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Berlin Remembers Fall of Wall 20 Years Later

November 9, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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On the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germans celebrated the event that came to symbolize the end of the Cold War. Jeffrey Brown reports.

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight: 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Jeffrey Brown has our story.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Brandenburg Gate, the renowned landmark that once stood amid a divided city, was alight tonight, as revelers crowded under Berlin’s rainy skies. A thousand foam dominoes set up along the wall’s former pathway toppled to the ground, mimicking a moment that led to the reunification of Germany and the end of the Cold War.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel:

ANGELA MERKEL: For me, it was one of the happiest moments of my life. Ladies and gentleman, it was an epic turn of an era. We know that today. The Germany, the Europe, indeed the world, which were divided into two blocs, were brought together.

JEFFREY BROWN: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined Merkel and past and present leaders of Europe to herald the 20th anniversary.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: We know that millions of hearts, of minds and hands were behind those who literally tore down the wall.

JEFFREY BROWN: German citizens flocked to Berlin, once again the unified country’s capital, to celebrate and remember.

WOLFGANG REX, citizen: The fall of the wall, as well as the anniversary today, is one of the greatest things in my life.

RENATE FIEBIG, citizen: For me, it is still moving that the wall came down 20 years ago. I’m from West Berlin. And it’s still amazing for me that I can travel around now.

JEFFREY BROWN: The barrier was first constructed in August of 1961. At the time, the NewsHour’s Robert MacNeil’s was an NBC News correspondent in Berlin.

ROBERT MACNEIL: The phone rang about 4 in the morning. And somebody in New York on the desk said, “What’s there — what’s this about they’re closing the border and they’re closing the Brandenburg Gate?” And I said, “I don’t know anything about it, but I will go and find out.” There were only about maybe 25 reporters and a few West Berliners. And the first sign at the wall was giant cement flower pots being lifted into position across the entryways of the Brandenburg Gate. And, then, on either side, barbed wire was being stretched out towards the Potsdamer Platz this way and toward the French sector that way.

A country divided

JEFFREY BROWN: For 28 years, the wall drew a jagged line through the heart of Berlin and stood as a crude symbol of the division of Germany and the division of Europe, between the Soviet-dominated East and the democracies of Western Europe, allied with the United States. There was also the human tragedy, as friends and families were split apart by the hasty construction.

Over the years, thousands of Easterners attempted to escape to the West. Many didn't make it.

Monika Kiebler's brother-in-law, Herbert, was killed in 1975, one of 135 people who died while trying to cross.

MONIKA KIEBLER: They could have arrested him, and it would all have been good. We still don't understand, and many other people, too, why Herbert was shot. Why?

JEFFREY BROWN: In 1989, amid enormous tumult throughout the Soviet empire, thousands of East Germans had begun leaving through the newly opened borders via Czechoslovakia and Hungary. In Berlin, on Nov. 9, a seemingly innocuous news conference set off a chain of events that would take the wall down when an official announced that Easterners could cross into the West without restrictions, effective immediately. Former "NBC Nightly News" anchor Tom Brokaw was in that room

TOM BROKAW: People were electrified by what they were hearing. Joe Irshler, you remember, the cameraman was there, and he jumped up and turned on the camera. He had lived all of his life in Germany. And he was wide-eyed as he looked at me, and Heinrich, our sound man, same thing. And we knew that something momentous was unfolding here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Within hours, stunned Easterners flooded the wall's checkpoints, passing a boundary that for decades had been impenetrable. That first night, tens of thousands of East Germans made their westward, and the world was stunned. Historian Michael Beschloss.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: We had known that something was up because Mikhail Gorbachev had said, you know: I'm for the Frank Sinatra doctrine. You know, every Eastern European leader can do it his way. But I don't think anyone seriously thought that that would lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November of 1989.

One of those to make her way across that first night was Angela Merkel, who became Germany's first chancellor from the former East. Today, she recalled that joy, while remembering the pain of division.

Reuniting Germany

ANGELA MERKEL: It is simple to bring a reunited country together, but lost chances of life and fear and sorrow, to accept all of that, in retrospect, that is extremely difficult.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the years following 1989, the initial jubilation faded in the face of economic struggles, as the former West Germany pumped $1.9 trillion into the former East to bring its economy up to speed. But businesses in the East, like this once-iconic motorbike factory, still find themselves struggling.

WOLFGANG NEUBERT, Motorradwerk Zschopau: Many are still unemployed. I still keep in contact with a few. And, yes, many don't have jobs now.

JEFFREY BROWN: I spoke this afternoon to German journalist Anna Engelke about the country's growing pains.

ANNA ENGELKE, NDR German Network: The West Germans continued to live their lives. It was the East Germans who had to handle most of the changes. So, for 18 million East Germans, life became totally different after the wall came down 20 years ago. They had to change. They had to adapt. Everything was new for them. If you want to put it bluntly, the West Germans, we -- we paid for it, but we didn't really have to suffer that much.

JEFFREY BROWN: Still, by any account, today marked a monumental anniversary.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: This is the moment that the Cold War really ended, because, if you look at the rhetoric of presidents and others in the free world during that period, they always said, the central issue that divides East and West is the division of Europe. Once you have that changed, that really led to the end of the Cold War. George Bush 41 always used the language, "I want to see a Europe whole and free."

JEFFREY BROWN: Though some European leaders expressed doubts at the time about the prospect of a reunified Germany, the country formally became one nation less than a year after the wall came down, with full membership in NATO and other Western institutions. And, within two years, the Soviet Union ceased to exist, formally ending the Cold War.

JIM LEHRER: There's more about the Berlin Wall on our Web site, You can listen to reflections on today's anniversary. You can hear on Art Beat a conversation about nostalgia for East German design.