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‘It is permission to leave the GDR’

NBC News' Tom Brokaw recounts one of the most memorable nights of his career: reporting live from Brandenburg Gate the night the Berlin Wall came down.
/ Source: NBC News

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.