Lit balloons are placed along the former Berlin Wall location near the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, November 8, 2014.
Fabrizio Bensch / Courtesy Reuters

Like December 7, 1941, November 22, 1963, and September 11, 2001, November 9, 1989, is one of those dates we remember in freeze frame. It is the rare exception that also makes us think of Wordsworth. Bliss was it in that night to be alive, and to be in Berlin was very heaven. 

But the real beginning of the end for the Berlin Wall, of course, was 30 days earlier and 120 miles away, in Leipzig, where 70,000 peaceful demonstrators took to the streets, which were lined with militiamen, police, and live ammunition, uncertain whether they would get home again. But East Berlin blinked and its Leipzig surrogates got cold feet.

Meanwhile, thousands of East Germans continued streaming across the Czech and Hungarian borders, as they had since September, when Hungary opened its border with Austria. From there, they proceeded to that other Germany, which, for most of them, had been another planet since 1961.

Virtually everyone got the message. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was neither Leonid Brezhnev nor Nikita Khrushchev, let alone Joseph Stalin. Nor was East Germany China. Berlin in November was not Beijing in June. 

The opening to the West was announced almost inadvertently, just in time for the evening news, at what still passed for a routine press conference. Within hours, rivers of Trabis, the little cars with lawn mower engines that were an East German specialty, were flowing through the Wall. Crowds of West Berliners looked on, bemused as the dash for freedom morphed into a run on bananas.

By the end of the year, ever-proliferating banana jokes signaled that the euphoria was approaching its expiration date. What felt initially like the final scene of “Fidelio” looked increasingly like an avalanche of poor relations.

Yet only steps from where the Wall stood a few weeks earlier, Leonard Bernstein performed Beethoven’s Ninth with an orchestra recruited from both Germanies and much of the musical world. Where Schiller’s text said “Freude” (Joy), the chorus now sang “Freiheit” (Freedom). Restraint was never Bernstein’s style. But “Let Lenny be Lenny,” seemed entirely appropriate. The broadcasts reached an estimated audience of 10 million in 20 countries. 

From McLean to Moscow, intelligence agencies stared at their TVs and computer screens like everyone else. Sworn to the one-nation-two-state formula that later won their leader, Willy Brandt, a Nobel Peace prize, West Germany’s Social Democrats clung to the status quo like polar bears to a disappearing ice floe.

It was notable enough that East Germans, a sad sack society hooked on Western credit, had pulled off the first peaceful democratic revolution in German history entirely on their own. It was more remarkable that no one, in East or West, could think of an appropriate name for what they had accomplished.

Resettled in America’s heartland with a wife who’d brought him home from a junior year abroad, one young East German denied that there’d been a revolution at all. How could there be, he asked, when no one got killed? Instead, by consensual understatement, it became known to both East and West as die Wende, a word more conventionally used for a change of season.

But what was arguably the most noteworthy of all was the total surprise on both sides. For nearly 40 years, Humpty Dumpty’s crash had been anticipated like California’s Big One. Yet as recently as that August, what began to happen in September was totally unimaginable.

Now, suddenly, the future was here, and Bonn’s filing cabinets seemed as bare as Mother Hubbard’s cupboard, despite decades of scrutiny, years of mutual recognition, millions of family visits, no language barrier, and what was assumed to be a cadre of world-class spooks.

Undeterred by speed bumps Bismarck never dreamed of, it nonetheless moved. West Germany’s Basic Law of 1948 accommodated new states. The world’s third-largest economy accommodated a common currency, deconstructed socialist dinosaurs, and provided long-term unemployment insurance for millions of their redundant employees. The legal system accommodated new owners. The parties accommodated new members. The parliament accommodated new parties. West Germans learned to accommodate an Eastern pastor’s daughter as their chancellor, and an Eastern pastor as their president. 

The language accommodated new words. “Brothers and sisters” were now Ossis (Easterners) and Wessis (Westerners). A hastily constructed Treuhand (trusteeship) sold off, auctioned, and liquidated some 8,500 derelict properties. Academics were dispatched to abwickeln (wrap up) departments and faculties of hacks, opportunists, and true believers. 

Volubly and on target, Wessis groused about Ossis and vice versa, but they learned to accommodate each other. Despite a few ugly assaults on immigrants, they even accommodated the Turks and the Vietnamese. 

Trabi owners learned to drive real cars and mastered elementary English and the PC, the survival skills of modern life. Western taxpayers learned to fund a reconstruction that, in any given year, exceeded the total expense of the Marshall Plan, and would eventually exceed an estimated two trillion Euros. 

With some hesitation but a firm sense of direction in Washington, Britain and France agreed to accommodate a Germany they thought they’d seen the last of. NATO took on what was effectively a new member. To a point, Russia acceded to a new NATO. South Koreans took notes.

At least one local and three international actors deserved a Nobel Peace prize for exemplary leadership. Russia’s Gorbachev got one. The United States’ George H.W. Bush and James Baker and Germany’s Helmut Kohl didn’t. 

The end of history, as the political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously called it, seemed a bit premature. But there was a strong case for declaring November 9 the end of an era reaching back to the Congress of Vienna, even the Treaty of Westphalia. A “new world order,” as Bush famously called it, seemed closer to the mark, just not as he intended, which had more to do with Beethoven than the Balkans and the Middle East. 

Since the 1940s, the Peloponnesian War—a duel of one on one—had been the metaphor of choice for describing the world. A quarter-century later, November 9 looked increasingly like the birth of a new normal, and Europe’s Thirty Years War—a battle of all against all with its toxic religious subtext—a strong contender for successor paradigm.

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  • DAVID SCHOENBAUM is a historian and author of several books, including Hitler's Social Revolution and, most recently, The Violin: A Social History of the World's Most Versatile Instrument.
  • More By David Schoenbaum