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How the Iron Curtain collapsed

Soviet tanks and troops at Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin, February 1961.

Story highlights

  • CNN's Jonathan Mann recalls the day the Iron Curtain fell
  • Line between Soviet-dominated eastern Europe and nations of the west stood until 1988
  • East Germans began seeking refuge in Prague in the summer of 1989
  • Finally by November, the Iron Curtain had collapsed

I was a young traveling correspondent in the closing months of the Cold War, stunned like any other visitor from the West at the cruel tyranny that had endured for so many years in so many countries, amazed at how quickly it was toppled.

I remember in particular the day the Iron Curtain came down. I just didn't realize it at the time.

The Iron Curtain wasn't simply a phrase made famous by Winston Churchill to describe the line separating the Soviet-dominated eastern Europe from the sovereign nations of the west. It was literally a guarded barrier that millions of people couldn't cross because they were imprisoned in their home countries. But by 1988, reformers inside the Hungarian government decided to open their border to the west and allow Hungarians to leave for Austria. The next year they began allowing East Germans on Hungarian soil to leave for Austria as well.

But one thing stood in the way: Czechoslovakia. The route from East Germany to Hungary ran right through it. The government in Prague wasn't looking to the west; it was closer to the hardliners in Berlin than the reformers in Budapest. It wasn't inclined to open up.

Some East Germans wouldn't wait. In the summer of 1989, they began seeking refuge in the West German embassy in Prague. By August, there were thousands of them, camped out in the cramped confines of the embassy grounds. Czech authorities let some leave the country but tried to stop any more from coming in. It didn't work. By November 4, the border was opened for East Germans, even while it still stood as a barrier to the citizens of Czechoslovakia themselves.

West Berliners crowd in front of the Berlin Wall early 11 November 1989 as they watch East German border guards demolishing a section of the wall in order to open a new crossing point between East and West Berlin

I can recall that morning in Prague, watching Germans leave the crowded embassy grounds and board buses for their trip to West Germany.

The people of Prague stopped in their tracks to watch them take that coveted journey to freedom. The Czechs around me put down their shopping bags, briefcases and packages and broke into spontaneous applause.

Thousands of people, who had been prisoners, had found a safe, legal way to escape. Less than a week later, the Berlin Wall was open. The Iron Curtain had collapsed.