September 09, 2010



9th NOVEMBER, 1989

In 1987, the winds of change had begun to appear on the horizon of world politics. After years of global ideological and political struggle that led to escalating tensions all over the globe, a nuclear arms race and the loss of thousands of innocent lives in Vietnam, Korea and Afghanistan, the Cold War was finally nearing its end. The Communist Block had realized that their economic policies were as impractical as they were idealist. Meanwhile, as the Soviet Union was hit by an economic standstill and both, domestic and foreign unrest, its immediate effects were seen on its satellites in Eastern Europe, most notably on its protégé, East Germany.

It was against this backdrop that on June 12, 1987, in a speech at the Brandenburg Gate commemorating the 750th anniversary of Berlin, Ronald Reagan challenged Mikhail Gorbachev, of the Soviet Union in one of the most memorable speeches of his tenure.

“We welcome change and openness for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of worldpeace. 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 liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

This wall, infamous as the 'Berlin Wall' or ‘Berliner Mauer’ in German, traced back its history to the Allied occupation of the erstwhile Nazi Germany, following the defeat of the Axis powers in the Second World War. As per the Potsdam Agreement, four occupation zones were created, each one to be controlled by one of the four occupying forces: the US, the UK, France and Soviet Union. Berlin, as the seat of the Allied Control Council, was similarly subdivided into four sectors despite the city's location deep inside the Soviet zone. Owing to differences regarding reconstruction and a new German currency, when Joseph Stalin, the then Secretary General of Soviet Union, imposed the infamous Berlin Blockade, preventing food, materials and supplies from reaching West Berlin, the Allies countered by a massive air lifting operation called the ‘Berlin Airlift’. Under immense pressure from the various quarters, including a demonstration from three lakh Berliners in the favor of the international airlift, Stalin lifted the blockade in May 1949, permitting the resumption of Western shipments to Berlin.

However, this episode brought into limelight, the sharp division of opinion that existed between the US and Soviet Union and a united Germany, comprising of German speaking areas to the West of the Oder-Neisse line became a distant dream. Finally, on 23rd May, 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) came into existence out of areas under the control of Western Allied forces. In October, later that year, the German Democratic Republic (Eastern Germany) was declared by a treaty with the Soviet Union that gave the infant nation limited autonomy and placed it virtually under the control of Kremlin. East Germany differed from West Germany, which developed into a Western capitalist country with a social market economy and a democratic parliamentary government. As West Germany's economy grew and its standard of living continually improved, many East Germans, frustrated with the unpopular policies of its Marxist government and suffocated by the restrictions imposed in the Communist State, began crossing over to Western Germany, most notably via the Berlin border.

As such the Eastern German government began constructing a barrier to completely cut off West Berlin from areas under Eastern domination. With the closing of the East-West sector boundary in Berlin, the vast majority of East Germans could no longer travel or immigrate to West Germany. West Berliners demonstrated against the wall, led by their Mayor Willy Brandt, who strongly criticized the United States for failing to respond and coined the term ‘Wall of Shame’, while condemning the wall's restriction on freedom of movement. Along with the separate and much longer Inner German border (IGB) that demarcated the border between East and West Germany, both borders came to symbolize the "Iron Curtain" between Capitalist Western Europe and the Communist Eastern Bloc.

The Berlin Wall was more than 140 km (87 mi) long. Through the years, the Berlin Wall evolved through four versions: Wire fence (1961), Improved wire fence (1962–1965), Concrete wall (1965–1975) and Grenzmauer 75 (Border Wall 75) (1975–1989). Between 1961 and 1989, around 5,000 people attempted to escape over the wall, with estimates of the resulting death toll varying between 100 and 200. The East German government issued shooting orders to border guards dealing with defectors. If an escapee was wounded in a crossing attempt and lay on the death strip, no matter how close they were to the Western wall, Westerners could not intervene for fear of triggering engaging fire from the 'Grepos', the East Berlin border guards. The guards often let fugitives bleed to death in the middle of this ground.

The creation of the Wall had important implications for both German states. By stemming the exodus of people from East Germany, the government there was able to reassert its control over the country, in spite of discontent with the wall, economic problems caused by dual currency and the black market were largely eliminated. The economy in the GDR began to grow. But, the Wall proved a public relations disaster for the Communist Bloc as a whole. Western powers used it in propaganda as a symbol of communist tyranny, particularly after East German border guards shot and killed would-be defectors.

