Thirty years ago today, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall, a symbol of the cold war and the iron curtain, fell.
How did the wall come up in the first place? At the end of WWII, the allied forces decided the fate of the defeated German nation by splitting it into four allied occupation zones, with the eastern part under the Soviet Union and the western under USA, UK and eventually France. Although Berlin was located entirely inside the Soviet territory, the Yalta and Potsdam agreements (which had been the cause of the country’s split), also split the city. The eastern part went to the Soviets and the western to the other Allies. All of this took place in June 1945.
The Soviets, however, never liked the idea of a capitalist West Berlin in the heart of Soviet East Germany. They tried everything to push the Allies out of Berlin and take over the whole city, including a blockade of West Berlin; even threatening nuclear war. However, the Allies stayed put.
The endless flow of people from east to west (nearly three billion since the end of the blockade in 1949) was a source of deep embarrassment for the Soviets, especially since most of defectors were professionals, fleeing repressive conditions and lack of opportunity; and whose departure caused a severe “brain drain” in East Germany. Meanwhile, life in the western half was better and more prosperous with opportunity for growth.
August 12, 1961 was the final straw, when around 2,400 people defected in a single day — the largest defection ever. That very night, Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev gave the East German government permission to close the border. And within two weeks a barbed wire and concrete wall was erected, separating east and west Berlin. Check posts were established that severely inhibited the movement of people from one part to the other. The official line was that the erection of the wall was to stop western “fascists” from entering East Germany and undermining the communist state. They even called it the “Antifascistischer Schutzwall,” or “antifascist bulwark,”.
At least 171 people were killed trying to get over, under or around the wall and 5,000 refugees still managed to escape, between 1961 and 1989 — some of them using innovative ways to do so.
Eventually, the cold war started to fizzle out, with revolutions and unrest all across the Eastern Bloc. On November 9, 1989, the spokesman for the Communist Party of East Berlin announced a change in its relations with the west and a relaxation of the stringent border crossing laws. Starting from midnight that day, citizens of East Berlin were free to cross over to the west. People from both sides congregated at the wall drinking beer and shouting “Open the gate” until finally they stormed through the check points.
As one journalist put it, what ensued was “the greatest street party in the history of the world” with people crossing over from East Berlin and many using picks and hammers to break off pieces of the wall. Cranes and bulldozers finally pulled down the rest, uniting east and west Berlin for the first time since 1945. Its demolition was completed on November, 1991. One year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany was officially announced on October 3, 1990.
And thirty years after the fall of this icon of the cold war, the world is once again discussing the building of new walls.