As It Happens

30 years on, East German activist recalls the 'quite unexpected' fall of the Berlin Wall

When the Berlin Wall cracked open in November, 1989, Jens Reich was not there to see it. Which is striking, because the physician and molecular biologist was a leading activist in East Germany's civil rights movement.

The speed at which the Iron Curtain collapsed came as 'a complete surprise,' says Jens Reich

East German border guards are seen through a gap in the Berlin wall after demonstrators pulled down a segment of the wall at Brandenburg gate on Nov. 11, 1989. (Lionel Cironneau/Associated Press)
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When the Berlin Wall cracked open on the evening of Nov. 9, 1989, Jens Reich was not there to see it. He was at home with his daughter and didn't hear the news until the next morning when his wife called to tell him.

That is striking — because Reich played a prominent role in the build-up to that fateful day. The physician and molecular biologist was a leading activist in East Germany's civil rights movement.

Protests continued to grow throughout the fall of 1989 — culminating in the largest ever on Nov. 4 at the Alexanderplatz in East Berlin, where Reich was a featured speaker. Little did he — or anyone else — realize how quickly change would come to his country. 

As it Happens host Carol Off spoke with Reich about that protest, and the whirlwind of world-changing events that followed. Here is some of their conversation.

There were a million people who were out in the streets. You were one of the speakers, and you spoke about the need for this kind of change. How surprised were you to see how quickly things changed over the next days?

That was a complete surprise. Of course, it was not a surprise in the sense that we did not expect things would happen and reforms, and the opening of the country, and free opinion and all these things would come more or less slowly.

But nobody had any idea that five days later, the whole country, in effect, would go bankrupt — would collapse. That was, of course, a major surprise.

About a million demonstrators crowd the Alexanderpletz in East Berlin during Germany in a protest rally against censorship and repression on Nov. 4, 1989. On banners they demanded new leaders and free elections. Jens Reich was a featured speaker. (Elke Bruhn-Hoffman/Associated Press)

There's a very famous moment when this a man named Günter Schabowski actually made the announcement, and gave interviews. He [was] a member the East German Politburo. He's announcing the end of border restrictions, the end of the wall, and there is an Italian journalist asking him when is this going to happen? And he says, "Immediately." So he causes much controversy about whether or not that's really what he was told to say.

It's not quite clear what he intended to say. I think it [is a] 90 per cent probability it's a slip of tongue — that he said something that he had not the mandate to do.

But it may also be ... that this was a planned thing — that they [intended] or planned to let the steam off from the popular movement by opening it for one evening, or one day, or one weekend, and then closing it again. That is a theory that I have heard several times here. And you could not believe, of course, that a leading politician goes to a press conference and loses control and begins to talk this way.

Molecular biologist and physician Jens Reich today. (David Ausserhofer)

And all hell broke loose. And then people started turning up saying, "We're going to cross." And they overwhelmed border guards — I mean, they could have had orders to shoot to kill. They could have had orders to stop. They could have done anything, but they didn't know what to do, did they?

There was a frenzied exchange of telephone calls as I understood later on, between the big wigs in the Politburo. And nobody — somehow nobody — dared to give an order for the situation.

And this is the reason that this border guy called Harald Jaeger — we know him all now, e was a simple border guard — and he did not know what to do. And the people, they gathered and looked and wished to know what would happen and what's up there. And they were very, very modest. They said, "Let us through! We don't wish to go forever. We will come back. We will inspect West Berlin. Open, please! We will come back."

They shouted it as a chorus and a choir.

And then finally he did not know what [was] o be done. And, of course, there were no people with firearms. They were just standing there and controlling normally the passports, visa[s] to go to West Berlin.

And finally, he said "Well now, we have to flood " — as the opening of a dam.

A West German policeman, left, gives a helping hand to an East German border guard who climbs through a gap of the Berlin Wall when East Germany opened another passage at Potsdamer Platz on Nov. 12, 1989. (Thomas Kienzle/Associated Press)

That was at 10:45, on the evening of Nov. 9. And then East Berliners flooding into the West, being met with champagne and flowers on the other side. Quite a moment, wasn't it?

It was a great moment, of course. I think a great moment of history, and quite unexpected — not planned. Nothing.

What they wished to do was to issue,visa[s] the next day to people who wish to visit their relatives or whatever. I think they intended to do it in a controlled way and, well, this got out of their control. And then by then, the wall was gone.

Then, of course, in throughout the country, people rushed to the western border.

We have not only the border the wall around West Berlin, but also the border between East and West Germany — several hundred kilometres long. And people rush there too.

And everywhere they demanded to look into the West, and obviously the mood of the population was, "Ah! There's a party going on! Let's go there!"


Interview produced by Alison Masemann. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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