NPR profiles Harald Jaeger, the East German border guard who—25 years ago today—looked out at a throng of 10,000 people trying to swarm across the Berlin Wall and gave the order to let them through. Jaeger was a loyalist who says he "cheered" when the wall went up in 1961, seeing it as a "rampart against fascism." But when the crowd wanted to cross, he stood down:
To ease the tension, he was ordered to let some of the rowdier people through, but to stamp their passports in a way that rendered them invalid if they tried to return home.
Their departure only fired the crowd up more, and pressure mounted on Jaeger from above and below to avert a riot. Despite orders from his higher ups not to let more people through, at 11:30 p.m.: "I ordered my guards to set aside all the controls, raise the barrier and allow all East Berliners to travel through," he says.
It's an order Jaeger says he never would have given if [Politburo member Guenther] Schabowski hadn't given the press conference four hours earlier [mistakenly saying there was a new policy allowing East Germans to visit the west, effective immediately].
He estimates that more than 20,000 East Berliners on foot and by car crossed into the West at Bornholmer Street. Some curious West Berliners even entered the east.
People crossing hugged and kissed the border guards and handed them bottles of sparkling wine, Jaeger recalls. Several wedding parties from East Berlin moved their celebrations across the border, and a couple of brides even handed the guards their wedding bouquets.
But Jaeger says he refused to leave East Berlin.
"I was on duty," he explains with a laugh. East German officers didn't get permission from their government to cross into the West until just before Christmas, he adds. Red tape involving his travel documents delayed the trip another month.
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