Berlin, 25 Years Ago: "Turn On the TV, Any Channel!"

Editor’s note: Earlier this week, we recognized the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Contributor Michael Marquardt shares his first-hand observations from that momentous occasion.

35d9d5fTwenty-five years ago, I was 19 years old and living in what was then West Berlin. In my last year of German high school, I often worked as a security guard at night to earn money so I could travel. November 9th, 1989, fell on a Thursday and I was working at the International Congress Center, a modern convention space known as the “ICC” about 4 miles from the Brandenburg Gate. My shift started around 11 pm. Just before midnight I was looking out the window and saw two Trabant cars pull up at a traffic light not far from me. I thought that was rather strange since you really never saw those East German built cars in West Berlin; you typically only saw them on the transit routes that served as the land connections to West Germany. Before I could give this a second thought, something even stranger happened. The doors of both Trabants opened, people started getting out and started dancing in the middle of the street. Other people got out of their cars and joined them! This seemed absolutely surreal to me.


While there certainly had been a lot of political commotion recently, and many peaceful demonstrations in the East, I knew of no one who had expected the Berlin Wall to fall anytime soon and certainly not that night. So I got on my walkie-talkie, which connected me to the central command post and to all the other guards in the ICC that night. I briefly described what I was seeing and was told, “Turn on the TV!” Now, in those days there were not that many television channels in Berlin and none had 24-hour programming. Most started broadcasting a test signal well before midnight. So I asked, “Which channel?” Someone else answered excitedly, “Any channel!” Sure enough, as I found a TV and turned it on, every single channel was broadcasting live from the Berlin Wall. Journalists were breathlessly reporting that the Wall had fallen. That is how I learned the monumental news that the city where I grew up would never be the same, that Germany would never be the same. There were hardly any mobile phones, there was no Twitter stream to check, no Facebook updates to consult. The news traveled person to person.

I headed to the Wall as soon as my shift was over, early in the morning. Getting off the subway I saw hundreds of empty bottles of champagne lining the staircase leading up to the street. And once I got close to the Brandenburg Gate, the strong lights of the television crews from around the world turned a still dark November morning into daylight. I spotted Tom Brokaw from NBC News and several other news anchors broadcasting live, seemingly just a few feet from each other.

School was canceled for several days as all Berliners joined in an incredible celebration that was different from anything I had ever experienced. We watched Easterners buy bananas in our grocery stores – a fruit that most had only seen on television before. For several weeks all public transportation was free of charge since East Germans had little or no money, and stories of reunited families and friends abounded.

The world would never be the same.

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