The Night the Cold War World Turned Upside Down

Christopher Dickey
Gerardy Malie/Getty

The scene was Potsdamer Platz in the heart of divided Berlin at about 5 a.m. on Nov. 12, 1989. On the far side of the Wall that had become the quintessential symbol of Moscow’s brutal domination in Eastern Europe the first hint of dawn was breaking.

I’ve always thought I remembered it well, but it’s been a long time.

Floodlights had been brought in on the western side, the free side, where U.S. President Ronald Reagan had stood more than two years before and called on the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” But it had stood until this moment, and it was covered with the graffiti of anger, of despair, of hope, messages on top of messages. Someone had written “Free Estonia” with a rough outline of that captive Baltic republic. On top of that, someone else had drawn a bold equation: the hammer and sickle = the swastika.

The first breaches in the infamous barrier that symbolized so perfectly the Iron Curtain had come a couple of days before, but they were more a matter of gates opening than walls falling. Berlin was still divided, West Berlin was still a sealed-off island of freedom in the heart of oppressive East Germany. But we had heard that the communists were going to open up a passage here in Potsdamer Platz—truly open up the city—so we waited in freezing air that was filled with our vaporizing breaths and expectations and, every so often, a spray of sparkling wine. 

The top of a small crane appeared on the East German side and we could see men in uniforms attaching it to a segment of the Wall. Sparks flew as acetylene torches burned through the rebar holding the pieces together. The crowd waited, and chanted, and waited.

Two and a half days earlier, on Nov. 9, 1989, thanks in part to a fumbled press statement by the spokesman for the East German government, the narrow checkpoints long manned by fearsome guards had suddenly opened up, and the people of the East, trapped for so long, had started flooding through. Grim-faced border guards began to smile. Some ripped the insignia off their uniforms. 

Was it all ending? Was their long captivity over? 

People started driving their sputtering East German Trabant cars into the land of BMW and Mercedes. Young men climbed the wall to dominate it and beat it, sometimes pounding it with their fists as if they could break it apart with their bare hands.

Prize-winning photographs by my friends, the great photographers David Turnley and Peter Turnley, convey the emotions of those days as well as anything I have ever seen.

But nobody knew how long the moment would last. Could the checkpoints close again? Would new guards be brought in to reimpose the Soviet communist order? Whether for good or evil, anything seemed possible. 

I had arrived late to the party, flying in from Paris on Friday, Nov. 10, but through the weekend, day and night, I did not sleep and neither did the city. For our team of Newsweek magazine reporters and photographers, there was a blur of logistics and filing issues. Media were flooding to the Wall, the major networks built stages in front it, famous anchors were flying in. But by the night of the 11th, with our magazine deadlines past, there was a chance to explore.

Under a full moon, with my fellow Newsweek correspondent Karen Breslau as a guide, we walked in the Tiergarten, following the path that the Wall cut through the park. A blind man could have done the same, just listening to the noise of picks and hammers and screwdrivers as people chipped away at the barrier. They were not looking for souvenirs that night, they were looking to break into the prison of East Berlin, to tear it down like a vast Bastille, hammering at the idea of the Wall. But it resisted. It would not give way.

We went to Checkpoint Charlie, made famous in countless Cold War spy movies as the entrance for foreigners passing from what was once the American zone into what had remained, essentially, the Russian zone of the city. We just walked through. On the western side, and even on top of the Wall, the mood was riotous, a dance of shadows backlit by the television lights. But in the east there hung in the air, still, a menacing stillness.

So much had happened so quickly, and so much was left unresolved.

Slightly more than half of the world’s population today was not yet born in November 1989, and even those who were 10 or 15 years old at the time have no idea, really, what the Cold War was like for people on both sides of that great divide. 

Some of the recent binge fare on television gives an inkling. Chernobyl, about the nuclear disaster in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in April 1986, is a devastating and largely accurate picture of the stultifying, ultimately self-destructive qualities of Soviet communism. The Polish film Cold War is a love story set against a more subtle but equally enervating and ominous background. The Americans is full of evocative anachronisms, but The Lives of Others (2006) is a more realistic portrayal of the way the police state of the KGB and the East German Stasi insinuated themselves into every aspect of life and love. 

Even in the faraway United States, whole generations grew up in a Strangelovian world of nuclear confrontation, an anxious peace based on the idea that humans could stumble into an apocalypse as the governments of the West and of the Soviet Union pursued policies under the rubric MAD, for Mutually Assured Destruction. 

Berlin was always at the center of it.

At the end of World War II, Europe had been divided between the Allied forces coalescing as NATO and the Soviets under Joseph Stalin. Defeated Germany was split between East and West, and Berlin itself partitioned. 

In the summer of 1948, Stalin imposed a blockade to try to bring the Allied-occupied part of the city to its knees, but the United States responded with a massive airlift that lasted almost a year, before, finally, a secure land corridor was opened. 

That was the good news. The bad news: later that same summer, the Soviets exploded their first nuclear weapon and the race toward MAD began.

