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earlier discussion

Many remember where they were the day the Berlin Wall came down, but perhaps not as well as the Globe's Jim Sheppard, Paul Koring and former Globe foreign correspondent John Gray.

All three were in Berlin at the time and witnessed the historic event.

The three journalists will join Doug Saunders Friday, Nov. 6 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss their experiences on bearing witness to the historic event and to discuss its legacy and meaning today. Mr. Sheppard covered the story for The Canadian Press, Mr. Koring was there for the Globe with Mr. Gray.

For the past two weeks, Mr. Saunders has been revisiting all of the former Eastern Bloc countries that ended communism in 1989 in his series Beyond the Berlin Wall, looking at the people and places that played vital roles in the fall of Communism. While much attention is paid to the symbolism of the Berlin Wall coming down, truth is, Mr. Saunders contends, the fertile ground of change was the fruit of seeds sown across Eastern Europe before Nov. 9, 1989.

Below is an edited transcript of the discussion, held Friday, Nov. 6th between 1-2 p.m. It has been edited for clarity. To read the discussion as it unfolded, see the Cover it Live window at the bottom of this story, and click Replay.

Doug Saunders:

Hello everyone, and welcome to John, Jim and Paul. For the past two weeks I've been reporting on the after-effects, 20 years later, of the event that occurred one cold November night in Berlin. We have three reporters here who were there at the time, reporting for mosf of Canada's newspapers. The fall of the Berlin Wall has become such an emblematic part of our history that we forget how recent and relevant it is, and also how amazing it was. I felt somewhat calloused, having watched a lot of cliche-ridden anniversary coverage, until I watched some live TV news footage of the events that night at Bornholmer Strasse, the first checkpoint to open. It was profoundly moving. We know a lot more now about the underlying politics - - such as the fact that Margaret Thatcher fought hard to keep the wall from opening- - but we've also forgotten a lot about the context and texture of that moment in 1989. I'd invite you to ask questions from these guys about their experiences that night, the changes that have occurred in Europe since then, or the circumstances that led up to, and followed, this epochal evening.

Let me start, before readers jump in, by asking the three of you to describe what you saw during the week the Wall fell.

John Gray:

On the morning of November 8, 1989, I was having breakfast in Athens, preparing to write knowledgably about the results of the Greek elections of the day before. My mind was far from East Germany. I had been there twice in the previous two months because demonstrations indicated surprising unrest - but nothing earth-shaking.

The phone rang. The Globe's foreign desk in Toronto. The East German cabinet had been forced to resign. Perhaps, said the editor, you should go to Germany. The fastest route was long - Athens, London, Berlin - so it was late in the afternoon when I walked into the government news conference theatre. I was just in time to hear that the ruling Politburo had been purged.

Twenty four hours later in the same new conference theatre a senior official said in a matter of fact way that travel restrictions for East Germans would be relaxed. No drama in the announcement, just an administrative change to take effect in the morning.

I was working late that night in my hotel and went out to file my stories from a pay phone on the street. It was a scene of total chaos - yelling, shouting, champagne-spraying, crying. Over the din I asked a man what it was all about. In my ear he yelled, "It's the Wall man, it's the Wall."

The Wall was gone and the roar on the street was the sound of the earth shaking.

Paul Koring:

I had worked (a little) in eastern Europe, including East Germany, in the 1980s while I was European Correspondent for the The Canadian Press.

The Globe had hired me in the summer of 1987. However by the fall of 1989 I was in the Ottawa bureau. As the events in Eastern Europe became more intense, I was sent to Berlin to help John Gray. I arrived on the morning the wall came down and spent the next few days - including the extraordinary weekend when hundreds of thousands of East Germans flooded the rich, enclave of West Berlin. Later that week I went to Prague, (where nothing had yet happened, certainly nothing compared to Poland, Hungary and East Germany. I got to Prague just before the first modest student demonstration that grew into the Velvet Revolution.

Jim Sheppard:

At the time the Berlin Wall fell, I was stationed in London, England, as The Canadian Press's sole foreign correspondent outside North America. Earlier in 1989, I had covered the fast-moving developments in the then-Soviet Bloc from Moscow, East Berlin, Budapest, Warsaw and Prague.

I arrived in Berlin just as the first big holes were being smashed in the iconic barrier and interviewed dozens of the first East Germans to make it safely to West Berlin as they poured through the gaps, then reported from the scene for about a week as history unfolded.

[In the interests of full disclosure, I did break briefly with standard journalistic practice of non-involvement and pounded at the wall myself for a while, dislodging a few small chunks - some of which I gave later to family members and one of which I still treasure.]

