Video: When the wall came crumbling down

  1. Closed captioning of: When the wall came crumbling down

    >>> your doctor about your risk.

    >>> 20 years ago tonight, it was a cold and damp night in berlin , but nobody seemed to care because it was also the start of what became the biggest party in the free world , a free world that, by the way, had just grown a bit larger. i made it over there to see the berlin wall come down before our very eyes. i was reporting, as they say at that time, for another network, and we were all jealous of tom brokaw of "nbc nightly news" for getting there first and reporting the story back to the states first. tonight tom is back in berlin , the place where really the whole world changed, and it certainly is a different city these days. tom, good evening.

    >> good evening, brian. well, 20 years ago tonight, tens of thousands of east germans came through the berlin wall . one of them a young woman with her two sisters. she was a lab technician then, and now, 20 years later, her name is angela merkel and she came through another gate, the brandenburg game tonight, as the chancer of a unified germany . it was a night to savor for the chancellor and for the world. tonight's celebration was an entertainment and political extravaganza at the brandenburg gate . the sight of a much more spontaneous celebration 20 years ago, the night the wall fell. a sinister symbol of oppression, the wall has changed dramatically tonight. chancellor merkel led an all-star lineup of cold war veterans and their successors. gorbachev of russia, lech walesa of poland, hillary clinton from the u.s. among them. 20 years of so many changes, so many challenges. today berlin is a dazzling city on the east as well as west side of what was once the wall. now in east berlin you can buy everything from a ferrari to an armani suit. 20 years ago in this part of berlin , you had to stand in line to buy a loaf of bread. now you stand in line to get a starbucks cappuccino. but for many germans , this remains a country with a split personality. claudia wilhelm is a berlin teacher who says her students still think of themselves as west germans .

    >> they say, well, maybe i don't go to the east or it's in the east because i'm the west. i think it's the same way in the east, that they say, oh, i don't go over to the west because i don't want to. they are partial like that.

    >> reporter: in the east, this town was once a communist showplace. today it is just another german town struggling with a bad economy and failed hopes.

    >> translator: i'd never plead for a return to the old way, but the economy just couldn't keep up with the expectations we had after the fall of the war.

    >> reporter: it is the economy that is now the common enemy of all germans . unemployment is at 8%. it's twice as high in the east. that is a much higher priority for germans than helping the u.s. and afghanistan, where german forces are keeping a low profile . today secretary of state hillary clinton said the germans are doing as well as can be expected given their history.

    >> this has been a very difficult political decision for them, given their understandable allergy to being looked at though they were once again a military power . *

    >> reporter: tonight, however, belongs to a triumphant home, the fall of the wall, and with it the communist empire. artists created a chain of oversized dominos along the old route of the wall. tonight they were toppled. just as the communist state toppled two decades ago. after all of the trauma of the 20th century , most of it self-inflicted, tonight's celebration could be the next major step for germany to renew itself as a whole country and as a leading member of the community of nations. brian?

    >> tom brokaw in berlin , where it's just as late at night as it was 20 years ago. tom, thanks.

    >>> when we continue here tonight,

By Tom Brokaw Correspondent
NBC News
updated 11/9/2009 11:53:12 AM ET 2009-11-09T16:53:12

While interviewing President Barack Obama in Dresden, Germany, in June, I reminded him that we were now in what used to be East Germany and that this year would be the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

I went on to say that it was one of the most memorable nights of my career because NBC News had a worldwide exclusive: I was the only television correspondent with a live satellite feed from Brandenburg Gate, the center of the celebrations for the end of communism in East Germany.

The president smiled and said, “I remember, Tom. I watched you that night. I was in law school at the time.”

“What?” I thought. “Law school then and now he’s president of the United States?”

How swiftly great, epic events fade and others rush in to to fill the new landscape of our time.

It also made me reflect on my own experience during that memorable week and, in fact, the entire year of 1989. It was a time of seismic changes that in many ways are still playing out today in a unified Germany, a Russia determined to maintain a place as a world power without the burden of communism, and in China where a democracy movement was effectively replaced by state-managed economic opportunity.

Restless revolt
By November, 1989, the restless revolt against communist oppression had spread to East Germany, still separated from the West by the long, concrete and steel barrier known simply as The Wall.

