'It was beautiful': German ambassador to Canada recalls fall of Berlin Wall on 30th anniversary

Three decades ago Saturday, the Berlin Wall opened up. Today, Sabine Sparwasser keeps a small part of it on her desk as a reminder that great change is always possible.

Sabine Sparwasser keeps small part of the wall as a reminder change is possible

Sabine Sparwasser, Germany's ambassador to Canada, recalls with fondness the 'peaceful revolution' sparked on Nov. 9, 1989, when a border guard allowed East Germans to cross the Berlin Wall checkpoints. (CBC)

The current German ambassador to Canada said watching the Berlin Wall fall — which happened 30 years ago Saturday — wasn't something she thought would ever happen in her lifetime. 

"The stars combined and aligned to create a peaceful revolution in Germany," said Sabine Sparwasser.

"It's still something that reminds me of a very happy moment."

Sparwasser remembers being in West Berlin by happenstance that day with a European delegation. She was sitting near the wall when she heard people from East Berlin arriving at the checkpoints.

"Something could have gone wrong because the guards didn't have instructions of what to do," she said. "It got very tense."

While the night could have ended in violence, she said one guard opened the gates, allowing East Germans to spill through.

A West German policeman, left, gives a helping hand to an East German border guard who climbs through a gap of the Berlin Wall. It was 30 years ago today that the first people began streaming through the wall. (Thomas Kienzle/Associated Press)

Meanwhile, people in West Berlin emerged from their homes, wearing pyjamas or whatever else they had on.

"We spent the most memorable night of our life, laughing, crying, embracing people," she said. "It was beautiful."

'A big relief'

While Sparwasser was in West Berlin when the wall came down, Christopher Mueller was nine years old and living in East Germany.

While he doesn't remember the night East Berliners were allowed through the checkpoints, he does remember watching television with his parents the next day.

"I remember seeing all these scenes of East German cars entering West Germany and being welcomed by the whole population," he told Ottawa Morning.

At the time, Mueller struggled to understand the scenes he was witnessing. He had grown up under a political system that demonized West Germany, and while his parents hadn't raised him to hate their neighbours, they also kept quiet about their distaste for the Communist regime out of fear of retribution.

"I think this was a big relief for them because finally all this was over," Mueller said. 

Struggle for reunification 

Retired diplomat Peter Finger, who was in East Germany before the wall fell, remembered how much of a struggle it was afterward to reunite the two countries.

"We thought that after the first few months and the first free elections, everything that happened in East Germany would be forgotten," he said.

"But no. That did not happen." 

Finger said the two sides had lived radically different lives, and some East Germans thought West Germany's way of life was being imposed on them. 

"They could not easily cope with the new system," he said. "Especially with the economy changing in a very dramatic way."

Still, Finger said official reunification couldn't wait and the night of Nov. 9, 1989, provided a window of opportunity that people weren't certain would remain open.

'Great changes are possible'

Sparwasser said it's taken the work of an entire generation to help heal those wounds and bring Germans back together.

In a twist of fate, the ambassador said East German cities are often now considered to be prettier than their West German counterparts because of the money spent to reinvigorate that half of the country. 

Today, she keeps a tiny piece of the Berlin Wall on her desk as a reminder of what times were like.

"It reminds me every day — and every time I get a little worried — that great changes are possible," she said. 

With files from Ottawa Morning


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