Paul Koring:

It was both stunning and euphoric and had a certain unbeliebable quality. I don't think I have ever "arrived" at the climax of a story that seems to overturn one of the things that had been fundamental to my life and the lives of my generation

John Gray:

I think what we saw above all was a city and a country absolutely stunned by what was happening. East Germany knew something was happening in the weeks before the Wall came down, but I think nobody expected the end of the wall and the end of that life they had lived for 30 years. Walking around East Berlin on the day after the wall came down, the scene that kept repeating was people suddenly crying - walking down the street, hugging whoever they were with, and crying.

Comment From Irek Kusmierczyk:

What was the role of the Solidarity movement in Poland on the fall of the Berlin Wall?

John Gray:

Solidarity had been something of a beacon to Eastern Europe for the better part of 10 years. And a solidarity government was sworn in at the end of August, two months before the Wall. But in terms of immediate impact, I think what shook East Germany was the decision of the supposedly Communist Hungarian government to let East Germans cross the border from Hungary into Austria. In the weeks before the wall went 200,000 people fled to the West. The people of the East were stunned, and their government even more so.

John Gray:

There were also some very funny scenes, like the man who scrambled to the top of the wall with his dog. Another made it up with his bicycle, sat down at the top and surveyed the vista of people everywhere. Two days before, anyone trying to get to the top of the

Paul Koring:

I knew Berlin - both halves - and had visited and worked there before but I actually arrived on the morning after the evening when the wall "opened."

And by then there were growing streams of East Berliners crossing and people dancing on top in some sections and totally befuddled East German border guards standing around not knowing what to do but knowing not to do what they had been doing for decades, which was to shoot people trying to escape

John Gray:

Two days before, anyone trying to get to the top of the wall would have been shot.

Doug Saunders:

Did any of you have a sense, during the tumultuous events of 1989, that the Berlin Wall might be nonexistent before Christmas?

Paul Koring:

In retrospect it all seems more final and historic -- the end of an era, the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union, the beginning of German reunification -- that it seems at the time. A lot of East Germans (and a lot of foreign correspondents) thought and worried and argued about whether the wall could be "closed" again. Nothing seemed a certainty

Jim Sheppard:

What I remember most about the first day in East Berlin as the gaps were being pounded out was the almost-cliche-like "German-ness" of it. I was at a small hole in the wall _ no more than six feet high and barely wide enough for one person to cross to the West at a time. The East Germans, despite their overwhelming desire to get out and go to the West were all in a very neat single line, moving slowly forward, with no one controlling the flow. They just lined up and went through when it was their turn.

Sasha Nagy:

Here is a picture Jim has sitting on his desk here at the Globe. He mentioned in his opening comment.

Jim Sheppard:

A couple with a baby in a stroller approached the gap. The stroller was too big to go throught. Everyone stopped to help. No one crossed until they could fold up the stroller and let the couple through with their baby.

Paul Koring:

To answer Doug's question. I guess we should have "known" that the growing events would result in the domino of revolutions. But I certainly didn't. I you had asked me on Labor Day, or maybe even the first week of November, whether the wall would be opened, I'm sure I would have said "no." And I certainly had no inkling that we were weeks away from the "Velvet Revolution" topping the Communists in then Czechoslovakia or a short, bloody, revolution that ousted the Romanian dictator

Jim Sheppard:

Doug: I think the fact that all three of us were far from Berlin (I had just returned to London for a vacation with my parents after a stint in Moscow) shows the unexpected timing of the fall of the wall. I think everyone knew big changes were happening. But no one predicted the day or time much in advance. As John wrote above, it all happened so fast, it was hard to appreciate the historic significance while on the ground watching it all. (By the way, I had to leave my parents sleeping in our flat in London. My wonderful wife then took them on our pre-planned trip to Wales while I spent their vacation week in Berlin.)

Paul Koring:

At least for me, the "inevitability" of it all, the huge forces of change that look so obvious in retrospect entirely eluded me. I didn't expect the wall to come down -- but once it did -- it also didn't occur to me that the violent and bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia would be a probable consequence of the same forces

Sasha Nagy:

Interesting point Paul.

Jim Sheppard:

It was, frankly, very similar to what happened in August 1991 when a hard-line Communist coup took place and briefly ousted Gorbachev _ an event which led eventually to the disintegration of The Soviet Union. Everyone knew something was going to happen. No one knew when. In fact, if memory serves me right, John and I were the only two Canadian correspondents in Moscow the day the coup was launched. The others were all on vacation.

