The fall of the Berlin Wall during the night of November 9, 1989, was the most seismic political event of my lifetime.

It changed the world for ever and produced the first signal that the Cold War was about to be consigned to history.

Spellbound, I looked on as thousands of Germans from both sides of the divide, Ossis and Wessis, attacked the concrete monstrosity with sledgehammers, chisels and claw hammers – anything they could lay their hands on – and began streaming across the rubble as police and border guards watched, powerless to intervene.

As the crowd flooded into spate it was obvious that things could never be the same again in the fractured Germany that had emerged after the Second World War, the eastern half a Communist enclave subservient to Moscow, the western half nominally free but still a garrison for four Nato armies and their air forces.

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Following 28 years of sullen division, the two Germanys were on their way to a new beginning, an eventuality that had seemed unlikely for as long as I could remember – I had first visited the city in the summer of 1962 the year following the construction of the wall and a couple of months before it claimed one of its youngest victims in 18 year-bricklayer Peter Fechter shot by the Volkspolizei attempting to escape to the west.

The events which led to the “Mauerfall” all happened so quickly that it is easy to forget that there was a certain inevitability which eluded most of us at the time.

Two years earlier in December 1987 against a background of reform in the Soviet Union sparked by President Mikhail Gorbachev the US and the Soviet Union signed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty which eliminated all nuclear and conventional missiles with ranges of up to 3,420 miles together with their launchers. It represented a major thaw in the Cold War as it was the first arms-control treaty to require an actual reduction in nuclear arsenals rather than merely restricting their proliferation.

It was not the end of the Cold War, but it was the beginning of the end. After the INF Treaty was signed there could be no turning back and while Gorbachev was beginning to face some internal resistance to his reforms his much-touted concepts of perestroika (economic restructuring) and glasnost (openness) had taken hold and were beginning to alter people’s attitudes and ambitions.

The pace of change also encouraged emergent nationalism in the Soviet satellites, especially in the Baltic states and the southern Islamic republics where there was a growing desire to break free from Soviet control.

Further west the two Germanys were also on the move towards reunification and tearing down the Iron Curtain which divided them. This process accelerated in the middle of August 1989 when the Hungarian government effectively opened its border with Austria thus allowing East German citizens to use their country as a transit.


A similar move was triggered in Czechoslovakia and was followed by mass demonstrations in East Germany itself. On October 18 hard-line East German President Erich Honecker resigned and his regime began to implode.

Three weeks later the border in Berlin was breached allowing the first steps to be taken towards reunification which was formally concluded in October 1990. In the aftermath of this astounding event which is still hotly debated in Germany other eastern European countries began to slough off their dependence on the Soviet Union and to reject the Communist political philosophy which they had shared during the Cold War as members of the Warsaw Pact.


As the constituent parts continued to demand independence, Gorbachev could find no support for his proposals for the creation of a new union of sovereign republics. He was also facing the end of the line as backing ebbed away from him and in August 1991 the inevitable happened when following a coup, he became a prisoner in his holiday villa at Foros on the Black Sea.

Help and deliverance arrived in the unlikely figure of Boris Yeltsin who had emerged as the coming man following his earlier election as the leader of the recently created Russian Federation.

To save face Gorbachev was permitted to return to Moscow, but his political career was at an end. On August 24 he resigned as leader of the Soviet Communist Party which had no further authority and dissolved itself a week later.

In place of the Soviet Union came the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) which was founded on 8 December 1991 by Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. Just over a fortnight later, on 25 December 1991 the Soviet Union passed into history as the Red Flag with its distinctive gold hammer and sickle was lowered for the last time. Although we did not perceive it at the time that was the true significance of what happened on that chilly Brandenburg night when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.