Tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1989

The fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9th 1989, while largely a result of East Germans’ hunger for freedom, also relied on chance, bungling and the absence of orders that could have unleashed a cataclysm.

Tonight we're gonna party like it's 1989
Photo: DPA

French military photographer Hendrik Pastor was on duty at Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie on November 9th as thousands of people gathered at this pivotal point of the existing world order.

Something big was happening – but no one knew what.

At 10pm the East German major at the checkpoint invited him onto the Wall with a guarantee of his safety so Pastor could record scenes from what proved to be “the biggest event since the end of the Second World War”, he remembers.

Finally he asked the officer why he was doing nothing about the mass of people straining towards the forbidden barrier. The reply still chills with its implications of a possible alternative scenario on this historic day.

“We are soldiers and we take orders – but we have no orders,” the major told him. “What we can do is start shooting. We can get the first 100 people but we are just 30 men and they are 6,000. What do you think the rest will do to us?”

“The whole thing could have turned into World War III, I still don’t know why it didn’t,” says Pastor, 65.

Chain reaction and a blunder

Across Berlin events had been set in motion that could not be reversed without  a full-scale, blood-swamped military crackdown.

But for all the confused spontaneity of the day, this was the culmination of months of developments in East Germany and the wider Eastern Bloc.

Slackening of border controls in some Communist states and ever-larger domestic protests in the GDR paved the way for the reconnection of a country that was formally split in 1949 and physically partitioned since August 1961.

The final nudge came with a premature announcement by authorities in East Berlin a few hours before the Wall was breached.

The GDR government wanted to defuse tensions by relaxing the system of emigration to West Germany and allowing 30-day travel visas. It was not intended to be an uncontrolled opening of the border and did not apply to citizens wanting to visit the West as tourists.

But at a chaotic press conference in East Berlin on November 9th, GDR Politburo member Günter Schabowski said the changes would take effect “to my knowledge … immediately”.

“When I read that out, they [security officials] still didn’t know anything about that at the border,” Schabowski said in a later interview.

Within a few hours hordes of people had gathered at the Wall demanding to be let through. Fearing a stampede, the guards opened the gates.

Mike Trobridge, a British student in Berlin on a university exchange, was at a concert near Potsdamer Platz when the singer shouted “Die Mauer ist weg!”, “the Wall is gone”.

“We left and went straight to the Brandenburg Gate,” said Trobridge, 45, recalling how the East German guards initially controlled the situation using water cannons but then stood back at the critical moment.

“Although it was pretty exciting, I didn’t fully appreciate the full significance. If I had, I’d have got down off the Wall on the East Berlin side and gone for a stroll on the wild side. But it seemed to me more like a temporary blip and I was still afraid of the border guards.”

A festival

Thousands of people streamed into West Berlin, danced, drank, hugged, stood on the Wall and began assaulting it with hammers, pickaxes and drills.

“It’s like witnessing an enormous fair,” German Chancellor Helmut Kohl gushed about the events in a phone conversation with US President George H. Bush on Nov. 10. “It has the atmosphere of a festival.”

The jubilant scenes were broadcast worldwide and dominated the front pages under headlines like “Revellers rush on hated gates” (The Guardian).

East German newspapers had little to say about it, though, with Berliner Zeitung and Neue Zeit running just small items about “new travel regulations”.

Neues Deutschland, the official Communist Party mouthpiece, buried the story beneath articles about December’s Fourth Communist Party Conference and “Information on the Policy of Renewal and the Party’s New Thinking”.

The recently appointed new East German leadership under Egon Krenz tried to avert the full unravelling of the system with promises of  more freedom, fair elections and a relaxed travel regime. But it was too little too late.

In December, the East German parliament revoked the leading role of the East German Communist Party (SED), and German reunification came a year later on October 3, 1990.

Meanwhile, after serving as a symbol of repression for almost three decades, the Berlin Wall took the brunt of the outpouring.

As thousands of people headed to Berlin from around the world to be part of history, American Keara Giannotti arrived a week after the Mauerfall from southern Germany to get her piece of the action – and the Wall.

“I know I was just a tourist and a trophy hunter, but I was also 19, rebellious, and really inspired to want to be a part of tearing down that  wall myself, especially after walking past memorials for the people who had been killed trying to get over the border.

