The German Revolution

Once upon a time, and a very bad time it was, there was a famous platform in West Berlin where distinguished visitors would be taken to stare at the Wall. American presidents from Kennedy to Reagan stood on that platform looking out over the no man’s land between two concrete walls. They were told that this, the Potsdamer Platz, had once been Berlin’s busiest square, its Piccadilly Circus. Their hosts pointed out a grassy mound in the middle of no man’s land: the remains of Hitler’s bunker. Armed guards watched impassively from the other side, or rode up and down the death strip on their army motorbikes. It was the image of the cold war.

On the morning of Sunday, November 12, I walked through the wall and across that no man’s land with a crowd of East Berliners, a watchtower to our left, Hitler’s bunker to our right. Bewildered border guards waved us through. (As recently as February their colleagues shot dead a man trying to escape.) On the far side, vertical segments of the wall stood at ease wherever the crane had dumped them, their multicolored graffiti facing east for the first time. A crowd of West Berliners applauded as we came through, and a man handed out free city plans. Then I turned around and walked back again, past more bewildered border guards and customs officers. Ahead of me I noticed a tall man in an unfamiliar green uniform. It was General Haddock, the US commandant in Berlin.

By nightfall, West Berlin workers had dismantled the famous platform, like an unneeded stage prop. Europe’s Mousetrap had ended its twenty-eight-year run. Clear the stage for another show.

Everyone has seen the pictures of joyful celebration in West Berlin, the vast crowds stopping the traffic on the Kurfürstendamm, Sekt corks popping, perfect strangers tearfully embracing—the greatest street party in the history of the world. Yes, it was like that. But it was not only like that, nor was that, for me, the most moving part. Most of the estimated two million East Germans who flooded into West Berlin over the weekend just walked the streets in quiet family groups, often with small children in strollers. They queued up at a bank to collect the DM100 “greeting money” (about $55) which has long been offered to visiting East Germans by the West German government, and then they went, very cautiously, shopping. Generally they bought one or two small items, perhaps some fresh fruit, a Western newspaper, and toys for the children. Then, clasping their shopping bags, they walked quietly back through the Wall, through the gray, deserted streets of East Berlin, home.

It is very difficult to describe the quality of this experience because what they actually did was so stunningly ordinary. In effect, they just took a bus from Hackney or Dagenham to Piccadilly Circus, and went shopping in the West End. Berliners walked the streets of Berlin. What could be …

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