WITNESS: A march that presaged Wall's fall -- in retrospect

Wed Nov 4, 2009 9:09am EST
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Mark Heinrich was based in Bonn covering East-West German relations from 1987 to 1989 and in Berlin from the autumn of 1989 to 1992. He is now specialist correspondent in Vienna in charge of nuclear non-proliferation coverage.

By Mark Heinrich

VIENNA (Reuters) - Many people remember the night the Berlin Wall came down, but fewer the human tide that was history in the making five days before.

When around one million East Germans swept through East Berlin calling for free elections on November 4, no one sensed the Wall would be overwhelmed by euphoric crowds the following week.

But the march and rally in the vast Alexanderplatz square, an unparalleled challenge to a hardline Communist regime unhinged by the reforms of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, was the immediate harbinger -- at least in retrospect.

While scribbling feverishly in my notepad, I cast nervous glances around, bracing for the green-uniformed "Vopo" People's Police to swoop and rout the rally with flailing truncheons and mass arrests, true to past form.

But they were scarcely to be seen, passive on the sidelines. Plainclothes Stasi state security agents could be picked out here and there -- but they had been eclipsed.

For this was no longer a few thousand isolated dissenters in a sea of cowed conformism. This was a tsunami of popular democracy, overwhelming any notion of state repression.

Still, police helicopters hovered over the Wall and police blocked approaches to the Brandenburg Gate less than a kilometer (mile) away, in case of a mass rush on the border.   Continued...