Men and women now in their sixties and seventies grew up drilling in schools to survive nuclear attacks by hiding under their desks in the improbable hope that it might help them make it through the first blast, then rushing into well-marked fallout shelters where they were told they might be able to live for weeks or months underground protected from radioactive dust. 

In fact, the generation now quaintly dubbed “boomers” grew up thinking the entire planet could be blown straight to hell. 

When the East Germans first started building the Berlin Wall in August 1961 to keep their people from crossing to the West, the sense of crisis, echoing the earlier blockade, was enormous and a huge test for the new U.S. administration of President John F. Kennedy. 

It came just four months after the abortive Bay of Pigs attempt to overthrow the Soviet-backed regime of Fidel Castro and was part of a succession of aggressive tests by the Soviets that seemed to have the world on the brink of destruction. 

The omens of apocalypse culminated in the crisis of October 1962 when Kennedy confronted the Russians over nuclear missiles placed in Cuba. Remarkably, the Soviets backed down in public in exchange for certain assurances Kennedy made in private and the world stepped back from assured destruction. But it was not until the summer of 1963 that Kennedy went to West Germany and then to West Berlin. In a kind of victory lap, he declared, “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’” I am a Berliner.

1989 was 26 years later and mutually assured destruction had given way to gradual efforts at arms control, but the threat remained, and despite the invocation of Reagan (who was consciously trying to build on Kennedy’s speech), the Wall remained.

That weekend in November, we did not know for certain if the world of the Cold War was ending, but we could feel it being turned upside down. The Soviet Union’s grip on Europe had been loosening for months, and now the harshest of its satellites seemed to have lost control completely.

Through the many years since then, certain images and moments have come back to me often. But I made no pictures and took few notes at the time, thinking foolishly that such an experience would live forever in my memory. But I know too much now about how we remember things to be confident that what has stayed with me as recollection and anecdote has real validity as fact. We imagine history more often than we remember it.

Sometimes I wonder how Vladimir Putin, a Soviet KGB officer serving in East Germany at that time, imagines what happened that weekend in November. Everything suggests he has twisted it into a vast plot by nefarious Western governments, and in the 20 years he has ruled the remnants of the Soviet Union, now called the Russian Federation, he has devoted his cunning and intelligence to rebuilding the old empire, reviving the Cold War, challenging successive American administrations until, in the present one, he found a friend and, often, an advocate.

None of that could be foreseen in 1989 or even in the first few years that followed, although there were hints. Americans are dangerously careless about the dignity of those they defeat, and so it was with Russia, where some sentiment of revindication and revenge was inevitable. In societies where “free enterprise” had been deemed a crime, as one East European businessman long exiled in the West told me, it was like girls in a strict boarding school suddenly discovering they could kiss a boy and the sky would not fall, so why not go all the way? Democracy was an alien ideal, kleptocracy became the norm.

For me, images come back from that full-moon Saturday night traveling through the two sides of Berlin with Karen Breslau as if I were being shown the way from the Inferno to Purgatory. We descended into the U-Bahn, the subway, in hopes we could get back to the West that way, but no luck. We went back to the surface again, and it was getting late, really late–it must have been about four in the morning–but cars were still heading toward some passage to the West. Was it Checkpoint Charlie? I can’t be sure. But what I do remember is that we stuck out our thumbs and we were picked up by two Palestinians who’d been studying in East Germany. Having spent a lot of time in the Middle East, I suspected they were connected to one of the many organizations dubbed terrorist by the U.S. government, but they got us close enough to where we wanted to go, which was Potsdamer Platz.

A few days ago I called Karen, who now lives in San Francisco, and whom I had not seen or talked to for many years. On FaceTime we reminisced about that night. And her memories were not mine at all. 

She recalled the big political developments she was writing about at the time, the invasion of the network anchors, the befuddled guards, the sense of celebration, the cold of that night, but not the Palestinians, not the U-Bahn. OK. She lived in Berlin. What was special to me on a brief visit was not so unique for her. But there was one particular moment that I wanted to confirm, and as I described it there were glimmers of recognition, but the memory wasn’t quite there.

The image that had stayed with me was the East German crane on the far side of the Wall fighting to lift out the first segment. It was reinforced concrete 3.6 meters high, almost 12 feet, and L-shaped, and even when the rebars connecting it to the rest of the Wall were severed it had to be rocked back and forth like a tooth fighting extraction before, finally, it broke out, was lifted high, and an East German officer stepped through to shake hands with a West German counterpart.

What struck me that night was the graffiti on that particular piece of concrete. The image was too perfect, even though the East Germans working the crane could not have known. But Karen didn’t remember and I wondered if I misremembered.

So I did what one does these days and googled videos of Potsdamer Platz on Nov. 12, 1989.

They are grainy and lines of static cut across them every so often. The time stamps run beneath, counting the minutes and seconds after 5 a.m., and the images I remember in bold relief, I see, would not have been so clear as I recall them though the fog or my breath and the spray of champagne. But they are there. High in the morning sky, sliced out of the old graffiti context and given a whole new one, floated the broken hammer and sickle, and the word “Free.”

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