A panicked border guard using his gun was our biggest worry'
Photo: Penny Bradfield
12:03 CET+01:00
The fall of the Berlin Wall sparked celebration, but also chaos in both halves of the city. David Wroe speaks with former West Berlin Mayor Walter Momper about how dicey November 9, 1989 really was.

One nervous border guard was all it would take. That was West Berlin Mayor Walter Momper's first thought when he was handed him a two-line news alert on November 9, 1989.

Ten days earlier, Momper had held secret talks with the East German official Günter Schabowski to prepare for what both men knew was inevitable. Schabowski told Momper he had until Christmas to ready West Berlin for the fall of the Wall.

But on the night of November 9, as Momper attended an awards ceremony at the headquarters of publisher Axel Springer, that preparation time vanished when Schabowski mistakenly told a press conference that the borders were open immediately.

“A border guard panicking and using his gun – that was our biggest worry,” Momper recalled during an interview in his office at Berlin's parliament house, where he is now the legislature's president. “We thought about people storming over the border, shooting, bloodshed, people dead.

“I thought, ‘Why didn't (Schabowski) tell us? He had promised to tell us in advance so we could organise.”

When Germany celebrates the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall on Monday, attention will be focused on the spontaneous display of people power. But as Momper revealed, November 9, 1989 was a logistic nightmare and a night of high tension as West Berlin's leaders held their breath, fearful that the joy could turn to tragedy.

Although the West Berlin government had set up committees to plan the response of its police, health, transport and social services, they were caught off guard by Schabowski's bombshell.

No maps of West Berlin

“If you are in the West and … your children get lost, where do you go? Or if you get ill? They didn't even have maps in the East. The West Berlin part was always white.”

West Berlin's S-Bahn commuter trains, built to cope with 1.5 million passengers a day, became one great sardine tin as 1 million easterners a day flooded into the city.

And the coffers of the regional branch of the Bundesbank were quickly drained by the Begrüßungsgeld, the 100 marks that every East German visitor received after arriving in the West.

“We had to have the Americans fly in from Frankfurt seven tonnes of banknotes so we could keep paying it. It was 100 million marks a day. It was a huge amount of money.”

But that was to come later. On the night itself, Momper's most pressing worry was safety. The first thing he did was drive to the studio of SFB, West Berlin's public broadcaster, and endorse Schabowski's statement before the East German government changed its mind. His statement, which went to air live, was watched by about two thirds of the population of both sides of the Wall.

Aside from a meeting with the police commissioner and transport bosses, Momper stayed on live television until after 11 pm, when he was handed a scrap of paper under the table. It said that the Bornholmerstrasse checkpoint had been opened. Momper made his excuses and left the studio, heading straight to the Invalidenstrasse checkpoint, which was just opening when he arrived.

“It was like Oktoberfest. A lot of them already had a bit of alcohol in them. Everybody was happy and drinking and singing and shouting. But there were some 10,000 people there, clogging up the area.”

Momper, mindful that only nine months earlier, Christian Gueffroy had been shot dead trying to cross the death strip, grabbed a megaphone, stood on a desk dragged out of the border guards' office and started trying to herd the crowds through into the western part of the city and to safety.

“Of course, I couldn't get them to move. After every sentenced they just clapped and cheered. I could have read the phone book of Berlin out to them and they still would have clapped and cheered.”

Chaos in West Berlin

So he urged them to stay calm and disciplined and went back to work, quickly discovering things were just as chaotic in West Berlin as they were in the East.

He tried the American commander and got no answer. He tried the British representative and, after some time, got hold of his wife, who was at home with the flu. Nobody knew what was going on.

As things settled down in the days and weeks following, there were inevitable tensions amid the choking fumes of thousands of East German Trabant cars, fights in supermarkets over bananas – a tropical fruit that was near-impossible to get in the East – and the slow realisation that pain lay ahead as two incompatible ways of life were reconciled.

Momper went on television again and used his sober, soothing tones to remind people that, while the transition was a difficult one, they were once again one Germany. Today, Walter Momper says he is just happy to have a “footnote” in history.

“This was a new chapter, but mainly I was occupied doing things,” he says. “There was little time to think of it as a historic moment. But I remember a moment at a checkpoint when I thought, ‘You are living this; you are experiencing this change and it's a huge change.'”

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