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The 'astonishing news' of the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago

Thirty years ago, CBC News was there when the Berlin Wall came down.

East Germans stunned to learn they would no longer be prevented from crossing into the West

On Nov. 9, 1989, The National started with a report from East Berlin about the fall of the wall. 3:41

It was a long-awaited day, which arrived without much advance warning.

East German officials announced on Nov. 9, 1989 that citizens would be able to freely cross into West Berlin and, by extension, West Germany.

The Berlin Wall would no longer be an obstacle. Those who wanted to leave would be able to do so.

"For many East Berliners, details of the astonishing news came from police at border crossings," the CBC's Claude Adams said, when reporting for The National on the dramatic events of the day. 

"Those wishing to cross could pick up their visas starting tomorrow."

'They opened the gates'

Hundreds of people left East Berlin the evening it was announced they would not be stopped from crossing the wall to go to the West. (The National/CBC Archives)

But history wasn't going to wait and neither were the people who, more than anything, wanted to cross the border.

"With the growing crush of people, authorities decided not to wait until morning," said Adams. "They opened the gates and hundreds of people pushed their way through."

The East German guards stamped passports without delay, allowing those who wanted into the West safe passage.

The evening the news broke that East Germans could cross into the West unimpeded, the guards at the Berlin Wall stamped passports of citizens without undue delay. (The National/CBC Archives)

The wall before the fall

In August 1961, Stanley Burke reports on the latest developments in Berlin, about a week after East Germany began sealing East Berlin off from the West. 1:01

The wall had sprung up 28 years earlier, as East German officials sought to physically prevent citizens from going into the West.

Barbed wire had been used to create the initial barrier in August 1961, before a more permanent version of the notorious wall was established in the weeks and months that followed.

The CBC's Stanley Burke explained the situation to Newsmagazine viewers, just days after the East German state began sealing itself off from the western part of the city.

"Troops, police tanks, armoured vehicles, once again at the Brandenburg Gate, the symbol of divided Germany," Burke said, as viewers saw images of all of the above.

Defecting East German soldier Hans Conrad Schumann leaps over a barbed wire barricade at the Bernauer Street sector into West Berlin on August 15, 1961. (Peter Leibing/Contipress/Associated Press)

The Newsmagazine footage, which aired on Aug. 20, 1961, showed members of the Deutsche Volkspolizei — the East German police — patrolling their side of the developing barrier.

"A week ago the border was cut off and the Brandenburg Gate was the scene of West German demonstrations, but now the crowds are held well back," Burke said.

"On the eastern side, one boy was arrested for shouting a remark about freedom."

West Berliners at right watch East German construction workers erect a wall across Wildenbruchstrasse and Heidelbergerstrasse in West Berlin in August 1961. (Associated Press)

The wall, beyond being a bleak symbol of the control the East Germany authorities held over the lives of their citizens, was also a place where some the most desperate and defiant of those citizens died.

Scores of people were killed while trying to cross the barrier during the nearly three decades it stood in the middle of Berlin. 

The Nov. 20, 1961 photo shows boards hiding the work as East German troops erect a new concrete wall at the Brandenburg Gate, marking the East-West border in Berlin. (The Associated Press)

Schabowski and the surprise news

In this Nov. 9, 1989 file photo East German politburo member Günter Schabowski announces that those who want to visit other countries and then return would still need a visa, but that visa requests would be handled without delay, during a news conference in East Berlin. (Lutz Schmidt/Associated Press)

The surprise change in the travel rules that led to the rapid collapse of the Berlin Wall were made public by Günter Schabowski, an East German Politburo member, who announced them at the end of a long press conference on Nov. 9, 1989.

Later that evening, Schabowski was asked about the reasoning behind the decision by East German authorities.

"Because we intend to give people which are in this situation and which believe that they can't find another way, relief," Schabowski said.

"And on the other hand, it is a relief for our partners in Czechoslovakia," Schabowski added, referring to the neighbouring border where Adams said tens of thousands of East Germans had already crossed into the West legally.

"Now they can take the direct route through the Iron Curtain," Adams told viewers on The National.

This Nov. 10, 1989 file photo shows Berliners from East and West in front of the Brandenburg Gate, standing atop and below the Berlin Wall, which divided the city since the end of World War II. (Jockel Finck/Associated Press)