“Things would have been very different if it weren’t for that very messy human mistake.”
Between 1988 and 1992, Michael Meyer was Newsweek’s bureau chief for Germany. He wrote more than 20 cover stories on the break-up of communist Europe and German unification, and witnessed first-hand the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989.
Filing everything he saw in East Berlin that fateful night from the InterContinental Hotel, Meyer, now based in Kenya as the Founding Dean at Aga Khan University, School of Media and Communications, will be retracing his steps when he returns to take part in ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN in December.
On the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Meyer spoke with OEB Editor Annika Burgess to share his riveting account of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the end of the Cold War.
“There were two worlds at the beginning of the evening and by the end there was one,” says Meyer, whose influential book ‘The Year That Changed the World: The Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall,’ rewrote the conventional understanding of how the Cold War came to an end.
On November 8th, 1989, Meyer witnessed a convertible crossing into West Germany from Czechoslovakia with two “smart-looking East German kids” in the front and a dog and a surf board in the back seat and realised “something is really changing.”
In his own words, this is what he saw the following day:
I got from West Berlin into the East at about six thirty with 45 minutes to spare. I just made this press conference by Günter Schabowski – he was announcing new measures at the time. Having a press conference in East Germany was remarkable in itself.
Someone asked him whether East Germans would be allowed to travel, because this was a big demand. People were marching in Leipzig and Dresden all looking to travel to the West – maybe not move there but just to see the normal life.
He shuffled through some papers and said: “Well, we have plans in the works and they will take effect soon.”
Then, a guy named Daniel Johnson, a British journalist, asked “Well, when does this take effect?”
The guy shuffled through his papers and said: “au, sofort,” which means ‘immediately’.
This was a huge mistake!
The next day the East German Government was going to allow travel through visas, passport stamps and orderly lines of East Germans visiting the West. But Günter Schabowski, the press officer, blew it!
So, everybody ran to the Wall. Thousands of people began climbing over it; confronting troops. Chaos ensued and there was no way of putting the cork back in the bottle.
We left the press conference and picked up some hitch-hikers, which was illegal in East Germany. There were hundreds of thousands of kids trying to make their way towards the Wall. And, after about three hours, when the crowds began to build at Checkpoint Charlie and other crossing points the authorities finally gave way.
I was at Checkpoint Charlie and I was watching the captain of the border guard there – he just shrugged his shoulders. He was calling around in the glass booth, trying to call out to other soldiers and was getting nothing. So, finally he just gestured with his hands; he walked out of his glass booth and looked at the crowd and he shrugged his shoulders and said “aus, aus!” The gates swung open and the crowds surged forward into West Berlin and history was written.
Imagine how different it would have been if these regulations had been brought into force the next day and East Germans would have lined up and gotten their passports stamped? The Wall wouldn’t have fallen, only opened up. There would have been two Germanys, there wouldn’t have been a collapse; things would have been very different if it weren’t for that very messy human mistake.
That’s the beauty. The revolution – that was the symbol of the total, utter humanity. What could be more human than a mistake like that?
I essentially climbed the Wall with people surging out at midnight and made my way through the thousands of celebrates in the streets of West Berlin – East Germans were looking through the window; window shopping. They were marvelling at things they had never seen before except for in one pocket of East Germany, near Dresden, where they could see Western TV. So, this was a miracle to them.
I made my way through these crowds to the InterContinental where other correspondents were covering the events and I filed everything I had seen in East Berlin from the Hotel, and then I went out into the all-night party that was the aftermath of the fall of the wall. That party went on for days.
Twenty five years later, Germans and much of the rest of the world were celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall – the symbol of the division of East and West; Communist and non-Communist; free and un-free.
Your conference [ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN] is about the absence of walls and the absence of barriers. If anything, it symbolises the new world – the post-Cold War world. It is a conference dedicated to communication that bridges all divides.
Most people are trying to erect walls; whether tribes in Kenya or Chinese authorities in Beijing that are trying to control Internet search engines like Google. But ICT and distance learning, all of the topics that are an issue at your conference are there because of technology, and technology breaks down all barriers between people and cultures. It’s an inspiring moment and it couldn’t be better timed, nor could it be better placed in Berlin.
Michael Meyer will be chairing the session ‘Addressing Inequality: Is ICT a Silver Bullet?’ at ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN on Friday, December 5th.