November 4, 2009 / 2:12 PM / 8 years ago

WITNESS: Strangers united in a euphoric moment

Douglas Hamilton was senior correspondent in France when he was sent to East Berlin in November 1989 on assignment since he is a German speaker with experience in then-West Germany. He is currently a correspondent in Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

By Douglas Hamilton

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Everyone had wanted it but no-one had predicted it, and when it happened no one could quite believe it.

East Germany had stunned itself and the world by suddenly letting its people cross the Wall to the West.

There was great shock, then great joy that night. The mood was electric, then ecstatic, then something more.

It became one of those unique moments of what I can only call mutual human recognition, when complete strangers could embrace each other in the chaotic, jostling, delirious crowds.

It was impossible to resist the euphoria and carry on coolly as the objective reporter. The initial sense of utter disbelief, followed by the realization of hope suddenly triumphant, was too powerful. Everyone was swept along.

East Berliners came home intoxicated that night, although they hadn’t been drinking. Many clutched bunches of bananas, and I remember being told these were rare and expensive in the East, and probably all they could afford to fetch from West Berlin.

It wasn’t until later that I realized their precious bananas were a totem of proof, in case it all turned out to be a dream.

A border guard at Checkpoint Charlie, which already looked just a little less scary, was sure it was all “some mistake.”

A taxi driver in a ancient Soviet-made Volga who drove me to the West kept saying: “I can’t believe I‘m really doing this.”

In the West they lined the streets 10 deep cheering and shouting “You’ve done it! You’ve done it!” as East Berliners streamed in.

For a generation, East Germans had been assured that the West was an evil cesspit of greed and destitution.

But the reality looked very different. “Thinking of how hard we’d worked all these years and how things weren’t so bad,” said one East Berlin woman, “I was dismayed to see capitalism is so far ahead.”

In retrospect, it is not hard to trace what forces drove the decision to open the Wall. But on the night it was a wonderful mystery -- as if stony communist hearts had inexplicably melted and joined the rest of the human race, to do what made sense.

It was thrilling, humbling and uplifting to be there. The consequences were impossible to grasp all at once. It took a day, maybe more, just to realize that a whole new future had opened up, not just for Germany but for Europe and beyond.

The magic did not last too long, of course -- mass empathy cannot go on indefinitely. A few weeks later I covered the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia in a jubilant, snowy Prague, and later the revolution in Romania, where joy at the toppling of Nicolae Ceausescu was streaked with dark revenge.

But the fall of the Wall and the end of Germany’s division was the greatest catharsis I had ever witnessed.

Now I work in Jerusalem, in another place scarred by fences and fortifications, by deep mistrust and by a forbidding wall, which is even taller than Berlin‘s. No one expects it to come down any time soon. But I hope it does not stand for 28 years.

Editing by Sonya Hepinstall

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