The fall of the Berlin Wall

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Ronald Reagan delivers his ‘tear down this wall’ speech in 1987

In 1987, US president Ronald Reagan visited Italy for a multilateral economic summit. On his way home, he stopped for a brief visit to West Berlin, the second of his presidency. Reagan was scheduled to address West German dignitaries and citizens at a ceremony to commemorate the 750th anniversary of Berlin. The location of this ceremony was the Brandenburg Gate, a huge archway that had served as one of Berlin’s main entrance points since the late 1700s. But since the construction of the Berlin Wall, the Brandenburg Gate had been closed. A lectern and red carpet was positioned outside the gate, while US Secret Service agents erected large panes of bulletproof glass, to protect Reagan from snipers in East Berlin. At 2pm on June 12th, Reagan welcomed the 45,000 people present – as well as “those listening throughout Eastern Europe, [to whom] I extend my warmest greetings and the good will of the American people.” Reagan then turned his attentions to the Soviet Union, highlighting its commitment to huge nuclear arsenals despite being unable to feed its people. Reagan also focused on Soviet leader Gorbachev’s recent proclamations of reform – glasnost and perestroika – pondering whether these were genuine or just a token effort to appease Western critics. Reagan then issued a challenge that became one of the best-known remarks of the Cold War:

“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 liberalisation… Come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev – open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev – tear down this wall!”

Iron Curtain under strain

Reagan’s speech was broadcast around Europe and the United States – however it failed to generate much interest. Most just dismissed it as more Cold War sabre-rattling, which had become Reagan’s stock in trade. But Reagan’s challenge to Gorbachev was to prove prophetic. Within a few months of Reagan’s speech, the ideological foundations of the Berlin Wall were indeed beginning to crumble. By the start of 1989, the tide of history was turning against Soviet communism in Europe. Soviet bloc countries were under enormous internal pressure to liberalise and reform. The people of eastern Europe took to the streets and urged their governments to follow Gorbachev’s reformist policies – glasnost and perestroika – and relax their grip on society and the economy. There had already been remarkable reforms in both Poland and Hungary that would have been unthinkable even a few years earlier. In East Germany, the enduring symbol of Cold War division, the Berlin Wall, was still holding firm – but even it was about to come under attack.

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East Germans protest against socialist leader Erich Honecker

By early 1989, the tide of anti-communist sentiment sweeping through Europe had reached East Germany. Local government elections held in May 1989 were a significant source of public unrest. The ruling coalition of communist and socialist parties won 98.5 percent of the vote and almost all of the seats – a sign to many that the election was rigged. This, along with East Germany’s parlous economic condition, triggered another exodus of people. Some applied for legitimate exit visas, while others arranged to flee the country illegally. In August, when the government of Hungary opened its borders with Austria, East German refugees were gifted an easier conduit to the West. Thousands of East Germans went on ‘holidays’ to Hungary, never to return. When the communist government moved to halt this drain of people, it triggered protests held every Monday evening in several cities. As the weeks passed, these protests grew in size and intensity. On one day in November 1989, around 500,000 people gathered in East Berlin where they were addressed by local celebrities, actors and intellectuals. Among the slogans chanted by the crowd included “Wir vollen raus!” (‘We want out’), “Wir sind ein Volk!” (‘We are one people’) and “Vierzig Jahre sind genug!” (’40 years is enough’).

East Germany capitulates

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German civilians stand triumphantly atop the Berlin Wall in 1989

Facing a popular revolution, the East German government buckled. On October 18th, Erich Honecker, who had led the Soviet bloc state for more than 18 years, resigned under pressure from his ministers. On November 9th, the government announced plans to open up designated checkpoints in Berlin; any East German wishing to pass through the Berlin Wall could do so. The government’s order was to come into effect on November 17th – but due to a mix-up, the media reported that it was effective immediately. Thousands of people massed at critical points along the Berlin Wall, demanding that Grepo guards honour the government’s promise and open the gates. Uncertain and under pressure, the guards relented and threw open the barriers, allowing thousands of East Germans to stream across the border. Some also scaled the wall, an act that weeks before might have got them shot. That evening, a few Berliners on both sides of the wall defaced it with graffiti and set upon it with tools, breaking off chunks and dismantling entire sections. These images, beamed around the world, were to become symbolic of the fall of Soviet communism.

