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The Collapse of the Berlin Wall

LeipzigAbout 70,000 people walk through the city centre of Leipzig on Oct. 9, 1989, during one of the so-called Monday demonstrations against the East German Communist regime. Former CBC correspondent Claude Adams and his cameraman, Philippe Billard, clandestinely filmed one such protest about a week before the Berlin Wall fell. They transported the footage back to the West by burying it amid video of Adams's son's birthday party. (Reuters)

Growing up as a German-Canadian, I always knew it as just "The Wall"  die Mauer. The "Berlin" was implicit, a crude scar down the middle of my heritage. It was built the year I became a teenager, shortly after I got my Canadian citizenship papers, and it was torn down just after I turned 41. And I was lucky enough to be there when it was first breached.

Standing in Potsdamer Platz in the centre of Berlin, on a cool, overcast November night, wearing a Cold War-era trench coat and holding a CBC microphone, I remember thinking that this was a defining moment in my professional life. As such, I had to be careful. I needed to approach this story with professional detachment, without any emotion whatsoever, even though or perhaps, because this was such a pivotal moment in 20th-century history. I had to wear a mask of dispassionate impartiality. At the time, we called this "getting out of the way of the story." Watching the tapes of my broadcasts 20 years later, however, I'm embarrassed by the lack of passion in my voice. If ever there was a moment for a tear, a tremor in the voice or a trill of joy, that was it.

The collapse of the Wall, of course, was the climax of a bigger geopolitical story that I and other members of CBC's London bureau had been following for weeks in the fall of 1989. Seismic events in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and other Warsaw Pact countries were keeping us busy; we sensed that we were witnessing the important end of something. The "p" and "g" words were on everyone's tongue: perestroika and glasnost, reform and openness. Mikhail Gorbachev was stirring the tectonic plates of Europe. So our eyes were on the entire Soviet Bloc, but our attention was fixed mostly on Germany.

I vividly remember Leipzig. It had begun with a peaceful candle-lit march by 40 people, demanding that East Germans be free to travel. In successive weeks, the march grew to 80 people, then several hundred, then tens of thousands, walking in defiance of local authorities. My cameraman, Philippe Billard, and I decided that this was something we needed to witness. So, we packed a small portable video camera and passed through Checkpoint Charlie posing as tourists. In the camera was a videocassette with footage of my son Patrick's eighth birthday party.

We arrived in Leipzig in the early evening about a week before the fall of the Wall, and a huge candle-lit demonstration was already underway. Philippe filmed the march surreptitiously, on the last half of the birthday cassette. Then, on the drive back to Berlin, we rewound the tape. It was an inspired precaution. Sure enough, at Checkpoint Charlie, East German border guards demanded to see our tape. We handed it over, and they watched portions of the tape of Patrick blowing out the candles on his birthday cake. "A handsome boy," they said, and sent us on our way. The next day, the first video images of the Leipzig marches were shown around the world.

There are few things more thrilling than to touch history on the run. The early evening of Nov. 9, 1989, was overcast and wet in East Berlin. The media were gathered at a routine press conference by a Politburo member, Guenther Schabowski. It was boring, and I was looking forward to a dinner of sausage, red cabbage and beer. Shortly before 7 p.m., as he was wrapping up, Schabowski made a curious comment. It was delivered sotto voce, almost like a throw-away line; the instantaneous translation made it sound as if the government was lifting the rules that prevented East Germans from travelling abroad. The Wall, he seemed to say, would be open starting the next morning. Without elaboration, Schabowski gathered his papers and walked out. I bolted out of my seat, told my camera crew to follow me, and we chased him to his waiting limousine. "Mr. Minister," I said, with forced calmness, "aren't you afraid there will be a huge exodus as a result of this?" Stepping into his car, choosing his words carefully, Schabowski replied: "Nobody can say what will be the result of this step, you see. But we are trying to do our best for the people."

History sometimes swings on such banal words. Within an hour or two of this announcement, tens of thousands of East Berliners began gathering at crossing points at the Wall. They demanded immediate travel visas. They wanted them now. The guards were nonplussed. They said the Wall would not be open until the next morning, but the crowds were so large, and so insistent, that the border guards threw up their hands and let them through. I was in my West Berlin hotel suite shortly before midnight, editing my story about Schabowski's curious statement, when my cameraman came running in, waving a videocassette and shouting: "People are going through the Wall by the thousands!!" The Ossies , as the East Germans were called, were already beginning to flood West
Berlin's high-end shopping district, the Kurfuerstendamm, with fistfuls of useless currency.

Within a day or two, the sledgehammers began knocking down the Wall. In March 1990, there were free elections. By the following October, there was only one Germany. Twenty years later, the emotion that I suppressed so "professionally" in my reporting of these and subsequent events, is still with me.

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