The night the Wall fell down

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 symbolized the end of communism across Eastern Europe.

David W. Fitzpatrick
CNN Special Investigations Unit

There’s a lot to read and a lot to see today about the events 20 years ago on Nov. 9, 1989 when East Germany (technically a splendid oxymoron called the German Democratic Republic) took no action and the infamous Berlin Wall was reduced to a footnote of history.

I was there for those tumultuous and joyous events as a producer for the CBS Evening News and above all else, the one thing that sticks in my mind is not the tremendous geo-political fallout, but rather the voices and faces of the people of both East and West Berlin.

When I arrived in Berlin after an overnight flight from New York and then on the only Western airline allowed into West Berlin (remember Pan American World Airways?), enormous crowds had already started to build near the Wall and the adjacent Brandenburg Gate.

One of the first people I recognized — and he, being a seasoned politician enjoyed the recognition — was the mayor of West Berlin, Willy Brandt. His long time symbol was a red rose that he always wore in lapel of his suit. He was beaming as we approached with our camera crew and in perfect English began to give us an interview drenched in politics and logic, but mostly void of emotion.


But the huge crowds around him began almost immediately to cheer. They didn’t hear what he said, of course, but the presence of a Western camera crew and soon thereafter three or four other camera crews meant something big was about to happen.

All throughout the day and into the early evening, there was tremendous anticipation both in the crowd and, of course, in the growing cordon of Western journalists. We could see the East Germans had placed powerful water hoses on top of the extended ladders of fire trucks and wondered whether those hoses would be trained on Germans who were by then taking to the Wall with sledge hammers, picks, whatever they could muster.

As night fell and the reality emerged that no violence would take place and that in fact the Wall would in fact be torn down, the crowd began to sing and dance and cry.

In the darkness, West German authorities along with East German bureaucrats had decided that the subway that had linked Berlin for decades but had been blocked by the Wall, would be open. There would be no checkpoints. Each East Berliner who could make his or her way to the West would be given 50 German marks — not an inconsiderable sum in those days.

East Berliners streamed through the dark streets, many of them holding lighted candles. As far as I could see, there were candles in the distance. And they sang. Sang loudly as I recall. They were singing, many of them, the anthem of the American civil rights struggle of the 1960s — “We Shall Overcome.”

Picture it in your mind. Candles. Huge crowds coursing through the streets. And an American song on their lips. It was as moving a moment as I had experienced covering the disasters and wars of the world.

The next morning all was more or less peaceful. There had been only a handful of arrests among the tens of thousands who had surged across the old dividing line between East and West. And with their 50 marks, what had most East Germans purchased? Not alcohol, although there certainly was a lot of that around. As dawn broke, you could not find a piece of chocolate or any fresh fruit throughout the whole city of West Berlin.



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