Sunday, November 9, 2014

Road trip into history - 25 years since the Berlin Wall came down

As global stories go, few compare to the crumbling of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 as Soviet Union satellite states across eastern Europe began to fall like dominoes.

I was working as a news producer for the BBC in London at the time and marvelled at the intense planning that involved intricate and often secret plans for mobilising reporters, producers, camera crews and pieces of satellite equipment into place for the anticipated fall of the Berlin Wall.

Not exactly a warm welcome - but all that changed in November 1989.    Picture: Peter Ryan

It was grey, muddy, cold and dirty. But the soldiers atop The Berlin Wall were smiling,  Picture: Peter Ryan

It was adrenalin charged event just to be working for the BBC as I helped to plan coverage for legendary correspondents like the late Brian Hanrahan and John Simpson who I had previously viewed from afar on the ABC foreign desk in Sydney as an aspiring correspondent myself.

As the fast-moving events unfolded and intensified, teams were sent behind the lines into eastern bloc nations like Romania and Bulgaria that seemed likely to topple as the anti-Soviet mood towards democracy took hold.

Although travel restrictions had been softened by East German authorities, no one expected what appeared to be possible from early October – the fall of the Berlin Wall was coming faster than expected.

With my wife Mary Cotter shortly after we arrived at our hotel near the fast crumbling Berlin Wall.

Chipping away at what once represented the Soviet Union's ironclad grip on East Germany.   Picture: Peter Ryan

While many of my colleagues were being enlisted to head to Berlin as the BBC planned major coverage, I was given the news I would be staying in London.

Rather than missing out on history in the making, and having exhausted lobbying efforts to be sent, I managed to book a week off - encouraged as always by my wife Mary Cotter who remains my best life adviser.

I discuss our journey from London to Berlin with John McGlue of 720 ABC Perth.

We hired a trusty Vauxhall and headed off at around 4am from London to take the ferry to Calais.

Despite being fogged in, we were invited in for coffee and croissant by a kind young French couple who were intrigued to see a couple an Aussie journalist and his New Zealander wife heading off on such an adventure.

Picture: Peter Ryan

Outside the Brandenburg Gate as it was in November 1989   Picture: Peter Ryan

More than twenty years before in-car navigation systems became commonplace, we studied foldout road maps and made our way to Bruges for the night, on to Hamburg the next day and then into East Germany on our way to Berlin.

As we got closer to Berlin, we soon saw streams of people, presumably east Germans in their Skodas and Ladas heading west – horns tooting, lights flashing, arms waving.

The new-found freedom of just going out on a day trip was their reason for jubilation and you could cut the happiness in the air with a knife.

It was all consuming and I thought at the time about how many Australians took their travel liberties for granted.

It was an unforgettable experience – and the excitement easily surpassed taking a right hand drive Vauxhall on West German autobahns as left hand drive BMWs and Mercedes glided past.

As soon as we checked into our hotel not far from Checkpoint Charlie, we headed out into the streets of West Berlin to witness history unfolding before our eyes.

East German soldiers peered through cracks in the Wall and even allowed those on the west side to light up their cigarettes.

This image sums up the high emotion on the West Berlin side of the Wall.    Picture: Peter Ryan

Cracks widening between West and East.    Picture: Peter Ryan

Soldiers walked atop the Wall, viewed by locals and tourists who jostled to clamber up makeshift stands to view over into the East.

Mary and I lined up to take our turn with a hammer and chisel chipping what we could from the graffiti covered Wall which was once an icon of the Soviet Union’s iron-fisted resolve against the west.

The chisel slipped and I emerged bloody having scraped the skin off my knuckles.

But it was a price I was prepared to pay to be a participant in an event the whole world was watching.

Ramps were constructed to get a better view of the grey, muddy landscape over the Wall.   Picture: Peter Ryan 

Picture: Peter Ryan
The next day we lined up at Checkpoint Charlie for our day visa to get over into East Berlin.

The weather was cold, drab and grey – just like the Soviet style architecture – but it was a privilege to be part of the generation that passed into East Germany knowing there was an easy and free way of getting out.

I returned to Berlin two years ago, once again as a tourist, and found it to be vibrant, colourful and free.

I walked through the Brandenburg Gate from west to east, remembering how it was a cold sealed-off no-go area just 23 years before.

Since then, German reunification has been a challenge but a eventually a successful template despite initial cries that the West German economy would not be able to sustain the extra demand for basic services and givens such as health care and education.

Our road trip from November 1989 might sound like the account of a journalist’s road trip.

But for me, it will always represent a career highlight and underscores the privilege of being a journalist with a front row seat to history.

Picture: Peter Ryan

Mary Cotter chipping away at history - the road trip was at her urging.     Picture: Peter Ryan

Unaccustomed as I am to hard labour, I made an exception for The Berlin Wall.     Picture: Mary Cotter

The Berlin Wall went up in 1961 - the year I was born.     Picture: Mary Cotter

The dark graffiti belies the jubilation that The Wall was about to come down,    Picture: Peter Ryan

Picture: Peter Ryan

Picture: Peter Ryan

A cold and desolate view towards the Brandenburg Gate.    Picture: Peter Ryan

Checkpoint Charlie     Picture: Peter Ryan

Picture: Peter Ryan

An East German guard on the east side of the Brandenburg Gate (from our day trip)              Picture: Peter Ryan

That's Mary Cotter with the white hood - yes, it was bloody cold!     Picture: Peter Ryan

"You can't change the world but you can change the facts"       Picture: Peter Ryan

"West is Best" says the slogan - money never sleeps.      Picture: Peter Ryan

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