Ever wonder what journalists think when they cover a major event? Tom Heneghan was there when the Berlin Wall fell — a true turning point in history.

Berlin Wall
East Berlin Mayor Erhard Krack (with microphone) and West Berlin Mayor Walter Momper speak to a crowd gathered at Potsdamer Platz in Berlin on 12 November 1989, three days after the Berlin Wall was opened. Tom Heneghan is the bearded journalist with eyeglasses behind Krack. (Courtesy of eastgermanyimages.com/Dr. Gerhard Murza)
Thirty years ago this November 9, the government of East Germany — a satellite state of the Soviet Union — announced that all East German citizens could visit West Germany and West Berlin. The stunning move preceded the fall of the Wall and eventually paved the way to the reunification of Germany. News-Decoder correspondent Tom Heneghan was there. 

By Tom Heneghan

Anniversaries of major events are usually the occasion for journalists who covered them to reminisce about what it was like back then.

Yes, I was there when…. No, it actually happened like this….

You get the picture.

A lot of this will go on this week because Saturday, November 9, is the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. For me, it feels like almost yesterday that I was just settling in as Reuters chief correspondent in Germany and history suddenly happened to me.

It’s tempting to tell once again how Reuters staffers crowded the small Reuters bureau in East Berlin’s press center, then fanned out to the Wall while the German service editor and I stayed back to write the updates.

There’s a whole article to write about how East and West German television reporting of the event, which we watched in the bureau, began to look very similar as the night wore on and the wall of communist censorship began to fall as well.

First draft of history

But much as retired journalists like to tell old stories, this time around I want to focus on something different. I’d like to look at the educated guesses that guided our coverage and how close they came to what actually happened.

This kind of look-back is not always comfortable because “the first draft of history” is usually written in a hurry with incomplete information. But it might give a better idea of how our reporting evolved.

As chief correspondent, I stayed in the Reuters East Berlin office all that historic night and wrote the updates. Here is how I remember our coverage of the event and how it looks in retrospect.

Before the Berlin Wall fell: It was clear from mid-1989 that East Germany was increasingly unstable. The new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, wanted reform, but veteran East German leader Erich Honecker resisted it. There were few alternative communist leaders in East Berlin, however, so it was hard to see dramatic change coming.

CONCLUSION: Our reporting was too cautious, but we didn’t know how weak East Germany actually was.

Reunification: When the new U.S. ambassador, Vernon Walters, arrived in Bonn in April 1989, his prediction of an imminent reunification met with polite silence and indulgent smiles. Moscow would never allow it, diplomats, academics and we journalists all believed.

CONCLUSION: We were obviously wrong.

Germans from East and West stand on the Berlin Wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate, one day after the Wall opened, Berlin, 10 November 1989 (AP Photo)

We could still not imagine what was about to happen.

A Fourth Reich: Worries that Germany could reunite and threaten Europe circulated in September and October, especially in London. The Bonn bureau rejected this as an overly British view of a country we believed was firmly democratic and pro-European. Maybe the fact the staff was quite diverse, with half a dozen nationalities besides British, contributed to our view.

CONCLUSION: We were right.

The turning point: On October 9, 70,000 protesters marched in Leipzig despite ominous threats of a bloody crackdown. But not a shot was fired. Western journalists were kept away, so we reported as best we could by telephone with dissident sources there. Only after the Wall fell a month later could we see this was the turning point because the regime had balked.

CONCLUSION: We underestimated it.

The clearest warning: On November 4, half a million protested in East Berlin. They had lost their fear of the regime, and anything could happen. At this point, we still weren’t thinking of the Wall opening, but we moved more reporters to Berlin to cover an imminent but yet undefined drama in the East.

CONCLUSION: We were right to prepare.

Initial reaction: When in the early evening, during routine news conference, Central Committee member Günter Schabowski announced almost off-handedly that East Germans could travel west with visas, we filed that news urgently. A journalist ran to the Checkpoint Charlie border post to see if anyone was leaving and found nothing. In the bureau, we discussed this for a while and decided reporters should go see if anything was happening. Journalists eventually went to border crossings to check, and it was only then that they saw East Germans streaming to the Wall and finally crossing over.

CONCLUSION: We could still not imagine what was about to happen.

Confusion and a dateline

Confusion at crossings: Choked with crowds demanding instant passage, the Wall’s eight border crossings opened at different times. Journalists in East Berlin often couldn’t see if the gate was open or not. One got swept along to the West and had to fight his way back. Those in the East found few phones to call in their reports. Colleagues in the West could see people coming over but could not contact the East Berlin bureau with the news. Official spokesmen on both sides were overwhelmed.

CONCLUSION: We did the best we could.

Changing the dateline: As midnight neared, Berlin was like a giant street party on both sides of the Wall. We dropped the dateline EAST BERLIN we’d been using and wrote just BERLIN. That put us 11 months ahead of the city’s official reunification, but we wanted to dramatize the euphoric mood.

CONCLUSION: This is history, we can break some rules, even some that might seem sacrosanct.

Context amid chaos: As the night progressed, we had two guidelines for background information in our stories:

— the Berlin Wall opening inevitably raised the reunification issue, but both sides and the four wartime Allies that could block it would tread cautiously. Anything big must be years away.

— the fact most East Berliners returned home that night meant they would mostly stay there as long as the new freedom to travel remained.

Both of those assumptions held for a few months but then were undermined.

CONCLUSION: We were conventionally correct but couldn’t see the trends that emerged and now seem obvious.

The far-right is now a serious political threat.

Among the events we didn’t know about was an urgent phone call from Gorbachev to West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl on November 10, during a rally in West Berlin, asking if East Germans were attacking Soviet troops.

Unable to go to the phone, Kohl sent his word this was not true. That may have been decisive in reining in Soviet generals keen to send in their tanks.

There were longer-term developments nobody could foresee that night.

Within hours of the Wall’s fall, I imagined the rival North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Warsaw Pact military alliances would disappear. The Warsaw Pact did fall apart as communism collapsed across Eastern Europe, but NATO survived and even expanded to the Russian border.

Gorbachev had his rivals and critics in Moscow, but the collapse of the Soviet Union, the chaotic years under Boris Yeltsin and the return to authoritarian rule under Vladimir Putin were not on anyone’s radar.

Apart from slow movement on reunification, we expected East Germans to prefer the non-communist left in their first democratic vote and shun far-right nationalists. Those elections in March 1990 saw Kohl’s mainstream conservative allies winning hands down.

The far-right took longer to get established but is now a serious political threat to the region’s other parties.

THREE QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:

  1. Are all news reports biased, or are they necessarily based on educated guesses that one can differ on?
  2. When you follow a breaking news event, how far ahead do you — and can you — project it into the future to see its possible effects?
  3. Berlin Wall and German reunification stories almost always note the difficulties many still face in eastern Germany. Do you think reunification was worth it after all?

Tom Heneghan was a correspondent, bureau chief, regional news editor and global religion editor during his 40 years at Reuters, with postings in Vienna, Geneva, Islamabad, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Bonn and Paris. He covered the Soviet-Afghan war, two papal elections and Germany’s reunification, which he analyzed in his book “Unchained Eagle: Germany After The Wall”. Based in Paris, he now writes regularly for The Tablet in London and Religion News Service in Washington.

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