Page last updated at 00:16 GMT, Monday, 9 November 2009

The night the Berlin Wall fell


Brian Hanrahan looks back on the 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall

Brian Hanrahan

When the East German government made its first confused announcement about permitting free travel to the West, the BBC's Brian Hanrahan in East Berlin set off to find out what was happening. Here is his description of the night the Berlin Wall came down.

At first East Berlin's wide cobbled streets were their usual empty selves.

But after a few miles, we were caught up in a vortex of hurrying people. By car, foot and on bicycles they were rushing forward.

Soon the street was so jammed we abandoned our car on the roadside and ran the last half mile with everybody else.

We arrived just in time to see the barrier swing up, and the gates open.

It is the curse of authoritarian regimes that at the moment they reform themselves and relax their grip they are at their most vulnerable - the crowd around us sensed it and was no longer afraid
BBC Europe editor, Gavin Hewitt

The excited crowd surged through - brushing aside the guards in green uniform who for years had threatened to shoot down anyone trying to cross to the West. But not tonight.

Nobody knew who would be in charge tomorrow, and the guards were not about to challenge the authority of the tens of thousands out in the streets.

One family had suitcases and children. They were getting away while the going was good. Others - celebratory and curious - were going as tourists to see a world long denied them.

Waiting for them were free buses to the Kurfurstendamm - West Berlin's main boulevard - and even families searching for, and sometimes finding, relatives who had been separated for decades.

'Death strip'

After watching the tears and the hugs, and sampling the champagne that was being freely poured, we slipped back into the East and went to the Brandenburg Gate.

Berliners cross between East and West Germany - First broadcast 10 November 1989

Even at this stage it was still and isolated, with a ring of armed guards surrounding it, as though they feared the people would pick it up and carry it away.

But around me more and more East Berliners were gathering and looking across what was known as the death strip - the open ground in front of the Gate where guards could fire at anyone who approached.

And then spontaneously - emboldened by group courage - everyone started walking forward.

We went slowly at first while the guards backed away behind the Gate. Then as they slipped like ghosts into the darkness, we rushed forward and clambered up onto the wall itself.

The wall here was about 2m tall, with a flat surface on top.

Somehow we all scrambled up and crowded together like revellers on a tiny dance floor.

A day before, we would have been shot for being here - now people were knocking off pieces to take home as a souvenir of an unforgettable night.

For me it was that rare occasion when a story was unqualified good news.

After years watching the way communism was practised, I felt no need to mourn its collapse. Whatever came next had to be better.

Just as I finished describing the scene to the camera, I heard somebody behind me say: "I want to be an astronaut."

And why not - it was the night when dreams were coming true.

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