Erected in 1961, the Berlin Wall divided the former German capital for almost three decades. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was a pivotal moment, not just in the Cold War but in the history of modern Europe. It was brought about by political reforms inside the Soviet bloc, escalating pressure from the people of eastern Europe and ultimately, confusion over an East German directive to open the border.
In June 1987, United States president Ronald Reagan visited Italy for a multilateral economic summit. On his way home, Reagan stopped briefly in West Germany to speak at a ceremony commemorating the 750th anniversary of Berlin.
This ceremony was held near the Brandenburg Gate, one of Berlin’s main entrance points since the late 1700s. Since the construction of the Berlin Wall, however, the Brandenburg Gate had been closed. A lectern and red carpet were positioned outside the gate, as Secret Service agents erected panes of bulletproof glass to protect Reagan from snipers in East Berlin.
Reagan welcomed the 45,000 people present – as well as “those listening throughout Eastern Europe, [to whom] I extend my warmest greetings and the goodwill of the American people”. He turned his attention to the Soviet Union, highlighting Moscow’s commitment to huge nuclear arsenals as it struggled to feed its people. Reagan also focused on Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s recent reforms, dubbed glasnost and perestroika, questioning whether they were genuine moves toward change or a token effort to appease critics.
‘Tear down this wall’
Then, in perhaps the best-known quote of the entire Cold War, Reagan directly challenged Gorbachev:
“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!”
Despite being broadcast around Europe and the United States, Reagan’s speech failed to generate much interest. Most dismissed it as more of Reagan’s anti-Soviet sabre rattling, his stock in trade. Several of Reagan’s advisors had wanted the “tear down this wall” challenge removed from the speech, fearing it was too confrontational and might damage his growing relationship with Gorbachev. The phrase was retained, however.
It would soon prove prophetic. Within a few months of Reagan’s address in Berlin, the ideological foundations of the Berlin Wall had begun to crumble.
Soviet bloc crumbles
By the start of 1989, the tide of history was turning against communism in Europe. Subjected to internal pressures and protests, the Soviet bloc began to crumble from within.
Socialist governments behind the Iron Curtain came under tremendous internal pressure to liberalise and reform. The people of eastern Europe took to the streets, urging their own leaders to mirror Gorbachev’s reformism and relax their grip on government, economy and society.
Poland and Hungary had already adopted political and social reforms that would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier. In East Germany, the frontier of European communism and the epicentre of Cold War division, the Berlin Wall held firm – but this was not to last.
East Germany remains defiant
By early 1989, the tide of anti-communist sentiment sweeping through Europe had reached East Germany. The results of local government elections in May 1989 ignited significant public unrest: the ruling coalition of communist and socialist parties won 98.5 per cent of the vote and almost all of the seats, a clear sign the election had been rigged.
This political corruption, along with the country’s parlous economic condition and oppressive social conditions, triggered another exodus from East Germany. Some East Germans applied for legitimate exit visas, while others arranged to flee the country illegally.
In August, when the Hungarian government opened its borders with Austria, East Germans took advantage of this new Fluchtweg (‘escape route’) to the West. Thousands of East Germans went on holidays to Hungary, never to return. When East Berlin moved to block the flow of refugees, it triggered protests 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’).
Facing a popular revolution, the East German government began to buckle. On October 18th Erich Honecker, who had led the Soviet bloc state for more than 18 years, resigned under pressure from his own ministers.
On November 9th, the government responded to public pressure and announced plans to open up designated checkpoints in Berlin. When implemented, any East German wishing to pass through the Berlin Wall would be free to do so.
The border opens
This order was scheduled to come into effect on November 17th – but due to a communications mix-up, it was reported as being effective immediately. Thousands of civilians massed at critical points along the Berlin Wall, demanding that Grepo guards honour the government’s promise and open the gates.
Uncertain of their orders and under pressure from the crowd, the guards relented and threw open the barriers. Thousands of East Germans streamed across the border. Others scaled the wall and embraced Berliners from the other side, sitting atop the structure and drinking beer and champagne.
That evening, people on both sides began attacking the wall, first with graffiti and peace slogans and then with tools. Individuals and small groups dubbed ‘wall woodpeckers’ began attacking the structure with picks and sledgehammers. Some were after souvenirs of the Berlin Wall; others simply wanted to participate in its destruction.
The fall of the Berlin Wall led news bulletins around the globe. Images of the Berlin Wall being climbed, defaced and dismantled were beamed into millions of homes worldwide.
Few leaders missed the significance of the event. Margaret Thatcher called it “a great day for freedom… you see the joy on people’s faces and you see what freedom means to them”. George Bush, who succeeded Reagan as US president in January, attributed the demise of the Berlin Wall “to the people themselves” but refused to gloat, declaring that he would not “dance on the wall”.
Mikhail Gorbachev said very little publicly but his political advisor, Anatoly Chernyaev, wrote that “the entire era in the history of the socialist system is over”. East German troops began demolishing the wall in early 1990.
Today, three sections of the original Berlin Wall remain standing as memorials, while most of its original 155-kilometre long course is marked by brickwork, plaques and smaller memorials.
1. The Berlin Wall was a symbol of Cold War division for more than 25 years. In 1987 Ronald Reagan visited Berlin and famously challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”.
2. The political changes that swept through Europe in the late 1980s saw the socialist government in East Germany come under significant pressure from its own people.
3. In October 1989 Erich Honecker resigned as East German leader and the new government promised to open checkpoints. The Berlin Wall was breached on November 9th, due to a misunderstanding.
4. This led to Germans on both sides scaling the wall, defacing it with graffiti and attacking it with picks and sledgehammers.
5. The fall of the Berlin Wall was covered extensively around the world. Western leaders hailed it as a victory by the German people, who had chosen freedom over division. The wall was quickly dismantled, paving the way for German reunification.