Germans in the UAE remember convoys of Trabis, blank maps of the West and how quickly the border crossing disappeared
It cut a city in two, trapped a million people and stood as a brutal reminder of the Cold War – and then, in a few hours, everything changed.
The Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, amid a wave of revolutions across Eastern Europe that left the Soviet system on the brink.
Vladimir Lenin, icon of the Soviet regime, said there were decades when nothing happens and weeks when decades happen. But the speed of the wall’s collapse surprised everyone.
“My wife and I looked at each other and said: ‘Is the wall open?’ We knew great changes were in the air but the wall coming down?” he said. “That was beyond our imagination.”
That was the snap reaction of young German diplomat Peter Fischer. Mr Fischer is now German ambassador to the UAE but in 1989 he was on holiday in Berlin from a posting in Singapore. An emergency news bulletin about people crossing the border interrupted his drive. “I said I have to get down there right now,” he said.
Mr Fischer can still recall the energy pulsing through the city.
His first stop at about 10pm was Checkpoint Charlie – the famous crossing between East and West. The surly guards had simply waved crowds through, while people were chipping at the wall with hammers.
The brute certainties of almost three decades had given way to an impossible dream.
“TV crews interviewed the people coming through and asked them what their plan was. They said ‘we just want to have a look’. I really liked that.”
At another crossing, waves of Soviet-era Trabant cars were streaming through with people asking how to find Kurfurstendamm – Berlin’s main street – because their maps were useless.
“The East German maps of West Berlin were simply blank – it was the other side where you did not go,” said Mr Fischer, who was then 29. “One Trabi came with a girl sitting on the roof with a bottle of champagne. People were cheering. One after another they came – like a big convoy. Then a boat sailed under a nearby bridge and blew its horn. It was surreal. It was a celebration. Wow.”
Mr Fischer is one of many German residents of the UAE who remember those tumultuous days.
Across the border in the East German town of Eisleben, Frank Michaelis was in the garden. “At 5pm my wife told me to come inside and have a look at the TV. At midnight, we were still sitting there with dirt on our hands from the garden planning a trip to the West,” he said.
Mr Michaelis is a teacher at the German International School in Abu Dhabi. Along with his wife and daughter, he travelled in a Trabant across the border on the Sunday.
“When I studied in Berlin and every day saw the wall – I thought I would never be able to cross,” said Mr Michaelis, then 32. He was struck by the vast amount of fresh produce in the shops, the cleanliness and the friendly West Germans.
“My daughter wanted one thing – to try her first Coca-Cola,” he said with a chuckle. On the day the wall fell, West German chancellor Helmut Kohl, arrived in Poland on a state visit.
Volker Bashe worked at the German embassy in Warsaw and had to look after the large delegation. Now assigned to the German embassy in Abu Dhabi, he remembers a fraught and chaotic time.
“There were no smartphones and even the communist landlines did not work properly,” said Mr Bashe, who was then 35.
“A kind of chaos broke out [in Warsaw]. Kohl returned briefly to Berlin, underlining the gravity of the situation before resuming the visit on November 11.”
Nobody expected the wall to come down and it happened partly by accident.
East German authorities earlier announced private travel outside the country was allowed. When crowds turned up at border crossings, guards let them through in the absence of clear instructions. But things could have turned bloody.
“I was with my baby and wife,” Mr Fischer said. “She said let’s go over. I said let’s not. Worse things could have happened and we know now that [they] discussed using violence.”
By 1991, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Thirty years on, the optimism and hope that accompanied its collapse has subsided.
Now, a new set of challenges from Brexit to populism confronts Europe. And incredibly, some even mourn for the old East Germany, or Ost, in a trend known as Ostalgie. But Mr Michaelis rejects this.
“I didn’t hate East Germany. We went to discos and clubs,” he said.
“But I would have tried to escape if I could. Not at all do I miss it.”
Mr Fischer also cautions against a rose-tinted view but said both sides have a shared history.
“Sometimes people from the East have the feeling that people in the West think their lives didn’t count. But there was happiness there. We need to appreciate that.
“But a naive Ostalgie is also not good because a lot of people suffered, were thrown into jail, tortured and killed. Today, there are challenges but Europe is much better off.”
Top, Frank Michaelis, whose daughter wanted to try her first Coca-Cola. Above, Peter Fischer was in Berlin when the wall fell