East Germans were demanding visas and freedom to travel, but their Communist masters were only allowing them permission to travel to Soviet bloc countries such as Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Press access to the East was limited, but since we knew that the chaos was growing, NBC News’s foreign editor, Jerry Lamprecht, suggested I spend a couple of days in Berlin anchoring Nightly News, particularly because there was so little going on at home at the time.

I thought it was a good idea and so did Bill Wheatley, Nightly’s executive producer, as well as Michael Gartner and Don Browne, the top two NBC News executives at the time. I left for Berlin on a late flight Monday, Nov. 7 and began reporting from the Eastern sector the next day.

Michelle Neubert, our Frankfurt bureau chief, had done an impressive job of getting me limited access to the East and lining up interviews with activists who had lived all their lives with draconian state rules that suffocated personal, cultural and political freedom.

The politburo of the German Democratic Republic, or GDR, as it was called, was frantically trying to manage the shouted demands of its citizens, while also keeping them confined by the Wall, which for a quarter of a century had been a sinister symbol of brutal oppression.

No one knew quite what to expect except that it seemed highly unlikely the Wall would come down anytime soon.

What did he say?
As I continued my reporting on the second day, Michelle confirmed that late that afternoon I would be able to interview the politiburo’s information minister, Gunter Schabowski, following his televised news conference.

Schabowski, a rumpled, overweight apparatchik, appeared before a room packed with Western and East German journalists. Outwardly calm, he attempted to deal with the persistent questions about more freedom for the press, elections and, the heart of the matter that week, freedom to travel.

Video: Live from Berlin He droned on and on and then, at the end of his appearance, pulled out a piece of paper the politburo had prepared just before his news conference. In casual fashion he began to read a new policy: citizens of the GDR could apply the next morning for visas to leave East Germany through any of the exits in the Wall.

The assembled journalists were stunned. My German camera crew, Joe Oexle and Henrich Walling who had lived all their adult  lives with a divided Germany, looked at me as if an alien force had entered the room.

Video: Legacy

Schabowski left the stage and there was a clamor of confusion. Did this mean the Wall is down?

I rushed upstairs and, with cameras rolling, asked Schabowski to read the new policy again. He did, and when I said, “They no longer have to go through a third country,” he confirmed that.

I asked, “Is it possible for them to go through the Wall at some point?”

“It is possible for them to go through the border,” he replied and then smiled, adding, “It is not a question of tourism. It is permission to leave the GDR.”

The Berlin Wall was coming down and the world would be changed.

I raced back to our office in the West, making a quick stop at Checkpoint Charlie where the normally sullen guard now just waved me through. I asked what he thought of the new policy, which had been televised throughout the Eastern sector. He smiled slyly and said, “I am not paid to think.”

Exodus underway
We broadcast bulletins on NBC all afternoon as my colleagues in New York worked feverishly to get the reaction from the White House and around the world.

In a West German hotel I kept getting updates on gathering crowds at Brandenburg Gate, our remote location for a satellite feed that night. My long-time producer Marc Kusnetz reported that one of our crews had gotten video of East Germans pouring through one of the Wall exits, into the West. The exodus was under way.

It was almost midnight when I got to the Brandenburg Gate and the scene was part pep rally, part street dance and all joy as young West Germans climbed atop the Wall and cheered for young East Germans to join them.

East German guards unlimbered their water cannon for a time, trying to control the crowds but it was no use.

Video: Collapse

I told Cheryl Gould, our Nightly News control room producer, that I would just have to adlib the broadcast because it was changing too quickly to do a formal script. Just before I went on air, I thought of that old astronaut line before lift-off: “Don’t screw this up.”

It was one of the most memorable opening shots in the long and distinguished history of NBC News: the Wall behind me brightly lit and occupied by dancing, cheering students, celebrating a new and welcome day in their lives.

We stayed on the air with special reports until early the next morning as waves of young East Germans began to climb up the wall from their side and join the celebration.

In the middle of the night, my computer technician, Eddie Lee, came up to me wide-eyed with a gift: a large chunk of the wall which had just been chiseled off.

It sits on my desk, an enduring reminder of that night: an NBC News triumph, but most of all, a symbol of the power of people determined not to live as political prisoners forever.

Tom Brokaw is a special correspondent for NBC News. After 21 years as the anchor and managing editor of “NBC Nightly News,” he stepped down from that role in December 2004. He still frequently reports and provides expertise during elections and breaking news events. 

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