November 4, 2009 / 2:12 PM / 9 years ago

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

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.

Marchers plastered thousands of posters on grim state buildings. A sea of colorful placards, a brass band on a wagon and cheers from people hanging out of apartment windows conjured up a festive air, free of fear for the first time.

Two stalwarts of the Communist elite, former spymaster Markus Wolf and East Berlin party chief Guenter Schabowski, tried to address the throng but met a crescendo of scorn. “Too late, too late,” people chanted.

For the regime, the train had left the station. One placard said it all: “The people lead, the Party limps behind.”

On November 9, I was sent to Warsaw to cover the start of a trip of post-war reconciliation to Poland by West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. After nightfall, the Wall gave way, catching Kohl and the world by surprise.

At a wild middle-of-the-night news conference in Warsaw, the hack pack clamored for Kohl to break off his visit to return to Berlin — and take them with him to report a much bigger story.

He returned the next day to bask in the first glow of German reunification, to be consummated 11 months later.

To my chagrin, I was asked to stay on in Warsaw to await the resumption of Kohl’s visit. When I returned to Berlin on November 14, it was a city transformed with crowds flowing into West Berlin via new openings in the Wall.

Over the coming weeks, as corrupt Communist titans fell like dominoes in the democratic whirlwind, the keynote chorus from the streets changed tellingly from “Wir sind das Volk” (we are the people) to “Wir sind ein Volk” (we are one people).

That is, one Germany. I was witnessing that rarest of news events — a revolution without a shot being fired.

One long weekend the next summer, in East Germany’s dying days, I cycled the entire 160-km (100-mile) length of the Wall, along the paved “death strip” where would-be escapees were once shot.

I weaved through gaps in and out of east and west Berlin neighborhoods, and the time when I had waited at checkpoints with passport and visa to make the same little trips already seemed long a thing of the past.

Editing by Sonya Hepinstall

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