Today, we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Why was there a wall? Why and how did it fall? What happened next? What about other walls in the world? These are the questions we’ll try to answer!
A bit of context: Why was there a wall in Berlin?
In 1945, after the Second World War, Germany was partitioned. The UK, the USA, France and the USSR (former Soviet Union) each got a piece of Germany (see map below or on the right/left – to see when publishing). In 1949, the Allies (France, the UK and the USA) decided to unite their parts of Germany, which became the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG – West Germany). The rest of Germany remained under Soviet power and was called the German Democratic Republic (GDR – East Germany). The border between the two Germanies was called the Iron curtain. At first, there was no physical representation of the border. It gradually became an impassable 8500km long barrier, going from the Baltic Sea to the Caspian Sea.
Eventually, Berlin was partitioned too (see map below or on the right/left – to see when publishing), and in the same way the Allies united their parts, opposing the Soviets. At first, there was no physical border in Berlin, allowing East German to easily escape to West Germany, which was seen as more attractive because richer. The crossing started to be massive. In 1960, around 200,000 people left GDR to find refuge in West Berlin. Until 1961, almost 3,5 million Eastern Germans had fled to FRG. The Soviets couldn’t stand this affront any longer and wanted to stop the haemorrhage.
Therefore, they came up with a plan to build a physical border, dividing Berlin. In one night only, from the 12th August 1961’s evening to the 13th August’s morning, the VoPos (Volkspolizei’s agents, police force from GDR) erected a wall with 2m high concrete panels and barbed wires. This was meant to last. The quickness was incredible. At 11:15pm Germans could cross the border easily. At 11:30pm it was impossible. There were actually very few violent scenes that night. People were just stunned. The wall was protected by a 500m no-man’s land and guarded by VoPo’s, ready to shoot on sight any agitator. From now on, if you wanted to cross the border, you could only do it by reporting to one of the 13 checkpoints. From the East to West Germany, you could only cross to the other sidel if you had a pass. From the West to the East, to travel by car, you needed a special authorization, that you were almost sure you wouldn’t get. The 2,5 millions of West Berliners got really isolated, as on an island among GDR.
A historic day: Why and how did it fall?
In 1989, people who stayed in East Berlin started to protest more and more often. Eastern Germans were on the streets, demanding reforms. Eventually, the authorities implemented “new” travel regulations. But nowhere in those was actually written that the gate would open on the 9th of November.
At a press conference that day, around 6pm, Guenter Schabowsky, an East German Politburo spokesman addressed the press about these new rules. But he hadn’t taken the time to properly read those. He let journalists understand (and then report) that “exit via border crossings” would be “possible for every citizens” effective, “immediately, right away.” His later complementary comment about how the permeability of the wall was not answered yet was not really listened to. At 7pm, Western radio announced that the Berlin Wall was open. Soon after the broadcast, German television shared the news as well, and people started to gather at the checkpoints, on both sides of the wall.
Among the guards, was a feeling of uncertainty. After a few phone calls, they were reassured that the border was meant to stay closed on their watch. But soon, they would be outnumbered by the crowd. Refusing to resort to use violence in risk of it escalating, they decided around 9pm to let some people cross, to ease the thousands of people gathering at the gates. This solution lasted a couple of hours. Around 11:30pm, the barriers of Bornholmer Straße were lifted up. Others would soon follow. At this point, people were jumping on top of the wall, reunited and cheered.
What’s really striking here is how important the timing was that day. At that time, due to the time difference, Western leaders were busy in some meetings, while Soviets leader were sleeping. Therefore, they didn’t get the chance to take action and consolidate the wall and the checkpoints.
This is how the 9th of November became a historic day. To celebrate this day, a 7-day Festival was organised in Berlin.
Aftermath: What happened next?
The fall of the Wall continued the following days and weeks. The official dismantling began on the 13th July 1990 and was completed by 1992. This two-year gap is really in contrast with the one-night construction.
A couple of weeks after the fall, Helmut Kohl (West German Chancellor) launched a 10-point program to bring the two Germanies closer, maybe even to reunification. On the 3rd October 1990, the reunification became reality. This united country would be officially called the Federal Republic of Germany. This way, Germany was a successor state to smaller FRG, retaining all international commitments made by Western Germany.
The reunification was not as simple as it seemed. The former East communist economy was difficult to get along with the Western economy. The Deutsche Mark was introduced to former GDR, but this was not a smooth transition. Unemployment rose in the Eastern regions as businesses and factories couldn’t keep up due to the introduction of a new currency. All those dreams of freedom and prosperity were at first crushed for East Germans.
Still divided: What about other walls in the world?
At the end of the Second World War, 7 border walls where to be found in the world. By the time the Berlin wall fell, 15 were counted. Nowadays, we’re beyond 70 walls.
One of the most famous might be the Israel/West Bank wall, erected in 2002 after several Palestinian attacks. Called the “apartheid wall”, the 700km barrier was judged in breach of international law by the international Court of Justice in 2004.
We also often hear about the Indian/Bangladesh border wall. The 3200km brick wall was erected to “protect India from Muslim invaders”, with no consideration for the small towns it crosses.
But very much closer to us, we can still witness a wall up in Belfast. The “Peace Wall” is presented as a protection, as a tool to keep peace in Belfast, preventing anymore rioting. Still, when you have a walk on each side of the wall, protection is not the first word that comes to your mind. Division. Separation. Disconnection. Those are words that fill your head. Just by the size of the houses, the existence or not of a garden attached to the house, the size of the windows, you can tell how different the daily life must be depending on what side you’re living in.
Therefore, I must ask, protection or division?
30 years ago, we were all waiting for the Berlin Wall to fall. This border was seen as an unbearable sign of division that the international community wanted down. But in the meantime, more and more walls were erected. Where is the coherence here?
This topic was obviously brought back in the spotlight by Trump and his wish to build a wall between the USA and Mexico. As if there were not already fences between those states. Migration and Brexit also added to the debate by questioning non-existing borders. But in the end, don’t you think that we benefit from sharing different cultures?
Browse more stories below or sign up to our newsletter to receive our top news straight to your inbox!