Wearing nothing but a coat over his pajamas, the man spoke rapidly in his thick Berlin accent: "We live on Bornholmer Street, in the East, you know. I was in bed already. My wife had gone out to walk the dog, came back up and said, 'Hey, they're all going to the West!' I was dressed and out here in a flash."
Another man, driving an East German Trabant car, rolled down his window and excitedly said: "I keep shaking my head. I'm driving on the Kurfürstendamm!" referring to West Berlin's main shopping boulevard.
A woman standing outside the Kaiser William Memorial Church, West Berlin's famous bomb-scarred landmark, stammered: "That's always been my dream, to walk around this monument."
As they watched their East German guests gush with excitement, West Berliners were just as stunned. Many could hardly believe what they were seeing.
It was November 9, the night the Berlin Wall fell.
That night, the whole city celebrated a new Day of German Unity. The concrete behemoth that had enclosed the entire 165.7-kilometer (103-mile) circumference of West Berlin and claimed the lives of more than 70 people had outlasted its creator by mere days. Exactly 22 days and eight hours earlier, Erich Honecker, the East Germany leader who presided over the construction of the Wall and declared it would stand for 100 years, had submitted his resignation. Though the Wall is still standing, it has lost its purpose.
'Let Traffic Flow'
Berlin Mayor Walter Momper received news of the incredible turn of events around 10:25 p.m. He was in Studio E at Radio Free Berlin participating in a live discussion about what will happen now that East Germans are free to travel. A member of his security detail handed him a note, which said that Berlin police headquarters had just reported that the Wall had been breached and that Berliners from both sides of the city were now freely passing through border crossing points.
"At that moment I truly knew how things stood," the mayor said later. On that night, he abruptly abandoned the discussion with the words: "I need to be somewhere else."
Normal rules did not apply during the evening hours of November 9. Although, at the time, the mayor was trying to push through legislation to bring the city's speed limit down to 30 kilometer per hour (19 mph), he was now racing through red lights at 80 kilometers per hour in his government-issued Daimler, followed by a police cruiser with lights flashing. Over his car phone, he arranged to have the members of his cabinet on standby throughout the night, saying: "Have the police track them down, if they have to." Instructing his driver to just cruise past the already forming traffic jam on the side, he headed straight toward one of the structures that Berliners usually preferred to drive away from, not toward: the Berlin Wall crossing point on Invalidenstrasse.
"We won't be the first ones there," the politician joked. "I know my Berliners!" And, of course, he was right. The crowd was so large that it was impossible to move any farther forward. Just a few hundred meters from the Reichstag, where Philipp Scheidemann had proclaimed the Weimar Republic precisely 71 years ago to the day, the mood was festive. As Momper walked, people asked to shake his hand, saying: "Walter, did you ever imagine?" or "Thank you, Walter."
At the East German police barracks, Chief Inspector Rainer Bornstein, whose District 34 also included the Brandenburg Gate, reported to headquarters with a voice made hoarse after his megaphone broke: "It's totally packed on both sides. There's really not much the police can do right now."
Back at the Invalidenstrasse crossing point, which was East German territory, Momper stood near the gate and tried to curb the crowd's emotions: "People, this is a historic situation, but please, let traffic flow."
"If some crazy person over there starts getting violent, all hell will break loose," the worried mayor told his confidants at the crossing. Then he stomped into the guard station and had himself connected with the chief of police: "We need some fencing over here."
A Triumph of Momentum
His next call went to Harry Gilmore, the US minister and deputy commandant of the American Sector: "Harry, we have to do something." Next on the line was Michael Burton, Gilmore's British counterpart: "It is absolutely broken down in your sector."
Just a few weeks earlier, the three had discussed a scenario similar to the one now unfolding before their eyes. Now, they had the mayor bring them up to date: "We can cross the border wherever we like. We can saunter over to Alexanderplatz as we please and drink ourselves into a stupor." But also: "You have to give the West Berlin police the authority to act. Some crazy people at the Brandenburg Gate are starting to bang at the Wall with hammers all over the place."
In order to "avoid a dramatic escalation," as East Berlin's Interior Ministry put it, East German police were ordered to stand down. There were no crowds of officers, and those who were there appeared patient and calm, presenting a fatherly image to the world.
At the Brandenburg Gate, things heated up one last time when drunken revelers standing on top of the Wall, which was as wide as a sidewalk there, started waving their Lutter & Wegner sparkling wine bottles at the AK-47s and stony glares of the border guards below. The incident drew water cannons into action once more, as well as loudspeaker trucks blaring: "Citizens of West Berlin, get off the Wall!"
But here too, the city's own momentum quickly triumphed. East Berliners pushed through the cordon of guards blocking their way and pressed on toward the gate. They were nonviolent but determined, just as they had been the previous Wednesday, when a crowd gathered in front of the Central Committee headquarters and used a discussion session with the Socialist Unity Party (SED), the country's ruling party, as a chance to chastise the country's top brass. On the way home, rather than singing "Brothers, to the sun, to freedom," the Russian workers' song selected by the event's organizer, the crowd sang out -- in a single, unified voice -- the German version of the French socialist anthem and liberation song "L'Internationale."
East Goes West, and West Goes East
On the eastern side of the Brandenburg Gate, there was civil disobedience; on the western side, there was chutzpah. West Berliners heaved bicycles, dogs and a skateboard -- all strictly forbidden -- onto East German territory, where they danced and celebrated with their brothers and sisters from the other side. Meanwhile, the wall jumpers with the hammers sang, "We're finally battering down the door."