Doug Saunders:

That's the thing, Paul - we forget how close it must have come to being far less peaceful. The Tiananmen Square had happened four months before. We now know that Erich Honecker had ordered his soldiers to fire on the demonstrators in Leipzig on Oct. 9, and the Berlin Wall guards could well have interpreted their rules of engagement to shoot. It's amazing that Romania (and later Yugoslavia)were the bloody exceptions, not the norm. Did you ever get the chilling feeling that the winds might shift, and the soldiers at the edge of the square might start firing your way?

John Gray:

The one dramatic change I should have mentioned earlier was the attitude of the border guards. They had always worked very hard at being frightening. There were no smiles, no small courtesies to greet travelers. They glared and almost challenged you to be rude back to them. The day after the wall, they looked stunned, like the rest of East Germany. In fact it took probably a week before they were even marginally decent. But after that week you'd think they had been polite forever.

Paul Koring:

I recall - somewhat vaguely because there was much good food and wine involved - a dinner a few days after the wall came down when a bunch of journalists sat and argued over things like; whether the East German leader would be deputy chancellor of a united germany, whether the Soviets would draw the "line" after Germany, whether it would take a generation before Germany could be "united." All those things seems worthy of serious discussion at the time. All seem entirely foolish now and seemed entirely foolish within weeks. So the "unexpectedness" of the fall was real.

Sasha Nagy:

Here's a PDF of the Globe front page from Nov. 10, 1989

Jim Sheppard:

I think we also need to note the role that Gorbachev played in the fall of the wall. It's hard to remember now but The Soviet Union was still viewed then as a huge and threatening military power. As the East German government collapsed, Gorbachev was faced with a historic decision _ let "glasnost" run its course and open the wall, or spark a frightening sequence of events by clamping down again.

Paul Koring:

Certiainly there was a night in Prague about two weeks later, after the first demonstrators had been beaten and then a few days of tentative but growing protests that lots of army and police were on the move in the night. I really thought we were about to have a nasty repeat on 1968. But it didn't happen. Maybe by then it couldn't have happened. And in Romania, it was the army that back the people and sealed the fate of the Communists

John Gray:

As I recall that dinner discussion did, indeed, involve some wine. Beyond that I remember very little. That is worth mentioning only in the context of the extraordinary explosion of joy and surprise and uncertainty that we had seen.

Jim Sheppard:

Earlier this week, Gorbachev said at a "reunion" ceremony surrounding the events in Berlin that the Kremlin could have started World War Three had it used troops to crush the demonstrations that preceded the fall of the Berlin Wall, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said on Tuesday.

When asked by a reporter why he did not use force to halt the demonstrations, Gorbachev said it would have sparked a catastrophic set of events and even a world war.

"If the Soviet Union had wished, there would have been nothing of the sort (the fall of the Wall) and no German unification. But what would have happened? A catastrophe or World War Three," said Gorbachev, 78.

Here's a link with more details.

Jim Sheppard:

The wine was pretty good, I recall.

Sasha Nagy:

Here's the Nov. 11 Globe front page , featuring Paul Koring and John Gray. Sorry, Jim, they didn't run CP that day.

Jim Sheppard:

The other thing I remember most about the first day the wall fell was the fact that so many East Germans spent a few hours looking around West Berlin, eyeing all the kinds they couldn't buy, trying to find friends and family to chat _ then turned around and went back home to East Berlin later that evening. It seemed perfectly normal at the time but in retrospect, with so much uncertainty that day, I'm surprised that more people didn't immediately apply for asylum or refugee status or just play refuse to go back to East Berlin.

Paul Koring:

Speaking of wine, one of the many, many, wonderful events that happened in the first few days was the lots and lots of East Berliners were filling the West Berlin bars. Their money was worthless but complete strangers were buying them endless streams of drinks. There was a pretty wild and hard-partying atmosphere in the evenings. During the days people would stroll and window shop and gawk and it was all very warm and memorable. The hard parts came later

John Gray:

I had been in Berlin a month before the Wall came down. It was the 40th anniversary of the GDR - East Germany - and they were doing their best to make a big deal of it. But the East Germans were having a problem. Every body in the East was talking about the flight of East Germans to the West and everyone was watching Mikhail Gorbachev who was the star of the reviewing stand as thousands marched by. But Gorbachev showed no enthusiasm. He was correct while the East German president Erich Honecker tried to pretend it was all a triumphal occasion - although in the distance you could hear East German dissidents chanting Gorby, Gorby, Gorby. That night there were a lot of noisy demonstrations broken up by police with water cannon.

Paul Koring:

There was also a reverse flow. Plenty of "Wessis" were going to the DDR (East Germany) for the first time, some to see family, some to see the half of the country that had been hived off, some just to get a taste of a completely different life.

