EAST BERLIN -- The East German government threw open its borders Thursday and announced that its citizens now may travel freely to West Germany. Thousands of jubilant East Germans quickly tested the new policy by flocking to the crossing points in divided Berlin.
At Checkpoint Charlie, a major crossing point, a huge crowd gathered. As East Berliners in small groups made their way through the last barrier to West Berlin, the crowds on that side welcomed them with cheers and songs.
East German border guards, who obviously had no instructions on the new border policy, generally waved them through with puzzled smiles.
"I'm watching history being made," said one West Berlin bystander.
It was like New Year's Eve or a World Series victory celebration at this and other border crossings along the Berlin Wall. Late Thursday and early today, hundreds of people climbed atop the grim, grafitti-marred structure, long the symbol of the Iron Curtain dividing East and West. Some of them danced for joy there.
The new border policy was explained by Politburo member Guenter Schabowski, who told a news conference here that East Germans would "promptly" be given permits to go to West Germany. He said they could stay there if they wish, or return to East Germany.
"This means that the Berlin Wall has no more meaning," an East German official said Thursday night.
"The long-awaited day has arrived," declared West Berlin Mayor Walter Momper. "The Berlin Wall no longer divides Berlin."
Crowds swarmed through the streets long after midnight, auto horns blared, police sirens pierced the air, couples walked hand in hand toward the wall and people laughed and smiled, offering each other open wine and beer bottles.
Some East Germans arriving at border crossings at Invalidenstrasse and Prinzstrasse in their small, sputtering Trabant autos were almost prevented from entering by the crowds gathered to greet them. But they made their way through to West Berlin's bright lights.
Remarkably, many of the East Berliners returned later today to the drab, gray Eastern half of the city after sampling the bright lights of the West.
"I just wanted to take a look at the Kurfuerstendamm," said one young man in his 20s, as he returned from West Berlin's famous shopping district and headed back through the wall to East Berlin.
From their side, hundreds of West Berliners crossed into East Berlin, shouting, "The wall is gone, the wall is gone!"
A huge crowd gathered next to the Reichstag building at the Brandenburg Gate--the traditional scene of anti-wall demonstrations by West Berliners and the place where President John F. Kennedy uttered his famous line, "Ich bin ein Berliner."
Many people climbed atop the wall there. At 3 a.m., lights at the gate were still blazing as the crowd called out: "Open the gate!"
Beyond Berlin, as one analyst here put it: "This news is deeply significant. It changes the whole shape of Europe. It will take a while for the import of this to sink in."
In the euphoria of Thursday night, there were few formalities for those surging through the checkpoints in Berlin.
But beginning this morning, East Germans will be expected under the new open policy to get exit visas for travel abroad, whether permanent emigration or just a visit.
They will be allowed to go through any crossing point in the Berlin Wall except Checkpoint Charlie, which is reserved for foreigners and military personnel.
Whether emigrating or just visiting, they also may enter West Germany through the various crossings along the fortified inner-German frontier.
West Germans long have been free to travel to East Germany by simply arriving at the border, paying a small fee and exchanging some West German money for East German currency.
Schabowski, the spokesman for East Germany's Politburo, was asked about tearing down the Berlin Wall.
"The opening of the wall does not answer its real purpose," he said. "There is still a whole complex of questions that will have to be discussed."
He mentioned the state of the opposing military alliances in Europe--the Warsaw Pact and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization--and progress on arms control as factors bearing on the ultimate fate of the Wall.
In Bonn, officials said that though East German emigrants are inundating the country, West Germany will accept all East Germans arriving there.
"No one will be turned back," Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said.
Schaeuble warned that new arrivals can expect poor housing for a long time to come--in what was seen as an effort to discourage the flood of immigrants.
"For this reason," he said, and because of the cold season, every German from East Germany should think carefully before they come here."
A session of the West German Parliament broke into the national anthem on hearing the news from East Berlin about opening the borders.
Bundestag member Willy Brandt, the former chancellor who was mayor of West Berlin in 1961 when the Berlin Wall went up, wept openly.
The stunning news came after another tumultuous day in East Berlin during the three-day meeting of the policy-making Communist Party Central Committee.
The Central Committee announced Thursday that there will be a special Parliament meeting Monday to approve the newly appointed reformist Prime Minister Hans Modrow.
The Central Committee also called a rare meeting of the Communist Party Conference for Dec. 15-17 to discuss the economic, political and social crises swamping the country.
An economic slowdown has been compounded by the flight of about 225,000 East Germans so far this year.
West German estimates of those East Germans wishing to depart range from 400,000 to 1.2 million--in a nation of 16.6 million.
Travel restrictions helped spark the massive demonstrations that brought East Germans out in unprecedented numbers onto the streets of East Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden, Halle, Schwerin and other cities.
In his briefing on the lifting of travel restrictions, Schabowski said, "The decision was taken that makes it possible for all citizens to leave the country through East German crossing points."
Schabowski's announcement seemed almost impromptu: He did not read from the prepared text he was given shortly before the briefing and seemed vague about some details.
But he indicated that East Germans can take their identity cards to their local police station and apply for exit visas. Thus, they would not need passports, which not many East Germans have.
The exit visas, Schabowski said, will be issued without red tape or demanding a reason for the travel.
Similarly, he said those wishing to emigrate would be treated with dispatch.
The decision, Schabowski said, will ease East German relations with Communist neighbor Czechoslovakia because emigrants no longer will be forced to pass through that country en route to the West.
Curiously, some opposition elements in East Berlin did not applaud the Communist leaders' decision to open up travel to the West.
Hans-Peter Schneider, a leader of the small opposition group Democratic Awakening, declared: "I doubt that it is a step that will keep the people here. I would have preferred it if they had said take your passport and get a visa and come back to us.
"I think this step is a sign of the helplessness of our leaders."
But for thousands of Germans, it was a sign of hope.
About 2 a.m., an animal trainer walked through Checkpoint Charlie with a big, brown muzzled bear on a leash.
"The bear is a symbol of Berlin," he said, "A united Berlin. We are now one city."
"We couldn't believe we could get out," said one man who crossed with his wife. "We just wanted to try it. But we will return."
Most people on foot and in cars appeared to have little baggage with them, indicating they planned to go back to the East--in contrast to those who fled through Hungary and Czechoslovakia carrying all their family belongings.
One woman who had been watching the drama for two hours said: "The Vopos (East German police) don't know what to do. So they have just been waving people through."
Another man said: "A Vopo gave me a cigarette. I am keeping it as a souvenir. Ordinarily they would take your picture to put you on the blacklist."
A bearded West Berliner, watching the amazing sight of East Berliners coming through the border crossing, said, "It looks like the Berlin Wall is going to be a relic--just like the one in China."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times