"1989: The Year that Changed the World"

1989: Key Events »

"1989: The Year that Changed the World"

History of the Berlin Wall 1961 – 1989 »

In the weeks and months that followed the end of World War II, it became apparent to the world that Berlin would become the epicenter of a new ideological struggle between Capitalism and Communism.  The city of Berlin was divided into 4 occupational zones, one administered by the Soviet Union and 3 others controlled by the democratic allies of the United States, France, and Great Britain.  What had once been a war-time alliance, however, soon dissolved into open mistrust.  Soviet refusal to agree to reconstruction plans which would make post-war Germany self-sufficient heightened tensions between the powers.  In 1947, in an attempt to force the Allies out of West Berlin, the Soviets cut off all access to the city.  The Allies responded by airlifting massive amounts of aid and supplies to West Berlin, which would ultimately prove successful.  While the Soviets would relent and re-open access to the city, it was obvious that the reunification of East and West would only be a dream, and each would eventually be split into two separate entities: The German Democratic Republic, and the Federal Republic of Germany.

Between 1945 and 1961, over 3.5 million East Germans, including many academics, engineers, teachers, and skilled workers fled to the West, many through West Berlin. They sought to escape Sovietization and enjoy the economic recovery experienced in the West.  By 1961, the Soviets put this to an end.  On the orders of GDR head Walter Ulbricht, and with the approval of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, the East German government erected a wall to close off East and West.  Over the next 28 years, this "Berlin Wall" would separate people from their loved ones and stand as a symbol of oppression and persecution.  

As the Cold War intensified, so did the war of words exchanged between leaders of the Democratic World and the Communist Bloc. For generations, many luminaries, from religious leaders to U.S. Presidents, understood the significance of the Wall as a physical representation of the Cold War. It was clear that as long as the Berlin Wall stood, the world would remain divided.

By the late 1980s, however, the strength of Communism began to wane. In the Soviet Union and in other countries of the Warsaw bloc, battered economies and worsening living conditions began to create unrest upon the populace. In 1987, USSR General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev introduced Perestroika, which sought to liberalize economic and political restrictions. Gorbachev hoped to ease the economic situation, but instead, unrest turned to outright rebellion as countries under communist rule began to demand elections and outright independence from the Soviet system.

On August 23rd, 1989, Hungarian police began to remove the fence running along the border to Austria. Subsequently, thousands of East German refugees began to make their way through this hole in the iron curtain. The East German government attempted to contain its citizens within the Socialist camp by disallowing further travels to its neighboring allies, but the waves of refugees did not cease. On the contrary, despite discouragement from the state, an increasing number of East German citizens tried to reach the west, with protests in the country on the rise.

After General Secretary Erich Honecker stepped down in late October 1989, the new GDR Prime Minister, Egon Krenz, planned to allow travel between East and West Germany starting on the 17th of November.

A mistake in the November 9th press announcement of Propaganda Minister Schabovski, in regards to the lifting of travel restrictions, led the inflating bubble of popular pressure on the regime to finally burst. Schabovski announced to the public that the new travel laws were with immediate effect, unaware that they were not yet in effect at all. But after the people of the GDR had watched the announcement on television, thousands rushed to the checkpoints expecting an open wall. Eventually, the regime bowed before the public and the overwhelmed GDR police opened the gates.

In the weeks and months to come, the wall was torn down slowly but surely. Attempts by East German security forces to fix the holes were fleeting and ultimately futile. Today, only lines of cobblestones along the former wall sites remind one of the division of a people within a city.

The fall of the Berlin Wall marked not only the end of the Cold War, but the reunification of Germany on October 3rd 1990.