Doug Saunders:

One amazing thing now is how little trace of the Wall is left in Berlin today - - I don't just mean the physical thing (it's mostly been carved off and carried off by people like Jim), but any sense of the old division of the city. I visited Berlin in 1987... "West Berlin," that is, and I still find it amazing that the whole metropolis I saw then is today basically a set of sleepy bedroom communities attached to a city whose whole core is east of the old Wall division. Still, people identify themselves as "Ossies" or "Wessies" and that means they've had profoundly different life experiences and opportunities.

Sasha Nagy:

Question for the panel. Can you think of any events since Berlin in 1989, where the world order seemed to change before our eyes? 9/11 was cited recently as such an event, of course, one that was in marked contrast to the peaceful consequence of the wall coming down.

Paul Koring:

My son, born after the wall came down, went to Berlin this summer with the German family whose son had been an exchange student in Washington last year. He found it almost impossible to reconciled my stories of a divided city that was the symbol of the Cold War and the clash of superpowers with the city as it is today.

Jim Sheppard:

Doug: I agree. I went back to Berlin several times, including the summer of 1990 when "social and economic integration" of East and West took place (a first step on the road to reunification. In all of the most familiar parts of the city, the wall was already gone. Checkpoint Charlie and a few other infamous sites of the Cold War were still there -- but already tourist attractions with no military or political or territorial significance.

John Gray:

On the day after the wall came down there were crowds of West Berliners who went to watch the East Berliners leaving the East, most of them on foot, some of them in rattletrap Trabant cars. One of the things that happened was that some well-meaning West Berliners arrived at the wall bearing bananas to give to the East Berliners who were, they thought, starved for fresh fruit. It was intended, as I say, as a kindly gesture but after a few weeks the East Germans recalled the scene with some bitterness, comparing it to zoo visitors throwing bananas to the monkeys.

Paul Koring:

I don't think 9/11 compares to the fall of wall in terms of consequence. Its true, that like Kennedy's assassination or the first many walking on the moon, 9/11 was one of the defining moments of a generation. But I don't think 9/11 fundamentally changed the world. The fall of the wall (albeit that was a symbol for a series of events) signals the passing of an era that had defined the planet for most of the 20th century. The world after the fall of the wall was fundamentally different. There was no going back.

Jim Sheppard:

Sasha: I'd still say the fall of the Soviet Union. For a while, I wondered if I was a good/bad omen for any place I lived or visited. I was in Berlin when the Wall fell, Moscow for the end of communism, and less than a mile from the Pentagon on 9/11.

Paul Koring:

Maybe because I wasn't in Moscow, I tend to comingle the fall of the wall and and ensuring events that included the end of the Soviet Union as a single sequence, sort of a consequential chain. But it seems to me that the fall of the wall was the most iconic moment.

Sasha Nagy:

Here's the Globe front page from Nov. 13, 1989 . John Gray writing on the curiosity of the East Germans.

Comment From Irek Kusmierczyk:

Just as the Soviet Army's defeat in Afghanistan precipitated a major reconsideration of the country's position vis-a-vish the rest of the world, I am curious how the inevitable US defeat in Afghanistan (see John Mearsheimer's article in Foreign Policy this week) may transform US relations with the rest of the world and in particular the Muslim world.

Jim Sheppard:

That's a whole other question, Irek. Presupposing a lot, too.

Doug Saunders:

I note from our 1989 front page that Paul's placeline was "West Berlin" and John's was "East Berlin." John: "The Berlin Wall that once threatened to spark a world war has been overwhelmed by a mighty tide of joyful people who wanted to see what was on the other side" (nicely put) - - Paul: "Atop the Berlin Wall - - for so long the most evocative scar of a divided Europe - - East and West Germans danced together yesterday." People knew immediately, minutes after it occurred, that the world was no longer the same. It was a Champagne cork that couldn't be stuffed back in the bottle. I was struck by the overheard line in this news clip where the couple embrace and she says "Imagine if it were like this forever?" People knew well what it meant.

Jim Sheppard:

I think Paul is right on the symbolism. Communism in The Soviet Union died a very slow lingering death and the vast majority of people would not even be able to pin a date on it. I use Dec. 25, 1991, as my own benchmark. That's the day Yeltsin forced Gorby to resign, moved into the Kremlin and took down the hammer-and-sickle flag. But who else remembers that date?

John Gray:

Sasha's question has me stumped. although I am more inclined than Paul to see 9/11 as one of those climacterics. I think the essential change after 9/11 was that it seemed to sanction whatever the United States might think suitable. We are inclined to be hyper critical of George W Bush, but the fact is that Barack Obama has carried on the war in Afghanistan in a manner that would meet with the full approval of his predecessor. That said, the fall of the Wall must be seen in the context of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Soviet empire, and that really did change the world.

