Sunday, November 9, 2014

25 Years Ago Today: Amazing Color Photographs of the Berlin Wall Coming Down by Alexandra Avakian

After the end of World War II, the Allies took over the fallen city of Berlin—with the US, UK, and France administering control over what would become part of West Germany in 1949 and the USSR taking control of the East. That division was crystallized with the building of a wall dividing the former capital in 1961. In 1989, exactly 25 years ago today, the Berlin Wall finally fell. The date on which the wall fell is considered to be 9 November 1989, but its physical removal took some time. Photojournalist Alexandra Avakian, who was working for Time magazine and the New York Times at that time, traveled to Berlin based on rumor, and she ended up becoming a witness to history.

“On the evening of November 5, I was sitting on a friend's couch in Paris glued to my shortwave radio. Hour by hour the story became more exciting: the Berlin Wall might be coming down,” she recalled. “That morning at five a.m. I jumped on a plane headed to Berlin. By the time I landed I had an assignment for LIFE Magazine. I found a two-star hotel whose best features were close proximity to the Wall and a gossipy owner who passed on the latest whispers he'd heard about the Wall.”

“The next morning I awoke before dawn and walked along the Wall, looking for pictures. I found a group of young West German men slamming the Wall with a hammer. It looked as if they had been at it all night. Suddenly water cannon started blasting through the crack the young men had made in the Wall. East German border guards were trying to push us away with the hard freezing blast of water. I made lots of pictures but one frame would become famous.”

“That night I was walking along the Wall and what seemed like tens of thousands of people were standing near Brandenburg Gate at the Wall. I knew I could never fight my way through that crowd to the base of the Wall, so I let the crowd carry me along in the general direction I thought I needed to go. I ended up in front of the Wall where I stood all night long in a denim jacket and flimsy Keds, so freezing I thought I would break in two. It ended up being the best spot.”

“By dawn, people were streaming through the break in the Wall, mostly from East to West. Finally, I went off to ship my film to New York and rest for a couple of hours. The next three days had a magical feeling, Germans were high on history, and it seemed nobody slept---the fall of the Berlin Wall was one of the happiest moments in history I have ever photographed and a rare peaceful resolution to a potentially dangerous event, which changed the world.”

Waiting for the Wall to fall on the West German side.

Men hammering through the Wall as E. German guards fire water cannon through the crack, soaking everyone in that freezing morning. I found them before the official dismantling of the Wall.

A peek through the other side of the Wall.

After waiting all night in freezing weather, before dawn the first official break in the Wall by East and West German border guards and construction crews.

West Germans watch the flood of East Germans crossing to the West.

Onlookers in West Berlin climb for a better look at the events happening around the Wall.

An East German family watches and waits to cross into West Berlin. This photo, like so many others here, I found in a reject box, after many years.

East Germans celebrating as they cross not the West.

The Fall of the Berlin Wall is happening, and this man brings his bear from the East through no man's land, watched by East Germans.

At dawn, the dismantling begins in earnest.

(All photos © Alexandra Avakian, via Smithsonian)

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