In summer of 1989, two years after Reagan’s Berlin address, Hungary closed its physical border with Austria after 13,000 East German tourists used it to flee to West Germany. As the Hungarian authorities prepared to deport many others to East Germany, they refused and flooded the West Germany embassy. The Communist government’s decision to disallow travel to Hungary triggered a similar situation in the neighboring Czechoslovakia. On this occasion, the East German authorities allowed them to leave. This was followed by mass demonstrations within East Germany itself. When Eric Honecker, the longtime leader of East Germany resigned on 18th October, 1989, the last hurdle in the demolition of the Wall was crossed.

Protest demonstrations broke out all over East Germany in September 1989. Initially, protesters were mostly people wanting to leave to the West, chanting "Wir wollen raus!" ("We want out!"). Then protesters began to chant "Wir bleiben hier", ("We're staying here!"). This was the start of what East Germans generally call the "Peaceful Revolution" of late 1989. By November 4, the protests had swelled significantly, with half a million people gathered that day at the Alexanderplatz demonstration in East Berlin.

Meanwhile, to ease complications, the politburo led by the new leader, Egon Krenz, decided on November 9, to allow refugees to exit directly through crossing points between East Germany and West Germany, including West Berlin. The new regulations were to take effect on November 17, 1989. Günter Schabowski, a spokesperson for the politburo, had the task of announcing this; however he had not been involved in the discussions about the new regulations and had not been fully updated. When an Italian journalist, Riccardo Ehrman asked when the regulations would come into effect, he said, “As far as I know effective immediately, without delay”. After further questions from journalists he confirmed that the regulations included the border crossings towards West Berlin, which he had not mentioned until then. An incomplete broadcast on a West German TV channel ARD regarding the press conference that claimed that East Germany had opened its western border with immediate effect,added fuel to the fire.

After hearing the broadcast, East Germans began gathering at the wall, demanding that border guards immediately open its gates. The surprised and overwhelmed guards made many hectic telephone calls to their superiors about the problem, but it became clear that there was no one among the East German authorities who would dare to take personal responsibility for issuing orders to use lethal force, so there was no way for the vastly outnumbered soldiers to hold back the huge crowd of East German citizens. In face of the growing crowd, the guards finally yielded, opening the checkpoints and allowing people through with little or no identity checking. Ecstatic East Berliners were soon greeted by West Berliners on the other side in a celebratory atmosphere.

November 9 is considered the date the Wall fell, but the Wall in its entirety was not torn down immediately. Starting that evening, and in the days and weeks that followed, people came to the wall with sledgehammers or otherwise hammers and chisels to chip off souvenirs, demolishing lengthy parts of it in the process and creating several unofficial border crossings. These people were nicknamed "Mauerspechte" (wall woodpeckers).

On June 13, 1990, the official dismantling of the Wall by the East German military began in Bernauer Straße. On July 1, the day East Germany adopted the West German currency, all de jure border controls ceased, although the inter-German border had become meaningless for some time before that. The dismantling continued to be carried out by military and lasted until November 1991. Only a few short sections and watchtowers were left standing as memorials.

On November 9, 2009, Berlin celebrated the 20th Anniversary of the ‘Fall of the Berlin Wall’ with a "Festival of Freedom" with dignitaries from around the world in attendance for an evening celebration around the Brandenburg Gate. A high point was when over 1000 colorfully designed foam domino tiles, each over 8 feet tall that were stacked along the former route of the wall in the city center were toppled in stages, converging in front of the Brandenburg Gate. A Berlin Twitter Wall was set up to allow Twitter users to post messages commemorating the 20th anniversary. Masses of Chinese users have used it to protest the Great Firewall of China. Berlin Twitter Wall was quickly blocked by the Chinese authorities. Palestinians in the town of Kalandia, West Bank pulled down parts of the Israeli West Bank barrier, in a demonstration marking the 20th Anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The fall of the Berlin Wall is a testimony to the fact that the human spirit is indomitable and cannot be suppressed by physical barriers or shackled in chains. Any society, organization or government that snatches away freedom from its people is bound to fall and crumble. The fall of the Wall was the first step toward German reunification, which was formally concluded on October 3, 1990. Within a few years, United Germany has left the scars of the Cold War behind and has become a frontrunner in many disciplines of science, technology and sports.


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