Why Did the Berlin Wall Fall? A Closer Look

The year 1989 was a revolutionary year for Europe. 

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was making radical changes in the United Socialist Soviet Republic (U.S.S.R.) The Soviet Union at that time included Russia and 14 other countries that were part of the Communist Bloc. 

His policies, Perestroika (reconstruction), and Glasnost (openness), were affecting Eastern Europe and many communist nations through economic reforms. 

It was an attempt to make socialist economic programs more efficient. However, it introduced many market-based policies and reforms that enabled the adoption of more liberal economic strategies. 

These policies also affected other areas in Eastern Europe that were under the Soviets. They made changes in the economic policies in Ukraine, Czechoslovakia, and other states that reverberated throughout the Communist Bloc.

1986 picture of the Berlin Wall in Bethaniendamm, the West Berlin side brightly painted

A Germany Divided

When the Second World War ended, Germany was in a difficult position economically and politically. The country was on the brink of despair. The Allies decided to divide Germany into several areas so they were under the control of the Western Allies and the Soviet Union.

Germany was divided into four zones. The British, Americans, and French took over the western two-thirds while the Soviets took hold of the eastern third. As their relationships deteriorated, Germany, as well as its capital Berlin, was divided into East and West.

Soviet-occupied East Germany had many natural resources that could supply food to the German nation while West Germany had more people and cities. At first, the Allies tried to broker an exchange where the Soviets would send provisions to the West.

Britain, US, and France all agreed to help the Soviets extract war reparations from Germany since the Germans had destroyed many Russian cities and killed thousands of civilians in the Russian Invasion in 1941.

However, the Western Allies and the Soviets were not satisfied with the outcomes of this agreement. As a result, the Allies used their own money to feed West Germany. By 1946, the Allies refused to give the Soviets further reparations that came from their zones. This further strained their relationships.

This decision was a major factor in the widening of the already-existing rift between two opposing factions that had divergent ideologies and geopolitical interests.

It was followed by a clear distinction between Soviet-occupied territories and the Western Allies. Winston Churchill was the first to coin the term “iron curtain” to express the division between communism and democracy.

But the aid of the Western Allies helped West Germany become an economic powerhouse by the 1950s. The first West German Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, propelled the country to progress. He worked with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to secure membership in the organization.

During those decades, East Germans and West Germans often traveled between East and West Germany, mainly for work. However, as the West’s “20-year economic miracle” widened the gap between East and West Germany, civilians from East Germany began emigrating to the West, favoring its democratic government.

The Wall Rises

Tensions mounted in the late 1950s. The flood of East Germans and the comparison between these two areas were making the Communist Bloc look bad. In 1956, the East German state made all travel to the West illegal. 

However, Berlin was still easily accessible to East Germans. The East instituted new passport laws that limited movement and emigration from East to West Berlin. However, a loophole continued to allow East Germans to move to the West.

Many East German leaders decried the “brain drain” that was happening. They scrambled to limit the movement of their own citizens to the West. 

East Germany’s leaders sought out Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, to provide some guidance. In 1961, he and Walter Ulbricht, the first Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, discussed ways to control emigration

At midnight of August 12, 1961, East German police forces and members of the army began to construct a wall that completely separated East from West Berlin. They also installed barbed wire fences on roads and streets that effectively cut off movement. 

As morning arrived on August 13, 1961, the people of Berlin were aghast to find the city divided by barbed wire entanglements, concrete fences, and road closures that effectively closed off the East. 

Many families were split. Those who worked in West Germany found themselves with limited options in East Germany. The United States and the other Allies disapproved of it and President John F. Kennedy was furious.

The Wall Becomes a Symbol of Oppression

The Berlin Wall quickly became a metaphor for the Cold War. Though there were areas where West Berliners and other foreign visitors could cross the Wall (such as Checkpoint Charlie), many East Berliners could only do so with the proper permits and papers. 

Defections became more common between the 1960s and the 1980s. In 2018, there were 140 confirmed deaths and more than 5,000 defections from East to West. 

West Berliners were not allowed to help defectors. Doing so triggered the border guards to shoot at them. Many defectors died on the wall as they bled to death after being shot.

Soon, it became a symbol of oppression in the East. East Germans lost their spirit and their will under the yoke of the East German Communist Party.

The Cold War Thaws

The 1980s witnessed a growing sentiment against the Berlin Wall. Many Western entertainers admonished the Soviet leadership and the Western powers. They urged them to reunify Germany, or at least Berlin. 

One of the celebrities to publicly protest the Berlin Wall was singer David Bowie. His concert in 1987 was held in an area very close to the Wall so that people from both sides could hear the concert. This triggered riots in East Berlin. It was the first of many protests that were staged until the wall fell in 1989. 

American President Ronald Reagan also gave an unforgettable speech on the 750th anniversary of Berlin in June 1987. He challenged Gorbachev to do something about the Wall that had divided families and oppressed thousands: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

The Failure of Communism in Eastern Europe

The 1980s saw communism failing as an economic policy. The Soviet Union’s failure to help other Communist states resulted in the loss of its power and influence in the Communist Bloc.

Eventually, many communist countries wanted to try Gorbachev’s reforms. It started with a border opening between democratic Austria and communist Hungary in August 1989. This test saw many Eastern Europeans moving into Austria and West Germany.

Soon another state followed: Czechoslovakia opened its borders, allowing East Germans to go to the West. The overflow of people alarmed the East German leaders, and they wanted to control the flow once again.

East Germany tried to limit people’s movement from East to West. However, it instigated more protests in East Germany. Later, they allowed people to move out, believing the West would prompt more people to return.

However, demonstrations continued in the East, with more people demanding that the borders be opened and that people be allowed to go where they wanted. And so the Peaceful Revolution came about, with more people joining by November.

On November 9, the East German leadership decided to announce new regulations for crossing the Berlin Wall. It allowed people to cross at all points between East and West Germany, including Berlin.

The announcement was the first blow that destroyed the Berlin Wall. It was followed by a flood of people who demanded to cross the Berlin Wall on the evening of the same day.

The Destruction of the Wall Begins Reunification

East Germans flocked to the Berlin Wall. They demanded that guards let them through, citing that they heard official announcements over the television and radio that allowed them passage. The soldiers prevented them from leaving but the number of people increased.

Later that night, the border guards realized that they could not contain the number of people crossing the Wall any longer. At 10:45 pm, they opened the gates for everyone. Soon, West Berliners went to their side of the Wall and met people with flowers, champagne, and rejoicing. 

People came to the Wall and began to dismantle it. As the night of November 9 wore on, it was apparent that the Wall would not remain standing for long. Its destruction was the first sign that a reunified and stronger Germany was possible.

The Berlin Wall Now

There are now very few fragments that remain from the Wall. 

Some remnants remain near the former site of the Gestapo headquarters as a reminder of the past. Others can be found between Potsdamer Platz and Checkpoint Charlie. 

Yet another larger reconstructed section can be spotted along the Spree River on the East Side Gallery. This also serves as an open-air memorial for those lost during the Cold War. 

Bits and pieces are in Berlin while other fragments are exhibited in museums and institutions around the world.

In 2011, a reunified Germany marked the anniversary of the Wall’s erection. Then President Christian Wulff finally laid the past to rest by proclaiming, “No wall can permanently withstand the desire for freedom.”

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