Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Fall of the Berlin Wall: November 9th, 1989

Twenty Years Ago...

I realize I am a day late doing this post, one I've been planning to do for some time, but real life in the form of a packed schedule of errands got in the way today, and I wasn't able to write this all down until now.

However, as someone who lived, albeit a short while, in Berlin and who has been personally touched by the richness of the city, and as a passionate fan and student of German culture and history, the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall is something I really wanted to mark. Especially because so many of the people I've talked to recently have little to no understanding of the full significance of this day in history.

As with most historical moments, I believe that pictures often say a lot more than words:


At midnight on Saturday, August 12th, 1961, construction of the wall begins under the orders of Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev. The wall was constructed in response to the mass exodus of East Berliners to West Berlin in anticipation of the restrictions that would be placed on East Berlin under the Soviet Bloc. Border is closed by morning of Sunday, August 13th, 1961. Immigration from East to West is restricted and West Berlin is enclosed within the borders of East Germany, dividing those living in East Berlin from West Berlin indefinitely.


The city of Berlin, as well as East and West Germany, remains separated by the wall, consisting of an expanse of "no man's land" that makes illegal crossings virtually impossible. Soviet officers are ordered to shoot on command anyone who tries to escape. Tensions with East Germany continue to rise throughout the reign of Soviet control.

There are roughly 5,000 successful escapes from East to West, though escape attempts account for 136 deaths, with some claiming the actual number to be around 200. Those wounded in escape attempts are not permitted help for fear of setting off fire from east german guards. One notable preventable is of a man named Peter Fechter, who is shot and then forced to bleed out, all under the watchful eyes of the western media in August 1962. He becomes a symbol for the inhumanity of life in East Berlin and the inhumanity of the wall itself. Other stories of escape attempts, both successful and not, are compiled and presented by the Checkpoint Charlie museum, a must-stop for any visitor to Berlin today.

Tensions come to a boiling point in the late 80s. Gorbachev is elected leader of Soviet Union and things begin to change, slowly but surely. Further, massive peaceful protests break out in East Germany beginning in September 1989, the largest a huge demonstration in East Berlin's Alexanderplatz attended by half a million people. Refugees also began escaping through routes assisted by decreased immigration restrictions between East Germany and Czechoslovaki and Hungary.


A press conference on November 9th, 1989, originally intended to announce eased immigration restrictions from East to West Berlin at a later date, results in an announcement that the borders are open immediately. Thousands flood the checkpoints, rendering any response by border guards useless. The guards are thus instructed to stand down and allow people to cross through the check points, causing celebration in the streets as East Germans get their first taste of freedom in West Berlin.

In the days and weeks that followed the opening of the borders, the wall came down. Many played a part in tearing down the wall themselves, sometimes with their bare hands, and all that remains of the wall is a few spare spots left for the purpose of memorial.


Reunification was by no means an easy process for East and West Germany and in many ways, the country is still not fully unified. But there is little doubt that majority of Germans are happier now in a unified Germany, as evidenced by the widespread celebration for the 20th Anniversary yesterday. Here is some great stuff from that celebration:

I loved one of the things that Barack Obama said in his video-taped speech. "Human destiny is what human beings make of it."

Dominoes erected to represent the wall were painted by school children around the world and then knocked down to mark the anniversary, to the minute, of when the borders were opened.

It is an understatement to the suggest that the wall was merely a product of the Cold War and that it's fall was merely a marker for the end of the Cold War. Rather, what is moving about the fall of the wall, about understanding the whole story, is the perspective its history gives on the capacity of humanity to endure and of the importance of freedom for all people.

If you'd like to study more, and I really suggest you do, here is some more information on the history of the wall:

Multimedia Chronicle of the Wall
Newseum - An interactive Museum on Berlin Wall History
Animated Video of the actual make-up of the Wall's defense system

Also, here are previews for three very good German movies that really make the history of the wall come alive:

DER TUNNEL (2001) - One of the most moving stories on The Wall I've seen


Katie K said...

I'm really glad you posted this. I get really emotional every time I think of the wall and what it meant. I still remember seeing it for the first time, and I had the unique experience to travel to Berlin with two Western-Germans who'd also never seen the wall. Seeing their reaction made the whole experience richer. Quite the trip. Thank you!

Lacey! said...

Thanks, Katie. I think that the more you understand Germany and Berlin itself, the harder it is not to get emotional when discussing the wall. I usually find myself shedding a couple tears whenever I watch some of this footage.

krebscout said...

We loved The Lives of Others.

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