Journalists Recall Witnessing Fall of Berlin Wall

November 10, 2009 Updated: October 1, 2015

People watch the fireworks display in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on November 9, 2009 during the celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  (Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images)
People watch the fireworks display in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on November 9, 2009 during the celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. (Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK—Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, several journalists who were there reminisced on witnessing history. During a forum at the German House in New York, they shared memories of the mood at the moment in history when the barrier between East and West Germany was shattered.

Tim Aeppel is a foreign correspondent based in Bonn, Germany, and covered the events before and after the fall of the wall for The Wall Street Journal. Aeppel was at Checkpoint Charlie in East Berlin on the night of Nov. 9, 1989 with East Germans.

Aeppel recalled that at one point, the border guards started handing out cards to a crowd of over 700 that had gathered. The crowd threw the cards on the ground in defiance, finally fed up.

“I realized that was a turning point,” said Mr. Aeppel, who was awake for the next 48 hours following the story. “The crowd was firm, but they weren’t hostile.”

The sheer historical significance of what was unfolding wasn’t lost on Aeppel.

“As a journalist this was the biggest thing I could have been covering other than a war,” he said.

Michael Meyer, who was also at Checkpoint Charlie that night, said there were moments of uncertainty about whether things would turn violent.

“At one point the crowd got so close to their [border guards’] weapons that their breath began to mingle,” said Mr. Meyer. After it became clear that people would be allowed to cross into West Germany, the crowd was jubilant. “The people rose up. They found their courage.”

One woman near Meyer in a baby blue bathrobe with baby blue curlers in her hair crossed through the checkpoint just for the sake of doing it.

“She threw her head back and yelled to her friend, ‘I’m only going to be gone for a minute—I just want to see if it’s real!’” recalled Mr. Meyer. She was swept along with the massive crowd going in the same direction. “I scratched in my notebook ‘11:17 p.m., the wall comes down.’”

David Burnett, veteran photojournalist and co-founder of Contact Press Images, arrived on the scene the next day. While taking photographs at Checkpoint Charlie, he felt a tap on his shoulder and turned around to see Tom Brokaw, who told him, “You should have been here yesterday.”

But Burnett said the mood in the following days remained euphoric and peaceful, even when the picks to break the wall up came out.

“There was a spirit unlike I’ve seen in my years of photographing,” said Mr. Burnett, who has taken photographs professionally for more than three decades.

Elizabeth Pond, author of “Beyond the Wall: Germany’s Road to Unification,” said it represented the end of an era.

“It was the end of fear,” said Ms. Pond. “Many of them said it was the first time they were proud to be German.”

The well-attended forum was co-sponsored by the Overseas Press Club and the German Consulate of New York.