The man who opened the Berlin Wall 25 years ago

The man who opened the Berlin Wall 25 years ago

WERNEUCHEN, Germany - He might not agree with the label, but Harald Jaeger is the man credited with opening the Berlin Wall.

"It's not me who opened the Wall. It's the East German citizens who gathered that evening," Jaeger says, humbly.

Nevertheless the former East German border guard - and, at the time, loyal follower of the embattled communist regime - has gone down in history as the man who, literally, did just that.

Amid total confusion and without clear orders from on high, Jaeger made the snap decision to open the barrier at the Bornholmer Strasse border crossing between East and West Berlin on the night of November 9, 1989.

Euphoric East Germans, who had massed there through the cold evening, flooded into the West, peacefully bringing down the Iron Curtain after 28 years of Berlin's division by the iconic symbol of the Cold War.

Twenty-five years later, Jaeger, now 71, still recalls the disbelief he felt hearing the words that drew the crowd in the first place.

Out of the blue, a communist official had declared on TV that East Germans could now travel abroad "immediately, without delay".

"I almost choked on my bread roll," he told AFP in an interview. "I didn't believe my ears and said to myself: 'But what stupidity has just been announced?'"

The lieutenant colonel, who was also attached to the Stasi secret police, had worked for the East German border police for 28 years, and was the deputy chief at the Bornholmer Strasse crossing in the north of East Berlin.

'No instructions'

The East German protest movement had been snowballing for weeks, and the border posts were on alert. But Jaeger said that nothing on that day, November 9, had pointed to the fact that history would be made that night.

He had anticipated a normal shift, taking over responsibility for 14 officers from 6:00 pm local time, when his boss knocked off and went home.

At the canteen, however, where Jaeger was eating supper, things quickly changed when he watched the TV coverage of the unexpected and apparently unscripted announcement giving the green light for travel to the West.

He rushed back to his post, he said, where colleagues were at first sceptical, thinking he'd been mistaken, and so he telephoned his superior hoping for clarification.

"You're calling because of such a stupid thing?" his boss grumbled down the line, instructing Jaeger to simply send the citizens home if they did not have the necessary travel authorisation to cross the border.

The trickle of curious East Germans congregating outside his office window gradually grew bigger, and people began shouting "Let us leave!".

In a panic, Jaeger rang his boss back. But he recalls being told by his superior: "I have no order from above. I have no instructions to give you."

The crowd kept swelling and by around 9:00 pm, the access road to the border crossing was blocked by the mass of people.

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