This week in history: The fall of the Berlin Wall

By Cody Carlson

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, Nov. 7 2013 3:15 p.m. MST

This Nov. 11, 1989, file photo shows East German border guards looking through a hole in the Berlin wall after demonstrators pulled down one segment of the wall at Brandenburg gate.

Lionel Cironneau, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

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.

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