“So we bought our hammers, which took some doing since many stores had sold out, and we chiselled away.  You could hear people hammering  everywhere!”

Like an army of ants, the trophy hunters and residents feverishly removed chunks and whole sections until the Wall, which quickly became a tangible indication of the GDR’s survival prospects.    

“You couldn’t demolish it like that if you planned,” said Pastor of the damage to the 156-km barrier of concrete, fencing and wire.

“In three days it was a mess, you couldn’t take a photograph of it as used to be anywhere. It was over.”

By Nick Allen

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EXPLAINED: Berlin’s latest Covid rules

In response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, the Berlin Senate has introduced stricter rules, which came into force on Saturday, November 27th. Here's what you need to know.

A sign in front of a waxing studio in Berlin indicates the rule of the 2G system
A sign in front of a waxing studio indicates the rule of the 2G system with access only for fully vaccinated people and those who can show proof of recovery from Covid-19 as restrictions tighten in Berlin. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The Senate agreed on the tougher restrictions on Tuesday, November 23rd with the goal of reducing contacts and mobility, according to State Secretary of Health Martin Matz (SPD).

He explained after the meeting that these measures should slow the increase in Covid-19 infection rates, which was important as “the situation had, unfortunately, deteriorated over the past weeks”, according to media reports.

READ ALSO: Tougher Covid measures needed to stop 100,000 more deaths, warns top German virologist

Essentially, the new rules exclude from much of public life anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll find more details of how different sectors are affected below.

If you haven’t been vaccinated or recovered (2G – geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)) from Covid-19, then you can only go into shops for essential supplies, i.e. food shopping in supermarkets or to drugstores and pharmacies.

Many – but not all – of the rules for shopping are the same as those passed in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg in order to avoid promoting ‘shopping tourism’ with different restrictions in different states.

2G applies here, too, as well as the requirement to wear a mask with most places now no longer accepting a negative test for entry. Only minors are exempt from this requirement.

Sport, culture, clubs
Indoor sports halls will off-limits to anyone who hasn’t  been vaccinated or can’t show proof of recovery from Covid-19. 2G is also in force for cultural events, such as plays and concerts, where there’s also a requirement to wear a mask. 

In places where mask-wearing isn’t possible, such as dance clubs, then a negative test and social distancing are required (capacity is capped at 50 percent of the maximum).

Restaurants, bars, pubs (indoors)
You have to wear a mask in all of these places when you come in, leave or move around. You can only take your mask off while you’re sat down. 2G rules also apply here.

Hotels and other types of accommodation 
Restrictions are tougher here, too, with 2G now in force. This means that unvaccinated people can no longer get a room, even if they have a negative test.

For close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, it’s up to the service providers themselves to decide whether they require customers to wear masks or a negative test.

Football matches and other large-scale events
Rules have changed here, too. From December 1st, capacity will be limited to 5,000 people plus 50 percent of the total potential stadium or arena capacity. And only those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will be allowed in. Masks are also compulsory.

For the Olympic Stadium, this means capacity will be capped at 42,000 spectators and 16,000 for the Alte Försterei stadium. 

3G rules – ie vaccinated, recovered or a negative test – still apply on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses in Berlin. It was not possible to tighten restrictions, Matz said, as the regulations were issued at national level.

According to the German Act on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, people have to wear a surgical mask or an FFP2 mask  on public transport.

Christmas markets
The Senate currently has no plans to cancel the capital’s Christmas markets, some of which have been open since Monday. 

According to Matz, 2G rules apply and wearing a mask is compulsory.

Schools and day-care
Pupils will still have to take Covid tests three times a week and, in classes where there are at least two children who test positive in the rapid antigen tests, then tests should be carried out daily for a week.  

Unlike in Brandenburg, there are currently no plans to move away from face-to-face teaching. The child-friendly ‘lollipop’ Covid tests will be made compulsory in day-care centres and parents will be required to confirm that the tests have been carried out. Day-care staff have to document the results.

What about vaccination centres?
Berlin wants to expand these and set up new ones, according to Matz. A new vaccination centre should open in the Ring centre at the end of the week and 50 soldiers from the German army have been helping at the vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre each day since last week.

The capacity in the new vaccination centre in the Lindencenter in Lichtenberg is expected to be doubled. There are also additional vaccination appointments so that people can get their jabs more quickly. Currently, all appointments are fully booked well into the new year.