Thirty years ago, 1989 really was a tumultuous year in geo politics maybe the most confused, exciting and historically important since the end of WWII in 1945, certainly for me as a working news photographer for The Independent 1989 was one of the busiest and most important years in my working life.
The European elections of late spring morphed into covering the post Tiananmen Square fall out in China which then became a story about the government in Budapest opening the border into Austria allowing East Germans to transit Hungary and flee to the west…which then became a story about the fall of communism, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall leading the reunification of Germany…and, in my opinion the real end of the second world war.
I write about my experiences about getting stuck in East Berlin in my book,’…and then the Prime Minister hit me…’. I write about how I delayed the actual breaking through of the wall by more than five minutes, all for the want of a set of AA batteries, on that cold damp Thursday night on the 9th of November 1989, so long ago but oh so fresh in my memory…and to perpetuate that well-worn cliché… I really was privileged to witness history in the making.
Here is an edit from my book. http://impress-publishing.com/and-then-the-prime-minister-hit-me.html
I had been keeping a watching brief on the situation in Eastern Europe for a while after returning from China where I covered the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
I made a couple of trips to Hungary where I photographed the first of the Ossies-East Germans camping out in the grounds of the West German Embassy where they enjoyed a level of political protection and at a communist summer camp on the shores of Lake Balaton.
A trickle of families including some with very young children had escaped from the GDR ( The German Democratic Republic-East Germany ) through the porous border into northern Hungary, a fellow Warsaw pact country but with a slightly more enlightened government, in the early autumn of ’89.
The trickle became a flood and the West German Government stepped in and gave sanctuary in the grounds of their Embassy.
The Hungarians seemed to be in no mood to halt the exodus through their country and within a couple of weeks the border into neighbouring Austria in the west had been thrown open. Of course there was confusion and fear. Many Ossies were worried that they would never be allowed back, some were worried that the GDR secret police, the dreaded Stassi, would seek revenge against those family members left behind and those who had no family or friends in the west soon ran out of money.
The flood of escapees slowed and stopped.
Back in the GDR news has spread that it was possible to get out to the west and protests started around the country principally in Berlin and Leipzig demanding that the wall, that hideous divide between east and west, come down.
I returned in late October and realised that something truly momentous was happening in East Germany.
I had a meeting with my Picture Editor Christopher McKane and the Independent’s Editor Andreas Whitham-Smith ( AWS ) and asked to be sent to East Berlin, just to sit tight and watch for any developments.
Through the back of the wardrobe and into the dark….
Entering East Berlin on that dark cold November evening was a chilling, sobering experience.
West Berlin was all bright lights, busy traffic and lots of bustle and noise.
East Berlin wasn’t.
Going through Check Point Charlie was like going back 50 years in time. Imagine going through the back of the wardrobe in the CS Lewis tales and emerging into another world of darkened sinister streets lit by 30watt light bulbs, the whole scene bathed in a yellow glow from the pollution in the air caused by burning brown lignite coal and all with armed trigger happy East German border guards who would shoot to kill.
Welcome to hard line Stalinist East Berlin, the Soviets show piece to the west.
There was no banter with the border guards, you did as you were told. I was travelling ‘light’, no heavy duty transmitting machine or darkroom , just a small bag of camera gear, so there was no problem entering as a ‘businessman’.
You had to change up a set sum of West German currency into Ost marks at one to one, I think it was 50DM, about £20, each time you crossed from west to east. As I was staying in a west mark hotel where you couldn’t spend Ost marks I soon had quite a surplus of useless currency. You can only eat so many Bratwursts from the Vietnamese street vendors and even they preferred you to pay in West Marks albeit at a rate somewhat better than that received at the border.
Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of East German economics.
After passing through border control, the bright lights of the west behind me, I drove slowly, very slowly around the chicane of protective anti tank concrete blocks that took me onto Friedrichstrasse, a darkened cavern of a street with no people, no cars, no life.
A turn to the right took me onto Unter Den Linden and to the Pallast Hotel near Alexander Platz where I was booked in to stay.
I noticed a small crowd gathering nearby and went to investigate. A demonstration had just finished and all the protest banners had been laid on the grass within a hundred metres of the Volkskammer, the Peoples Chamber, a real snub to the authorities.
This was the evening of Monday the 6th of November. The hated GDR leader Honecker had already been ousted in mid October, his successor Krenz wasn’t faring much better.
The following day I spent wandering quietly around the streets of East Berlin. There was a strange quality to the light, soft and muted, similar to London in the ‘50’s and early ‘60’s before the clean air act. My images had an ethereal feel to them, even though they were made in 1989 they looked like they had been shot many years earlier.
The street furniture, the cheap clothing, the grey light and the lack of western styled cars all helped to make instant nostalgia.
I was kicked out of my hotel the next day as a ‘delegation’ had arrived unannounced and demanded all the rooms. I have no idea who they were but the bad suits gave them away as probably in from Moscow
I didn’t argue.
The Indy’s West German correspondent Patricia Clough arrived from Bonn and we found another hotel nearby and booked in for two weeks.
Apart from a couple of Civic Forum meetings held in the suburbs things were quiet. We wandered down to the east side of the Brandenburg Gate to watch the armed border guards go about their business and found a ‘bierkeller’ that served half decent food and drink.
I popped back to the west a couple of times to ship some film back to London. After a couple of trips back and forth the border guards recognised my big West German registered hire car. I wasn’t exactly waved through but the threatening demeanour had changed somewhat. I noticed that the rifles had disappeared to be replaced with side arms.
Thursday Evening 9th of November.
I was resting in my room when the ‘phone rang. It was AWS my Editor in London. ‘ ‘I’ve just seen an AP ( Associated Press ) news snap saying that the wall be come down tonight’. He even gave me the street name and time where this was to happen.
I had 20 minutes to get to the location.
I grabbed my cameras and dashed down to the lobby to get my car out of the secured hotel car park. The car park attendant had gone home for the night. Would sir return tomorrow morning asked the receptionist. No, sir wouldn’t.
Taxis were at a premium, i.e. there weren’t any unless you pre booked or engaged a driver for the day.
As I turned from the reception desk a taxi turned up with a Canadian journalist aboard. I rushed outside before the driver disappeared. I told the reporter that the wall was about to come down within 15 minutes. He looked at me incredulously as he had just arrived in from the airport.
The driver was obviously itching to get away so I just put a 100DM ( hard Western currency ) note in his hand and demanded he drive me to Bernauer Straße.
I arrived at the location of what was to be the very first breach in the wall. There was a small crowd of locals, a few journalists, a couple of photographers and a TV camera crew. I joined them as a road digger trundled down the darkened street to attack the wall.
I fired a frame with flash but nothing happened, I tried again, nothing. My flash had died. The batteries were exhausted.
Frantically I asked the waiting crowd if anyone had any spare AA batteries.
A radio reporter came to my aid with some spares but by this time the digger was about to attack. I jumped up onto the machine to indicate to the driver that I was about to dis-assemble my photographic equipment in the dark and in the rain and would he mind just waiting a few minutes while I sorted myself out.
He did, bless him.
The wall started to fall, delayed by me for only a few minutes, just before 10.30pm on the 9th of November 1989.
I had images of the first bite into the wall, locals holding their bits of fallen masonry and very confused East German border guards who were visible standing in the death strip zone between east and west.
Now, the difficult bit. Getting the material back to London.
I had to get to the west to transmit my pictures via Reuters the international news agency. There was no transmitter in the east, although I found out later that Reuters had managed to get a transmitter into East Berlin.
My driver, couldn’t believe what he was seeing and quite frankly neither could I.
This was history in the raw.
We tried to get to West Berlin via Check Point Charlie. I could get through but not my driver, wrong piece of paper. We drove to another crossing point where the driver knew he could get through, this time I had the wrong documentation.
It was now well past midnight and I knew I was missing all my London late editions.
We went back to Charlie where there were thousands of Berliners from both sides just trying to cross over. The border was open but closed by the sheer weight of people.
I ditched the cab and pushed my way through the throng. I walked the route of the wall around to the west side of the Brandenburg Gate.
I arrived about two in the morning, far too late for that nights edition. There were dozens of West Berliners climbing onto the wall now, waving and cheering and giving ‘V’ for victory signs to the East German border guards.
This was too much. The guards started to use high pressure water hoses on those brave enough to stand their ground high upon the wall. I climbed a tree to get a vantage point and spotted two guys up on the wall using an umbrella as a shield against the water jet.
I made the picture.
Wet, tired but elated I made my way out to the airport to arrange to get my overnight material on the first BA flight out in the morning.
The following day I was given the whole of the back page of the Saturday Independent to show off my coverage with the lead picture across 8 columns of the men being hosed off the Wall.
The next few days morphed into each other and Independent correspondent Pat Clough and myself raced around Berlin catching up with the fastest of moving stories. On Saturday the 11th of November, only two days after the wall was breached, the infamous Glienicker Bridge, scene of many a spy exchange during the height of the cold war was opened up to East and West Germans to cross at will. As there was no Sunday Independent back in November 1989 my pictures and story had to wait to be published on Monday.
As both Pat and I were slightly ahead with our coverage we could afford to relax a little and spend Sunday watching various sections of the Berlin Wall crash to the ground as Berliners (and not a few journalists including myself) grabbed hold of precious pieces of the falling wall…the east facing white painted sections being the most prized.
Tens of thousands of East Berliners queued patiently to cross to the west during the next few days, many to be re-united with family and friends not seen since the wall was built in the early 1960’s.
… and then as quickly as the fall of the wall in Berlin had happened, the fickle hand of the news agenda took me to Prague in Czechoslovakia to cover The Velvet Revolution where Alexander Dubček returned from exile and Václav Havel became President…what amazing times…