December 8, 2016

How the Diggers Reacted When the Wall Finally Fell


My new book The Tunnels follows the digging of escape caverns under the Berlin Wall in 1962, the attempts by NBC and CBS to film landmark specials about–and how President Kennedy and Secretary of State Rusk tried to halt that coverage.  I interviewed many of the men who, as students, dug those tunnels from West to East (reversing the usual slavery-to-freedom route).   Here, from the book’s epilogue, is how three of them reacted to the fall of the Wall in 1989.  Of course, much more in the book.

On that night, Hasso Herschel was cooking a meal in his kitchen, with the television on in the living room, when he heard the first reports. He initially could not believe them—he felt it was like a Hollywood movie unfolding. He called a few friends. “And twenty of us, thirty, even old diggers, we went to all the checkpoints and drank champagne and spent money until 11 o’clock in the morning,” he would recall. “I couldn’t imagine the Wall would stay open. I thought they would close it in another day or two and it would stay closed. But when that didn’t happen we felt it was maybe even the end of the Cold War, and all other wars, it was our hope, our dream.”

The same night, Burkhart Veigel, then an orthopedist living in Stuttgart, cried for hours in front of his TV, terribly moved. This was exactly what he had dreamed about for decades: “I wanted freedom for the people. Suddenly, they were free. It was the most important experience of my life.” The next day, when his children asked him why he was still crying, he told them for the first time “what I had done back then.”

A friend of Joachim Rudolph in the East had a brother living in West Berlin. The day after the Wall opened, Rudolph offered to drive him and his wife to the West to see his brother. At the border on both sides thousands of people continued to gather so it was very difficult to pass by car. Rudolph told the couple they should press their East German passports against the window and display them to people outside. When the celebrants in the streets saw this they burst into cheers, and knocked on the car roof in approval– “an amazing situation,” Rudolph later said.

During the following days and then weeks, police on both sides began to remove parts of the wall to build more border crossing points, at Brandenburg Gate, Potsdamer Platz, and elsewhere. “Very often I was there to watch it,” Rudolph said. “Many cars with satellite dishes and reporters were there, and many Berliners came to watch. I remember in that time this terrible weather, but I was there at night many hours with an umbrella—and next morning I had to go to work. In my life I never will forget that exciting time.”

Crowds of East Berliners ransacked Stasi headquarters, then secured rooms with files holding hundreds of millions of pages. Countless other documents had been shredded by Stasi staffers in their final days there, until the shredders burned out from overuse. Over 170,000 Stasi informers would be found identified by name in the files—about 10,000 of them under the age of eighteen–but estimates of the actual number of informers went as high as half a million, and even much higher if occasional collaborators were included.