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A wall falls in Berlin, and beyond

But a less in-your-face wall still stands, farther east.

A long exposure picture shows people walking next to domino pieces near the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin Nov. 8, 2009. The mile-long representation of the Berlin Wall will stand for two days along its original route in front of the Brandenburg Gate to the Potsdamer Platz, then will be toppled at the end of a gala ceremony as a symbolic tribute to the collapse of the Wall. (Pawel Kopczynski/Reuters)

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.