BOSTON — During half a century in the news trade there have been only two unalloyed good news stories that I covered. One was Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in 1977, and the other was the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, now coming upon its 20th anniversary.
I arrived in Warsaw from Moscow on Nov. 9, 1989 to interview a man who had been described to me as Poland’s last Stalinist, party spokesman Jan Bisztyga. To my astonishment he pulled out a bottle of whisky from the office safe and, with a dismissive wave at the communist tomes in the bookcase behind him, he proceeded to demolish the faith he had served for so many years.
It was 15 years too late to save communism, he said. The modern world had simply passed it by. “Ninety percent of all the inventions since the dawn of civilization were invented in the last 35 years,” he said, “and most of them invented in the West."
He spoke of the wasteful and destructive emphasis on class warfare over the years. Pressure to change exploded first in Poland for historic reasons, he said, but pressure was building now in the Soviet Union, in Hungry, now in East Germany, and Czechoslovakia will be next, he said.
“There is no future to the kind of bureaucratic socialism I am representing now,” he said, “and we will dissolve it in January. You have won.”
I hurried back to my hotel to file what I thought was a major scoop, only to turn on the BBC and learn that the Wall was coming down in Berlin — an event not even the gloomy Bisztyga had expected. My interview had been eclipsed by a bigger story, so I hurried on to Berlin to find the biggest and most uproarious block party in Europe in full swing.
East Berliners were dancing on the wall, and hacking holes in our generation’s most potent symbol of repression. They were coming over to be hugged by West Berliners, and alchohol flowed freely far into the night.
Before the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin’s enduring symbol, there were three tall towers and bright lights illuminating the wall . On top of each tower sat the great American media moguls of their day: Tom Brokaw of NBC, Peter Jennings of ABC and Dan Rather of CBS. West Berliners came out to gawk at the towers and the humming trucks at their base — a sight no one saw on TV back in America because the cameras were atop the towers pointed east.
I joined the Boston Globe’s Tom Palmer, whose story this was, and his able interpreter, Christian Karl, now a senior journalist at Newsweek. Each evening for dinner we would join other journalists at the Paris Bar, a famous saloon in West Berlin with a long history of its own.
As the East Berliners flowed West, we could pass into the East zone, where you left the gaudy vulgarity of West Berlin to enter a world frozen in 1945, it seemed, with the pale November sun filtering though the coal smoke and imperial buildings still pockmarked by bullets fired 44 years before. But instead of the down-trodden proletariat there was joy everywhere.
The reunification that was to come was not on everyone’s lips. People I talked to said that everyone wanted a Mercedes, but not all were willing to give up free education, free health care and guaranteed employment. Even as the East Berliners flocked to see West Berlin and buy things that they never saw in the East — they were given some West German money as they came over — a straw poll indicated that most were not in favor of German reunification. That was something far in the future, people thought.
Most East Berliners climbed back into the East and went home after the initial weekend blast, and showed up for work the next day. East German authorities thought that things would calm down after the initial thrill of the wall’s opening, and they hoped for a “middle way” between communism and capitalism. The old communists had resigned, and many in the new East German government were Lutheran pastors and pacifists. I remember thinking at the time that there would be no third way, that either the Soviet Union would grab the wandering East Germans back, or West Germany would simply take over — which it did.
There was pressure on President George H.W. Bush to make his own “Ich bin ein Berliner” moment, as Jack Kennedy had done, but I wrote at the time that “Bush is right to act cautiously and avoid confrontational or triumphal rhetoric that could only cause harm now that things are going our way.” I think now, 20 years later, that George Bush the elder deserves a great deal of credit for how he handled the wall’s end, and the later reunification, which his allies in Europe at first opposed.
The quintessential moment for me was related by Christian Karl, who visited a little hardware store near the wall. East Berliners were buying up everything in the shop, and Karl asked the owner if he were not worried about the closing hours that were the law in West Berlin. The store keeper said, in his unmistakable Berlin accent, “Hey, the wall’s open, I’m open.”
The world moved on and other bad news stories flooded in during the years to come. But for those who were there in those first glorious days when Soviet power was crumbling and the wall was coming down it was like being in Paris for the French Revolution exactly 200 years before, but without the bloodshed. Where that revolution had been a destruction, this was a restoration and a defeat of tyranny that East Germans had not seen since before Hitler came to power.