Twenty years ago an amazing event happened, one that two generations of Americans and lovers of freedom the world over had a hard time imagining would ever happen in our lifetimes. On November 9th, 1989, at the crest of a wave of liberty sweeping across Eastern Europe, the East German government announced that its citizens could openly visit West Berlin.
The problem with such visits for decades had been the presence of one of the single most blatant symbols of political and cultural oppression in modern history, the Berlin Wall. The Wall was not just symbolic of socialist and communist oppression, it was a literal wall that encircled the ‘free’ city of West Berlin and included a thick concrete wall, barbed wire, guard towers, and patrolled trenches that would become known as ‘the death strip’ in history.
During the period of the Wall’s existence between 1961 and 1989, estimates show that a couple of hundred people were killed in approximately 5,000 attempted crossings. All were trying to move one way, across the ‘Iron Curtain’ from the oppression of the Eastern Bloc to the freedom of Western Europe.
The roots of the Berlin Wall stretched back to the end of World War II, when what remained of Nazi Germany was divided by the Potsdam Agreement into four ‘occupation zones’, each controlled by one of the victorious Allied powers: the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union.
Despite the fact that the capital city of Berlin lay entirely within the Soviet zone, that city was also divided into four controlling zones for the Allied powers. Within short order, rifts began to appear between the Soviets and the others on a number of post-war issues regarding reconstruction of Germany, as well as political and ideological differences between the nations.
Almost immediately after the war, Soviet leader Josef Stalin began to orchestrate the creation of and control over an ‘Eastern bloc’ of nations including Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and the Soviet-controlled section of Germany which he envisioned as a buffer zone of protection for the USSR against the influence or advances of the European democracies.
In 1948, Stalin began to finalize his ultimate plans of a complete takeover of Germany by instituting a blockade of West Berlin, the section controlled by the other Allied powers. His hope was to see the others withdraw from control over and interest in the city. But the Americans and British responded with the ‘Berlin airlift’ efforts that kept the free section of the city supplied with goods and materials. After almost a year, Stalin finally lifted the blockade.
In October of 1949, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was declared and would become known as East Germany. This section of Germany was highly influenced by the Soviets and was oppressive to its people. West Germany developed as a capitalist nation in alliance with the United States and the other western nations. Over the years, West German economic growth and political freedoms became increasingly attractive to hundreds of thousands of East Germans, who fled their nation for the freedom and prosperity of the west.
In the first few years, nearly a million people fled the Eastern bloc to West Germany as people began to recognize the oppressive tactics and governing principles of socialism and communism. What became known officially as the ‘German inner border’ but was more popularly christened as the ‘Iron Curtain’ by Winston Churchill was the response. Initially a recognized but open border between the post-war zones controlled by the Soviets and the western powers, the ‘Curtain’ was formally closed with the erection first of barbed wire fences and later more substantial security in 1952 and 1953.
With this major path to freedom blocked, more and more citizens of East Berlin began to flee into West Berlin, the only remaining bastion of freedom behind the Iron Curtain of Soviet and East German oppression. The East German authorities attempted many measure to thwart the massive emigration that ensued, as approximately 20% of the entire GDR population escaped to the freedom of the west up until 1961.
Finally, Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev gave the East Germans the orders to build a physical wall separating East and West Berlin. At midnight on August 13th, 1961, the police and units of the East German army began to close the border. Streets were torn up and barbed wire fences installed to prevent passage. By August 15th, construction of a concrete wall had begun. Many families were literally split apart suddenly, and people were unable to travel to their jobs.
The Berlin Wall was ultimately built up and strengthened over decades in four main elements. The initial ‘Wire Fence’ effort of 1961 was followed quickly by improvement to that fence between 1962 and 1965. A concrete wall was completed and extended between 1965 and 1975. Finally, the ‘Border Wall’ was built, extended, and improved between 1975 and 1980, but was continually improved right up until the end in 1989. In the end, the Berlin Wall was more than 87 miles long.
In the beginning, no crossings at all were allowed for over two years between 1961 and 1963. Negotiations between the powers allowed for Christmas visits over the next four years. There were ultimately 8 different official border crossing points between East and West Berlin which were all heavily secured and controlled. It was far easier for West Berliners to cross into the east than vice versa. For the most part, no East Germans were permitted to cross into West Berlin until the fall of the Wall in 1989.
Located near the center of West Berlin, the ‘Brandenburg Gate’ is one of the main historic symbols of Germany in general and Berlin in particular. On June 12th, 1987, American president Ronald Reagan appeared there and made a speech to help celebrate the 750th anniversary of the city of Berlin. Reagan had throughout his presidency challenged the ideology and authority of communist and socialist regimes, publicly calling the Soviet Union an ‘Evil Empire’ at one point.
In his speech that day, Reagan directly addressed Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev: “..we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, TEAR DOWN THIS WALL!”
Inspired by events such as Mr. Reagan’s speech, citizens and governments across the Soviet sphere of influence began to crack. In August of 1989, “red” Hungary removed its border fence with a free Austria, and 13,000 East German tourists escaped to freedom. This set off a chain reaction of similar activity in Czechoslovakia, and finally in East Germany itself. Mass demonstrations resulted in the resignation of the East German president in October 1989.
These generally peaceful demonstrations continued to build throughout East Germany, culminating in what was known as the “Peaceful Revolution” and the gathering of a million people in East Berlin on November 4th. In response, the East German government and its puppet-string pullers in the USSR had little recourse but to loosen their grip, and when some pieces of a plan to do so were leaked to a German television network, the story was run on November 9th that “the borders were open to everyone” on what was called a historic day.
After this public announcement on television, which was actually a complete jumping-of-the-gun by the network, Germans began gathering at the Wall, completely surprising and overwhelming the guards. In contacting their superiors for orders, the guards were given no direction, and became overwhelmed by the throngs. The gates were opened and people flocked from both sides, embracing one another in glee. Over the ensuing days and weeks, people gathered daily to climb the Wall, break off pieces, and begin to informally demolish the structure.
Over the next few months, restrictions on crossings became officially lifted, including at the Brandenburg Gate on December 22nd. The following day, visa-free travel began between the states. On June 13th, 1990, official dismantling of the Wall began, and continued until being completed in November 1991. Only a few guard towers and portions remain as memorials.
For three decades, the Berlin Wall stood as a wall of oppression, keeping people from seeking their freedom and liberty and entombing them inside a world of failed communist and socialist ideologies. It was ultimately the will of these freedom-seeking and loving peoples, aided by those of us around the world who share these ideals, that resulted in the awe-inspiring events which began on November 9th, 1989.