Jubilation at Checkpoint Charlie - GDR documents in one hand a West German beer in the other
“My god, am I ever glad I extended that train pass…to have been through the Checkpoint at that time…I would not have missed it for anything.”
– Tony Forster.
It’s November 1989 and New Zealander Tony Forster was in love and on his way to Bavaria in Southern Germany to meet up with his girlfriend. But on the way, the 30-something assistant film director was persuaded by a fellow Kiwi to make a three-day detour to Berlin. By making that side-trip, Tony was about to inadvertently write himself into one of the most famous events of the 20th century.
“Martin was desperate to have a Kiwi visitor…I went there for three days but he complained constantly the whole time why wasn’t I there for a month but on the third day I decided to go over and explore East Berlin.”
By the time Tony arrived, Berlin had been a divided city for 28 years. On 13 August 1961, the German Democratic Republic leadership closed the border to West Berlin and established 8 crossing points to be used by West Berliners, citizens of the Federal Republic of Germany, and foreign nationals. East Berliners and GDR citizens were not permitted to cross the border.
Graffiti on the West Berlin side of the Wall
But being a foreigner, Tony Forster was allowed to and on the advice of his friend Martin he decided to enter East Berlin on foot at Checkpoint Charlie, the city's best known crossing point.
It was the 9th of November, and despite the momentous events that would take place later that evening, Tony says there was no inkling that morning of what was to come. After spending the day sightseeing, Tony enjoyed a meal at a restaurant before preparing to cross back to West Berlin about 9 pm that evening.
He was completely unaware that earlier the same evening East Germans watching a televised government press conference were surprised to learn that they were now free travel to the West. And within hours, thousands, including a puzzled Tony, had descended on the crossings. “It wasn’t until I was getting close to the Checkpoint when suddenly people started jogging past me to the Checkpoint, and certainly in my observation nobody would run in East Berlin, that was the first sign that something strange was going on…”
Some of the hundreds of people who came to Checkpoint Charlie to witness its historic opening on the evening of th November
While the majority of the East German crowd were told to go home, amidst the confusion Tony and two others who had pre-arranged documentation were allowed back through the Checkpoint. And as they approached the gap in the wall the trio were confronted by thousands of West Berliners clapping and cheering them through. Unable to understand any German, Tony approached a cameraman to ask him what was happening. “He was the one that told me that they’d heard on BBC World earlier in the evening that the East German Government was going to open the border so they’d rushed down to see if anything would happen. And so I asked him did anybody come through before the three of us and he said no, you were the first.”
The first of what turned out to be two million Berliners who streamed from one side of the city to the other that weekend. After staying for hours to watch others come through the Checkpoint behind him and the subsequent celebrations, Tony finally had to tear himself away as he had a train to catch and a girlfriend waiting. However, as he sat alone in his compartment he spoke into a cassette player, desperate to capture every detail in an audio letter home to his family in New Zealand.
“At one point the emotion of it all – the crowds, their euphoria, the confusion in the border guards’ faces – overwhelmed me…I sat there alone, tears streaming down my face.” Tony says that extraordinary event has reshaped his life and he has recently completed a documentary film trying to answer what it was like to be an ‘Accidental Berliner’, the night Berlin Wall started coming down.
All photos and video courtesy of Tony Forster.