The falling of the wall
Fredonia man remembers historic events as Army officer in divided Berlin
Editor’s note: On Nov. 9, 1989 the spokesman for East Berlin’s Communist Party announced that citizens of the German Democratic Republic were free to cross the country’s borders. Below is an account by Fredonia native Christof Morrisey, who was there 30 years go and lives in Germany today.
BERLIN — On some workdays I walk across the street from the school where I teach to get a bowl of soup at the bakery on the corner or a baguette sandwich at the French bistro farther down the block. It seems pretty unremarkable: walking across the street to have lunch, as thousands of working people do every day.
When I first arrived in Berlin over 30 years ago, however, it would have seemed unthinkable to ever do such an ordinary thing at this location. My school is in what was then West Berlin, while the bakery and bistro are on the territory of the former East Berlin. (All three buildings were actually built later, in the 1990s and early 2000s). The street I cross to get lunch, Zimmerstrasse, was once the armed border between the two halves of the divided city.
Today, cars, bicycles, and e-scooters zipping down the pavement are the biggest dangers to pedestrians. In 1989, however, Zimmerstrasse was a ‘death strip’ of carefully raked dirt, barbed wire and ‘Czech hedgehog’ anti-tank obstacles, and clear fields of fire for East German border guards armed with AK-47 assault rifles.
Twelve-foot-high whitewashed concrete walls blocked off both the inside and the outside of the boundary. Any East Germans who tried to escape to the West could expect to be mercilessly shot with live ammunition. If they were caught alive, they faced lengthy prison sentences for trying to ‘flee the republic.’
For West Berliners, the border was usually less dangerous, but they would have been stopped in their tracks at by the sheer concrete barrier.
Just one block away, Checkpoint Charlie was one of the few crossing points in the 4,300-mile ‘Iron Curtain’ that for more than 40 years divided Europe — and the world — into two hostile ideological blocs: the free, capitalist West and the communist East.
Today, Checkpoint Charlie is overrun with tourists, while the street it’s on — Friedrichstrasse — is lined with souvenir shops and American fast food restaurants. Visitors from around the world take selfies with actors in shabby surplus uniforms posing (not very convincingly) as Cold War-era US Army MPs in front of a whitewashed replica border post and sandbags. There’s little hint of the tension that once surrounded this place, where soldiers, diplomats and spies prepared to travel from their own ‘safe’ world to another, ‘hostile’ one.
In West Berlin as a young army lieutenant
I arrived in West Berlin in August 1988, on a Pan Am flight from JFK Airport, then picked up and transported with all my bags — in a Mini Cooper! — straight to my unit headquarters at McNair Barracks in a suburban part of the city. I was a ‘butter bar’ second lieutenant assigned to the 6th Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, one of four combat battalions of the U.S. Army Berlin Brigade.
At the end of World War II, defeated Germany and its capital Berlin were each divided into four zones occupied by the victorious Allied powers. Throughout the more than 40 years of Cold War that followed, America and our British and French allies kept small but strong contingents of military forces in West Berlin to demonstrate political resolve and defend our half of the city against communist aggression. The U.S. Army Berlin Brigade’s was prepared to defend West Berlin’s inner perimeter and we spent countless days each year practicing urban warfare in our ‘Doughboy City’ training area.
1989: Historic year of monumental change
The year 1989 saw the Cold War order in Central Europe crumble step-by-step in a series of breathtaking events, each one of which had been unimaginable only weeks before they happened. The peaceful revolution began in February with ’round table’ negotiations in Poland between the Communist government and the Solidarity freedom movement led by Lech Walesa.
In June, free elections led to a landslide win for Solidarity and a democratic Polish government, the first in Eastern Europe since the late 1940s. I remember buying a paper outside the subway stop near the KaDeWe department store one sunny morning, barely able to believe that Solidarity was going to govern a previously communist state. Only a few years before, people back home in Dunkirk-Fredonia had put candles in the windows of their homes to show their support for the beleaguered Polish liberation movement.
The incredible changes continued that summer. In September, communist but relatively liberal Hungary cut the barbed wire at its border with Austria. As a result, East Germans, who were only permitted to vacation in other Eastern Bloc countries like Hungary, began to escape by the thousands across this open border to the West.
By October, peaceful demonstrations that were growing larger week by week in East Germany’s major cities had rocked the communist regime in that country, and brought in supposedly reform-minded leaders. Having been locked in for decades, ordinary East Germans longed to travel outside the handful of authorized Eastern Bloc destinations, especially of course to West Germany, where many had relatives. The new leaders nervously considered how to liberalize the policy without dissolving their state.
Throughout all these hopeful but tense developments, the elephant in the room was the huge Soviet Army. Nearly 45 years after World War II, Moscow still held down all of Eastern Europe, with nearly half a million troops stationed on the territory of East Germany alone. But reformist Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev had been sending clear signals that the old ‘Brezhnev doctrine’ of using military force to suppress liberalization efforts in the satellite states was over.
This was an ominous development for East Berlin’s communist government, which never enjoyed genuine political legitimacy and depended on Moscow for its very existence. In the end, as more and more protesters took to the streets, the Russian tanks stayed inside their barracks.
The Berlin Wall finally falls
On the evening of Thursday, 9 November, Gunther Schabowski, a member of the East German Politburo, briefed international journalists at a press conference. Schabowski was handed a draft memo outlining an official new travel policy but he misstated it by suggesting, incorrectly, that the borders were now open for everyone, effective immediately. Soon after, West German television news anchors were reporting that the East German regime had opened the Wall for its citizens. Reporters were sent to the scene, with excited crowds gathering.
On the other side of the barrier, East Berliners, many of whom regularly watched West German TV, also got the news and began to arrive at the various ‘checkpoints’ in sizable numbers. Not long after, the East German border guard officer in charge at the Bornholmer Strasse crossing — under pressure from the crowd and lacking clear guidance from above — made an on-the-spot decision to open the floodgates.
The rest is history. Jubilant Berliners from opposite sides of the Wall embraced as champagne and tears of joy flowed. Long lines of East German cars were soon pouring into West Berlin (and, somewhat surprisingly, returning east that same night). One temporary visitor was a young East German physicist who supposedly went straight from the sauna to cross into the West at Bornholmer Strasse — 16 years later, Angela Merkel would become chancellor of a united Germany.
At first, I was completely unaware that these world historical events were unfolding only a few miles away from my apartment. I had just returned from the field that afternoon, where the 6th battalion had been preparing for our annual unit evaluation later that winter. At the time, I didn’t even have a TV and so, tired from the field, I went to bed early. We had the next day off to recover from our week of training.
Early on the morning of Friday, Nov. 10, I got a phone call from a buddy in one of the other battalions, Lieutenant Keith Masback. He had been duty officer at McNair Barracks that night. ‘You’re not gonna believe this,’ he told me, ‘but the East Germans are coming over the Wall.’ ‘Who’s coming over,’ I asked, ‘the border guards?’ ‘No, just ordinary people. They opened the Wall!’
Needless to say, that was stunning news. The Berlin Wall was one of the deadliest parts of the Iron Curtain that had divided Europe since the late 1940s. East German border guards charged with keeping their own countrymen locked inside their claustrophobic police state were given shoot-to-kill orders. As recently as February and March 1989, two young East German men had lost their lives in separate attempts to escape to West Berlin. But it turned out that they were the last such casualties. Although none of us would have believed it, the East German communist regime gave up without a fight.
See Monday’s OBSERVER for part II of Christof Morrissey’s reflections.