On the evening of Nov. 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. Created in 1961 to keep East Germans from fleeing to the West, the wall became a symbol of tyranny and oppression. Its collapse marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War.
At the end of World War II, the U.S., Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union agreed to divide Germany into four zones of control, with the city of Berlin, well inside the Soviet zone, also divided and administered by the four powers. Between 1945 and 1961, no physical barrier separated the free West Berlin from the communist East Berlin. In those 16 years, approximately 3.5 million East Germans fled to East Berlin, crossed the street, and then made a better life for themselves either in West Berlin or in West Germany.
By 1961 East Germany was suffering from the loss of so many skilled, educated workers and sought a radical means to end the crisis. With the consent of Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier, East German leader Walter Ulbricht commissioned a wall to separate the two halves of the city. Unlike the Great Wall of China, designed to keep foreign invaders out, the Berlin was created to keep its own citizens in.
It remains unclear just how many East Germans were killed attempting to cross to the West, with low-end figures citing perhaps 100, while others put the number closer to 1,000. Whatever the number of deaths, the wall stood as an ominous barrier separating a people. More than that, the wall also came to symbolize the division of two different social systems — the free capitalist West, and the totalitarian communist East.
President John F. Kennedy addressed the irony of the so-called “Workers' Paradise” of communism when he said in his 1963 speech in Berlin: “Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect. But we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in — to prevent them from leaving us.”
By 1989 the world was changing. The Soviet Union and its satellite states in Eastern Europe were suffering incredibly low standards of living compared to the West. The communist economies had never proven receptive to the needs of the people, and now increased defense spending, to match that of the United States under Ronald Reagan, meant less production of consumer goods.
Discontent continued to grow in the Eastern bloc. In 1989, as the Soviet Union began to experiment with new economic and political models, the introduction of limited free markets and contested elections, the peoples of Eastern Europe longed for more freedom as well.
Even as there was real attempt at reform in the USSR, governments throughout Eastern Europe remained just as committed to communist rule as ever. In the spring of 1989 the East German government rigged an election to favor the regime. When communist Hungary, frequently a tourist destination for East Germans, announced it was opening its borders with free Austria, many East Germans raced to Hungary to cross, fearing the border might soon close.
In other parts of East Germany, demonstrations against the government strained the regime's ability to maintain order. Having lost the loyalty of his cabinet, Erich Honecker, the chairman of the SED, East Germany's communist party, was forced by his Politburo to resign in October and was replaced by Egon Krenz. It was hoped the appointment of Krenz, a more moderate communist, would mollify the East German people.
Most East Germans remained dissatisfied, however, and the protests continued. When the Hungarians refused to allow more East Germans to cross into Austria, they flooded into the West German embassy in Prague, begging for help. This turn of events became a public relations disaster for East Germany and a burden for the Hungarian government. Krenz decided to act.
In his book “The Rise and Fall of Communism,” historian Archie Brown details what happened next: “Responding to the pressure of public opinion, the new East German leadership decided to relax the regulations for travel abroad, but it was far from their intention to open borders completely. It was a careless answer on the evening of 9 November by Politburo member and party spokesman Günter Schabowski to Tom Brokaw ... that gave the impression that East German citizens were from that moment entirely free to leave (East Germany).”
Schabowski had not attended the meeting earlier that morning in which the tight controls for allowing East Germans to visit West Berlin were discussed. While on live TV (a first for a press conference in East Germany), Schabowski was simply handed a note informing him of the policy and, speaking extemporaneously, declared that East German citizens now had the right to move freely between East and West Berlin. It proved a catastrophic mistake for the regime.
In his book “Berlin,” historian David Clay Large wrote: “No sooner had Schabowski ended his press conference than East Berliners began streaming to the Wall. Guards at the various crossings suddenly found themselves besieged with demands that they throw open the gates: after all, the authorities had officially pronounced the border open. The guards, who knew nothing of the new order, naturally kept the barriers down. Exasperated, people began chanting 'Open the Gate! The Wall must go!'”
After the crowds failed to disperse, the guards now had a choice to make. Do they open the gates? Or do they fire upon their own people? This is how revolutions happen. Thankfully, no one wanted to take responsibility for shooting into the crowd, and a disaster was averted. Instead, sometime around 8 p.m., in a move that fundamentally changed the world, the guards around the city began to open the gates. The power of the wall evaporated instantly.
Large wrote: “On the other side of the Wall thousands of West Berliners were waiting, their arms laden with flowers, bottles of Champagne, and toys for the kids. They greeted the easterners with hugs, kisses, and whacks on the back.... Asked by reporters what they thought about this turn of events, virtually everyone shouted 'Wahnsinn (crazy).'”
Robert Darnton, an American academic who was in Germany at the time, later wrote in his book “Berlin Journal, 1989-1990”: “The Wall is there and it is not there. On November 9, it cut through the heart of Berlin, a jagged wound in the middle of a great city, the Great Divide of the Cold War. On November 10, it had become a dance floor, a picture gallery, a bulletin board, a movie screen, a videocassette, a museum, and as the woman who cleaned my office put it, 'nothing but a heap of stone.'”Comment on this story
The fall of the Berlin Wall is now considered the seminal moment in the end of the Cold War. The destruction of its power symbolized the wider downfall of communism in Eastern Europe. Today, a paved line cuts across the city of Berlin, represented by a different color of carpet or tiling in buildings that could not have existed 24 years ago.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at SLCC. Cody has also appeared on many local stages including Hale Center Theater and Off Broadway Theater. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org