At Momper's location, at the Invalidenstrasse crossing, East German border guards ended up unapologetically aiding and abetting escapees. With calm expressions and vigorous arm movements, the officials cried "Move along! Move along!" and tried to ease the bottleneck created by hundreds of East German cars at the border crossing, some heavily laden.
Two mothers with baby carriages had piled cardboard boxes and suitcases high on top of their children's blankets. Just hours before, guards would have surely stopped them in their determined march across the border, detaining them indefinitely "to determine the facts of the case."
But now, just before midnight, a heavy-set officer simply watched the two women maneuver their carriages at a breakneck pace through the line of cars. In a fatherly tone, he snaps at them: "Irresponsible, in this traffic!"
In the distance, a commuter train could be seen speeding away from the Friedrichstrasse border crossing and over the Spree River. Tightly packed passengers -- all of them going unchecked from the East to the West -- formed silhouettes in the yellow light of the windows. The portly policeman didn't even look up to see it, since at that very moment he had to suck in his belly as a troop of West Berliners romped past him through the narrow passage headed east. With arms linked, they chanted "We want in!" And soon they were.
Young members of the West Berlin alternative scene, who wouldn't have been granted a visa to visit East Berlin just a day earlier, were now able to enter the other half of the city without having to present themselves before an official or even show their ID cards.
The next to come across the border was a dapper man with styled hair and a blue mohair coat. It was Eberhard Diepgen, the former mayor of West Berlin. Before leaving for East Berlin, he stopped by where Momper was to ask about the situation on the other side. "I was already over there," Momper responded. "You have to take advantage of the moment."
As he tried to travel the next 100 meters, Diepgen was stopped again and again by his fans from the East. While his expression was somewhat more melancholy than usual, he gave a kiss here and a handshake there. While he thanked someone pressing a bunch of chrysanthemums into his hands on the left, on the right, he dictated a statement for a French journalist in a serious tone: "Free elections first, then we'll figure out the rest."
Tears of Joy, Relief and Welcome
Meanwhile, on the western side of the border crossing, thousands gathered along the streets to greet the line of "funny little cars" -- as an English radio journalist described them into his microphone -- making a great effort to get through the checkpoint. The crowd pounded on the roofs of these plastic cars affectionately known as "Trabis," reached their hands through the windows to offer greetings or a glass of sparking wine, and made enthusiastic friends with those inside. Both were crying.
Once they reached the West, few of the eastern drivers had either a chance or a place in the mob to stop and catch their breath. When he was finally able to pull over and get out of his new Fiat Uno, one well-dressed East Berliner -- with a glass of Rotkäppchen, East Germany's sparkling wine, in his hand -- was overcome with emotion. He tried to elicit a laugh with the words "I'm finally standing on the soil of freedom!" But, instead, he cried.
Everywhere the East German cars showed up, they were met with an enthusiastic welcoming party. An overcrowded Volga taxi crammed with young East Berliners drove up and down Kurfürstendamm -- or "Ku'damm" -- all night, basking in the applause. The crowds also clapped at some East Germans who lit up their stock of sparklers to thank their West Berlin taxi driver for a free ride. And there was also applause for a young man driving a Porsche 928 filled with what were obviously newly made friends in the back seat waving their blue East German ID cards out the windows.
West Berlin's entire downtown area, which includes the opulent stores along the Ku'damm and the KaDeWe, Berlin's ultra-luxurious department store, were firmly in the hands of East Berliners that night, and the celebrations stretched until 5 a.m.
In the evening, entire school classes made the pilgrimage to the border crossings and stayed through the night to celebrate, raising their glasses in toasts with East German workers who popped over for a look after the late shift. All the waitresses from Café Moskau, the most prestigious locale on Karl-Marx-Allee, the main boulevard of East Berlin, showed up in front of Café Kranzler, its western counterpart on the Ku'damm, growing increasingly shrill under the effects of sparking wine.
For one heady, joyful night, the city seemed willing to abandon its notoriously aggressive social character. Locals were elated to see their Ku'damm grandly stunk up with the exhaust of the Trabis' two-stroke engines. One American reporter with shining eyes called it the "stench of freedom."
No one grumbled at the droves of parka-clad new arrivals jamming up all the sidewalks as they sauntered along staring at everything. Even the bouncer at Joe's, a music bar on the Ku'damm, showed atypical bias: With a hearty "Why, of course!" he waved in customers who didn't look much like big spenders in their simple jean jackets.
For one night, the world seemed to have turned upside down. Even the major in the East German border police on duty at the Invalidenstrasse crossing growled to his subordinates: "Let the people out."
Those words set the tone for the entire night, from the Bornholmerstrasse crossing in the north of the city, where choirs sang "A Day as Beautiful as Today," to Sonnenallee in the south, where the usually tough Klaus Landowsky, the head of Berlin's regional Christian Democratic Union (CDU) organization, made a teary-eyed declaration that he had "never before experienced" anything like it.
And at the border crossing on Kreuzberg's Heinrich Heine Strasse, in the heart of the city, members of the local scene -- which is notorious for disliking unfamiliar faces and especially those of "Wessis," that is, people from West Germany -- could suddenly be seen fondly fraternizing with the "Ossis" from the East.
Long past midnight, a policeman asked Momper what the border police had looked like on the other side. In return, Momper asked him how long he had been on the force.
"Thirty-seven years," the man said.
"Then you know already, for sure. They're standing around looking just like you would if I were to tell you it had all been for nothing."