A wall falls in Berlin, and beyond

BERLIN, Germany — The November day 20 years ago dawned chilly and gray. For J.D. Bindenagel it would turn out to be a day unlike any other.

Twenty years ago, the Cold War neatly bisected the world into two nuclear-armed camps. Berlin, with its brooding wall, was the front line, and Bindenagel, as deputy U.S. ambassador to East Germany, was accustomed to the protocols of operating behind enemy lines.

The East German secret police tapped his phone and kept him and his family under close surveillance. “Back then, we were living in the heart of the evil empire,” he joked.

On Nov. 9, 1989, the tension was palpable. Poland and Hungary had already spun out of the Soviet orbit. Peaceful demonstrations in the East German cities of Leipzig and Dresden were growing larger and more vociferous. Thousands of East Germans were fleeing to the West via the newly opened border between Hungary and Austria.

Would the East German government crack down? Would the Soviets?

Berlin Wall anniversary

Those questions hung in the air at a reception late that afternoon hosted by the Aspen Institute Berlin. One of the attendees was Wolfgang Vogel, the famous East German spy-swap lawyer who often served as a contact point between the two Germanys. Afterward, Bindenagel offered to give Vogel a lift to his car, eager for the opportunity to glean whatever information the East German insider might be willing to share about the deepening crisis.

Vogel told him that the East German government was planning to buy time by easing travel restrictions on its citizens. An announcement was expected in a few days.

Bindenagel rushed back to the embassy to share his hot piece of news. This was about 7:30 in the evening, but Vogel’s revelation had already been overtaken by events.

Just a few minutes earlier, Gunter Schabowski, the East German government spokesman, stunned the world by announcing that his countrymen were now free to travel to the West. When Schabowski  was asked when the changes would go into effect, the German ad-libbed. “Immediately,” he said.

A small crowd of East Germans gathered at Checkpoint Charlie, but they were blocked by police who insisted that exit visas were still required.

On his way home that evening, Bindenagel noticed a larger crowd beginning to build at the Bornholmerstrasse checkpoint near his home in the Pankow district. This particular crossing consisted of a bridge that straddled the S-Bahn tracks. The classic Cold War scene was illuminated by the lights of a television crew on the West Berlin side.

The crowd was good-natured, but East German border guards had shoot-to-kill orders.

“I’m thinking this isn’t good, but whatever it is, it’s going to be on television,” said Bindenagel, who rushed through the last blocks home and turned on the television.

Unbeknown to the Americans, the shoot-to-kill orders had been suspended a few weeks earlier, and with no new instructions from the rapidly collapsing East German government, the befuddled border guards decided to let people through. The wall was breached. Scenes of jubilation were flashed around the world.

Among those in the happy mob at the Bornholmerstasse crossing was an earnest young university physicist named Angela Merkel. She was on her way home from an evening out with friends, and — somewhat uncharacteristically — got caught up in the euphoria of the moment and went across the border.

Merkel, of course, would later become Germany’s first female chancellor, and the first from the former East Germany to hold the job.

In an interview with journalists last week, Merkel described the dramatic demise of the Cold War’s most potent symbol as a stroke of good fortune. But she also noted that it was a shattering experience for one generation of East Germans who endured the worst of the communist system but were too old to reap the benefits of a reunited Germany.

These days in Berlin, you have to look hard to find traces of the wall. Near the former Bornholmerstrasse Checkpoint, there are some significant stretches still standing — covered with graffiti, none of it political. The nearby barracks that housed East German border guards have been razed. The area is now a parking lot.

A memorial plaque on the bridge says that this is where the wall was first breached. The plaque is covered with graffiti. The post-war apartment blocks in Pankow still retain a whiff of their former East German shoddiness, but you can no longer find any Trabants parked on the streets.

On Monday, Germany and the rest of the Western alliance will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall. Daniel Barenboim and Bon Jovi will perform at the Brandenburg Gate. Merkel, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, among others, will speak. A row of eight-foot high dominoes has been set up along the path of the now vanished wall. They will be toppled at the appropriate moment.

Much has been written about the significance and symbolism of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Cold War was brought to a non-nuclear conclusion. Germany is whole and peaceful. And after a rocky start, the eastern half of Germany has made significant strides toward catching up with the western half.

But what is perhaps most significant about the events of Nov. 9, 1989, is that after Europe’s most fiercely guarded border collapsed, most of the other national borders of Europe also became obsolete.

Two days after the wall fell, Bindenagel and his family joined the swelling ranks of the delighted Berliners who went back and forth between the two halves of their city. After crossing to the West, Bindenagel said that his return to the East felt like entering a “twilight zone.”

Without the Berlin Wall, the government of East Germany no longer had any purpose and it quickly faded to oblivion. That was to be expected.

Then within the next two decades, the borders between Germany and Poland and Germany and France also faded — an astonishing accomplishment given the brutal history of the 20th century. In today’s European Union you can drive from Lisbon to Lublin without anyone asking to see your passport.

But Europe still has it walls. The East German government erected the Berlin Wall to keep its own citizens from getting out. The EU has erected a discreet but extremely effective wall along its eastern frontier to keep non-citizens from getting in.

This new wall doesn’t have watchtowers or electrified fences or guards with shoot-to-kill orders. It’s a “smart” wall with electronic sensors and other high-tech gadgetry designed to catch trespassers.

It may lack the in-your-face symbolic punch of the Berlin Wall, but as far as walls go, it does the job.