WEST BERLIN -- Tens of thousands of East Germans streamed through the Berlin Wall into West Berlin on Friday as the Communist regime pledged that freedom of travel will be permanent, began punching holes in the wall for new crossings and promised free elections.
The incoming East Germans and the West Berliners greeting them caused the largest traffic jam ever in the city--with gridlock around the wall's checkpoints and city center as well as the glittering main street, the Kurfuerstendamm.
Major thoroughfares were turned into promenades late Friday with both East and West Berliners filling the streets, dancing, drinking, laughing--and some standing on the Berlin Wall.
An estimated 100,000 East Berliners arrived, and many availed themselves of the 100 West German marks offered as a welcome by the local government--enabling the visitors to go shopping with hard currency.
Many of the East Germans visited their local police stations to obtain an exit visa. Long lines formed, but the visas were issued promptly. Others simply went to one of the city's eight crossing points, where border guards ignored formalities and let them through to the West.
As Germans mingled happily on both sides of the wall, East Germany began making holes in it for at least eight more crossing points. Workers and soldiers removed a section of the wall blocking the Eberswalderstrasse. The Glienicke Bridge, site of numerous East-West spy swaps, reportedly was opened to general traffic. And an opening at Potsdamer Platz, once Europe's busiest square, is expected to be ready in a few days.
East German leader Egon Krenz, 52, appeared at a huge rally in East Berlin at the end of a momentous three-day meeting of the policy-making Central Committee of the Communist Party.
"Now is not the time for promises," he told the audience, his voice hoarse from earlier outdoor speeches in chill night air. He called for action.
Krenz said East Germany's Communists must no longer be divided between "us and them" but instead should be "our party."
But other speeches preceding Krenz's called for more reforms than Krenz publicly offered, and he was not particularly warmly received.
It was Interior Minister Friedrich Dickel who disclosed that the dramatic opening of West Berlin to East Germans on Thursday was not a temporary measure.
He said eight new border crossings will be opened and that public transit between the two parts of the once united German capital will be improved.
He added: "It is permanent and will be the foundation of a new travel law."
The East German party's Central Committee issued a statement after its meeting saying that its "action program" reforms will include free elections and parliamentary scrutiny of the detested state security apparatus.
The text transmitted by the official ADN news agency said:
"We propose carrying out parliamentary elections on the basis of a new election law. We are for one election law that guarantees a free, general, democratic and secret election and upholds public control at every stage of the election.
"We are for a democratic coalition government."
The Central Committee also urged "a socialist state based on the rule of law," and proposed "the introduction of a constitutional court in order to ensure compliance with the constitution."
The communique accused ousted leader Erich Honecker and two of his top lieutenants of serious mistakes that "have led the party and republic into a deep crisis," and it asked for a full investigation.
West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, interrupting an official visit to Poland to fly here, spoke to a sometimes unruly gathering in front of the West Berlin City Hall. He joined West Berlin Mayor Walter Momper and former Chancellor Willy Brandt.
Kohl termed it "a historic moment" and said of divided Germany:
"We are and will remain one nation, and we belong together. Long live a free German fatherland.
"We are ready to help you rebuild your country. You are not alone. We have all worked for this day.
"At this moment when the wall is falling," he added, "we should also spare a thought for those who died at the wall."
Mayor Momper, in an emotional address, said: "We are the happiest people in the world today. Our city and citizens will never forget this day."
Brandt, who was mayor when the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, said it "stood in the path of history."
Earlier, in a visit to the wall at the Brandenburg Gate, he exhorted a group of young people standing and sitting on the barrier: "Tear the wall down."
There, at the wall, the symbol of a divided Europe, an East German police officer assigned to watch the crowd proved unexpectedly genial when questioned.
"This is something the people in our country have been waiting now for 28 years," said the tall, blond officer. "Though people have seen West Berlin on television, people can't really imagine what to expect in person."
He said a senior officer who helped build the wall was so touched to see it reopened that he broke into tears at breakfast in the police canteen Friday.
Would the officer join the throng?
"After work, I might think about going to the Ku-damm," he said, "but I might have to have a drink to make up my mind."
The Ku-damm--the Kurfuerstendamm, the street of posh shops, restaurants and hotels in West Berlin--was the destination for many of the East Berliners on Friday.
One man in his 40s, who hadn't been in West Berlin since 1961, said: "I took the subway to the Ku-damm. For me it's a bit difficult to describe. It looked great but unreal--the shop windows were full, people dancing in the streets.
"But I came back. I can't say West Berlin is wonderful--it's unbelievable."
But not everyone wanted to investigate West Berlin. At the Bornholmer crossing, some people stepped only a few feet across the frontier.
"That's all they wanted to do," said an observer, "prove to themselves that it was true you could cross over."
A couple of construction workers crossed the border, checked into the nearest stube , ordered a German boilermaker--schnapps and beer--slugged them down, and went back to work in East Berlin.
Authorities guessed that less than one out of 20 East Germans who went West on Friday stayed there permanently.
Many were seen hurrying back after a long night in West Berlin to get to work on time in East Berlin.
"We are Germans," said a man who joined the return home. "We hate the idea of being late for our shifts."
Most East Germans were increasingly confident that their government would not reverse itself on freedom of travel across the wall.
"If they did," commented one white-collar worker, "there would be a massacre."
After her trip to the West, Karin Michaelis, a teacher, said that the ending of travel restrictions had created a certain loyalty to the Communist state.
"If they introduce reforms, I will go to West Berlin on a visit and return. If they don't, I will just go."
And another man, an architect, joked about the well-known German word Weltanschauung , or view of the world. Speaking of the need to lift travel restrictions, he said:
"In order to have a world view, you first have to view the world."
Another member of the Communist Party, who traveled to West Berlin for an exhilarating night and day, said:
"I was quite content to come back here, because I think we are all needed to make this country work.
"But I understand the thinking of those who fled during these past few months--and I wouldn't damn them. In a way, they made all this happen."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun