"Nov. 10, 1989: The Berlin Wall fell." As though it dropped like a vacant warehouse or got blown over by the wind.

The last East German government, maneuvering for survival, took a step to ease tensions, relaxing rules for travel to the west. But in the hurly-burly the government's order got misread to the media as saying GDR citizens were free to leave to the West "through any of the border crossings." Like lightning, word went out on the streets that the Wall was open. It was not. It was never meant to be. But the citizens crowded to the wall. The guards had no instructions about this. Crowds swelled.

All while the world was armed to the teeth and set on a hair-trigger. The guard in the steel helmet looks back at the man with his family in the Trabi who just pulls up to the checkpoint and expects to go through. Somewhere in the mental calculations of each is the awareness, "If I screw this up, it could mean the end of the world." No less than a president or premier.

In one place the border police yield and the human flood pours through. German people from both sides tumble across that once-deadly space and revel. They dance on the wall. Then they bring out big hammers and beat it to dust.

The German people. Not Kohl, not Reagan, not Thatcher, not Gorbachev, not Bush I. They did it; the impudent Berliners, east and west. The Christians of Leipzig and Magdeburg. The nominally atheist East German soldiers and guards who had the guns but did not use them. They redeemed much of the 20th century in one day. They paid a debt by dancing and walking and hammering down the brute wall of ruthless, suffocating authority. They all behaved like Bad Germans, and it was the exact right thing to do.


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