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Reunification after 45 years of division was a cause for celebration in Germany

The fall of the Berlin Wall set in motion steps for the reunification of Germany. Internal borders, both within Germany and the divided city of Berlin, were quickly removed. In March 1990, East Germany held its first free elections, which produced a resounding defeat for the communists. The two German states stepped up their political and economic co-operation, agreeing to a single currency (the Deutschmark) in July 1990. Work began on a treaty of reunification, which was finalised and passed into law in October. A general election – the first all-German free election since 1932 – was held in December 1990. The creation of a reunified Germany did not please everyone, particularly those with lingering memories of World War II. British prime minister Margaret Thatcher was privately concerned about it, as were the French, Italians, and indeed the Soviets; the Israeli government was the most vocal opponent of reunification. But in the years to come, post-Cold War Germany would dispel these concerns by becoming one of Europe’s most progressive and economically successful states.

The Soviet Union dissolves

“For world leaders such as Mikhail Gorbachev, Deng Xiaoping, George Bush, Helmut Kohl and Margaret Thatcher, the global battle of communism versus capitalism framed their entire world-view. Each recalled the struggles of World War II. Yet each had risen to power in the years that followed, believing their own society held the key not only to Cold War victory, but to the future itself. By the end of 1989 they would each come to realise what Thatcher had announced a year before: the world of their youths was gone. “We’re not in a Cold War now”, she told a sceptical American audience in December 1988. Because the Soviet Union had, in her opinion, ceased its quest for global domination, the Cold War was “all over but the shouting”.
Jeffrey A.Engel, historian
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An American cartoon depicting the dissolution of the Soviet Union

The last bastion of communism was, of course, the Soviet Union – but even it was rapidly changing. In April 1990, Moscow passed a law allowing the remaining Soviet states to hold free elections on secession and independence. By the end of the year, the people in six states – Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Armenia, Georgia and Moldova – had voted to leave the USSR. The Ukraine, a region of great economic value, also declared independence in July 1990. Those states that remained were given greater political and economic autonomy. These changes did not please everyone, particularly hardline communists in the government, military and KGB. They were outraged by Gorbachev’s reforms and the shrinking Soviet empire. In August 1991 they launched a last-ditch coup attempt, arresting Gorbachev and demanding the reintroduction of communist policies. But the coup did not have popular support and collapsed after a few days. By the end of 1991, the Soviet Union was gone, formally dissolved and replaced by a Commonwealth of Independent States.

The death of the Soviet Union snuffed out the last embers of the Cold War. Though communist regimes remained in power in China, North Korea, Cuba and other smaller nations, the threat of Soviet imperialism and oppression had been lifted from the world. Some hailed Mikhail Gorbachev and other reformist leaders in the Soviet bloc as the architects of this. Others claimed that strong-minded Western leaders like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher had ‘won’ the Cold War. Others still said that communism had simply fallen victim to its own false promises; it was an unsustainable economic theory that collapsed from within. All are probably true to some degree – but in the tumultuous late 1980s, the final engine of change was the people. For decades they had lived in the shadows of communism: given little or no say in government, forced to work, oppressed and silenced. The final days of the Cold War were defined by ordinary people, who risked their lives to rejoin the free world, an idea expressed by novelist John Le Carre:

“It was man who ended the Cold War, in case you didn’t notice. It wasn’t weaponry, or technology, or armies or campaigns. It was just man. Not even Western man either, as it happened, but our sworn enemy in the East, who went into the streets, faced the bullets and the batons, and said: ‘We’ve had enough’. It was their emperor, not ours, who had the nerve to mount the rostrum and declare he had no clothes. And the ideologies trailed after these impossible events like condemned prisoners, as ideologies do when they’ve had their day.”



1. In 1987 Ronald Reagan visited Berlin and challenged Soviet leader Mikhael Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”.
2. The Berlin Wall would fall two years later, due largely to rigged elections and internal unrest in East Germany.
3. In response to a government promise to open checkpoints, Germans stormed the wall and began to destroy it.
4. The fall of the Berlin Wall led to the reunification of Berlin and then of Germany, a process completed in late 1990.
5. The Soviet Union also allowed its member states to choose their own future, which led directly to their independence, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and, in time, the end of the Cold War.