Sasha Nagy:

More from the Globe archives. Paul Koring from Nov. 13th. Inside pages, but a nice read on the two mayors of Berlin meeting and shaking hands.

Paul Koring:

As for Afghanistan, I'm not at all sure that the Soviet defeat (actually a pullout after failure to quell the insurgency) is sufficiently parallel to suggest that if the U.S.-led western alliances either quits and goes home or is forced out, that it will lead to the collapse of the United States. In fact, I don't think it will. I suspect most of the musing on that subject is wishful thinking.

Sasha Nagy:

I would like to bring things back to Berlin in the short time we have left. Paul, John and Jim. What are your plans for Monday, will you try to watch the coverage of Berlin? Will you watch as journalists, or will it be a more sentimental moment for you.

Doug Saunders:

Amazing to read Paul's "Life returns to wasteland that was Potsdamer Platz." The contrast is incredible - - here's Pots Platz in '88 or so... here is what it looks like now - - it's the central square of the city, with the new Canadian embassy on the east side (straddling the old Wall).

John Gray:

Afghanistan is an interesting question. It's true that the Soviets were humiliated, true also that the various Soviet republics were emboldened to rebel against Moscow's control. But Russia remains as the economic and military power surviving the empire. It was a massive defeat but that was not by itself the cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The United States survived the humiliation of Vietnam; it will survive whatever happens in afghanistan.

Paul Koring:

I'm sorry I won't be there. I'm not big on "anniversaries" but I confess to wishing I was going to be there. I have read with interest (and some envy) the "lookback/lookforward' series that Doug and others have done. I think I'm sorry we won't all be there for another hazy dinner in which we solved (or thought we solved) the mysteries of where the world was headed.

Jim Sheppard:

I will watch a bit of the coverage on Monday _ primarily with my 12-year-old son who keeps seeing clips about upcoming TV coverage and is fascinated that I was there. He's got a lot of questions about it. But to him, it's just pictures. He was born 8 years after the Wall fell, 6 years after the Soviet Union fell. The words "Cold War" mean nothing to him. The world we knew then is way beyond his comprehension, although he's full of questions about it.

Sasha Nagy:

Well, I watched the fall of the wall in 1989 while at a university newspaper conference in Saskatoon, and it was an inspiring reminder why people want to be in this business. It certainly is a moment I will not forget. I think I skipped most of the seminars that day and just watched, in awe that this happened. As a child of a father forced to flee Europe, the divisions that were there always fascinated me.

Jim Sheppard:

Think about that for a minute. You would have to be at least what _ 35 or 40 years old now _ to have good solid memories of what the world was like before the Wall fell. How many people in Canada today are younger than that?

John Gray:

A small anecdote about the Wall. At the Christmas after the Wall I was back in Toronto for a family holiday. I brought with me a number of chunks of the Wall. Our own children, grown up, were polite but unmoved. Old friends who had lived with Berlin as a crisis going back to the Blockade of 1949 were struck silent, one at least close to tears. The great icons of history have a way of dating themselves.

Paul Koring:

I guess it's too late for this year, but at the risk of being too wistful, we should make a point of doing that dinner again some November.

John Gray:

Paul, if you can arrange that dinner, I will be there.

Jim Sheppard:

Likewise!

Sasha Nagy:

Doug, I understand you have to go. Before we wrap, can you give readers a sense of what you have coming for this weekend's Globe and for Monday?

Doug Saunders:

Sasha, I'll be writing tomorrow from Leipzig on the people who really caused the Berlin Wall to fall and communism to end in the GDR -- the Monday protest organizers whose imprisonment caused everything to escalate. I'll have a video from Leipzig as well. Over the weekend I'll be in Berlin, and I'll be filing live material to the Web and Twitter. I'll have more multimedia and stories from Berlin on Monday as the events unfold, as well as an article about the many formerly elite East Germans whose worlds collapsed - - and in many cases their minds and souls with them - - when the Wall came down.

Sasha Nagy:

Thanks to you all for taking time out of your days for this chat, to Paul who is in the throes of covering the Ft. Hood shooting among other major stories, and to John whose contributions to the Globe over the years are legendary.

Jim, I promise to return the photo I took from your office.

John Gray:

Take care, all of you

Jim Sheppard:

Thanks, Doug and Sasha, for arranging this. It was fun. Good to hear again from John and Paul, too.

Sasha Nagy:

Please follow the Beyond the Berlin Wall series here







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