The Foreign Service Journal, November 2019

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | NOVEMBER 2019 43 To Celebrate or Sleep? Jon Greenwald East Berlin, German Democratic Republic a s the embassy’s political counselor in East Berlin, I spent hours that evening telling colleagues in West Berlin and State’s Operations Center not to expect immediate drama. We had been working hard for months as peaceful revolution developed in the German Democratic Republic. A few days before, a million people had demonstrated in the heart of the city for radi- cal changes. All week we were reporting on the Communist Party plenum that revised the Politburo and introduced a reform prime minister. We were anticipating a law to permit extensive travel for East Germans for the first time since the Berlin Wall was built. As I coordi- nated reporting, I watched the televised press conference; the party’s spokesman, Guenter Schabowski, ended with a comment on new regulations that would allow applications for immediate travel. My phone began to ring. Ambassador Dick Barkley had heard Schabowski and wanted us to informWashington. Then the head of the U.S. mission in West Berlin [known as USBER], Harry Gilmore, called to say that the mayor had told him plans were ready, since Schabowski had advised him a week earlier to expect visitors soon. “When will it begin?” Harry asked. Schabowski said documents would be needed, I explained, though police offices would probably be swamped by applicants the next morning. Imre Lipping, my deputy, arrived to compare notes. We agreed there were unanswered questions. There could be a long wait for passports, if only because millions would have to be issued. But if the authorities processed applications as promised, the ques- tion would arise what purpose the wall retained. Unless the GDR acknowledged it was becoming an anachronism, many would conclude liberalization was only a gambit that could be with- drawn as quickly as it was introduced. When my wife, Gaby, a Berliner, arrived home, she recounted a troubling experience minutes earlier while returning from visit- ing her mother in West Berlin. As she left the checkpoint, a dozen men blocked the street. She first thought they were drunk but saw no bottles, and more people came out of apartment buildings, apparently to join them. I knew nerves were stretched tight and hoped the restraint that had carried East Germans so far would not fray just as their demands appeared close to realization. Our embassy was empty except for communication officers Duane Bredeck and Larry Stafford when I handed in my cables and began to drive home to the Pankow district. Downtown was empty, though lights were burning at party headquarters. But at Schoenhauser Allee, in the shadow of the elevated train, thousands were streaming through the Bornholmer Strasse intersection. Police were struggling to keep a lane to Pankow open, but the crowd was intent on reaching the wall. I was frightened for them and the peaceful process we had witnessed all fall. There were troops just a few hundred yards away. If Berlin- ers did not wait for morning and demanded to be allowed through now, how would the young soldiers in the watchtowers react? Was there one panicky youth with a gun on either side of the barrier? Warnings that a violent incident could bring civil war were on my mind. I considered joining the push toward the wall, but in that age without cell phones, it might be hours before I could reestablish outside contact. Better to continue home to put out my alert. Unusually, lights were on in many houses on our street. Ours, however, was dark. I woke Gaby, who stood anxiously beside me as I telephoned J.D. Bindenagel, the deputy chief of mission. Thousands are pushing toward the wall, I told him, and there may be trouble. “It’s all over,” he replied. “They’ve opened the wall. I’ve spoken with Washington. Turn on your television.” And so we saw the joyful scenes. Gaby, a student when the wall went up, had known it all her adult life. “I don’t believe it. I just don’t believe it,” she said, before asking, “Should I dress? Should we go downtown?” I wanted to, but it had been a long day, with a longer one starting in a few short hours. So we went to sleep while Berlin celebrated, though we cried a bit first. And then our embassy began to report on the new Germany that was being born. Jon Greenwald is a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service. Since 2017 he has been working on a project to bring young Israeli and Palestinian students to study together for a three-year period at leading prep schools in the United States, Germany and Israel. Jon Greenwald’s book, originally published in 1993. JONGREEWALD