The Collapse of the Berlin Wall: When and Why Did It Fall?
Erected around the summer of 1961, the Berlin Wall was a physical blockade built by East German authorities to curb emigration (brain drain) of its members to West Germany. In the aftermath of World War 2, the Berlin Wall became a symbolic gesture of the Cold War that loomed between the United States and the Soviet Union. After standing upright and separating families for nearly three decades (around 1036 days), the Berlin Wall finally came crashing down on November 9, 1989. The collapse of the Berlin Wall happened in the same manner as it was built – abruptly.
This write-up takes you on a historic journey, exposing the history of the Berlin Wall, its fall and the associated reasons behind the fall.
After Nazi Germany surrendered to Allied Forces during World War II, the country was tied to certain stringent terms and conditions under the Postdam Conference of 1945. In the conference, the Big Three of the allied powers – USA, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union – decided that Germany had to be demilitarized, disarmed and divided. It was more or less like inheriting the spoils of war. Only this time, Germany was the loot.
Divisions in post-war Germany
Consequently, Germany was partitioned into 4 zonal sections for the occupation of the allied powers – the United States, the UK, France, and the Soviet Union. The German capital, Berlin, was supposed to be a Soviet territory, but portions of it were distributed among the other allies. In this allied division of Berlin, the United States, France, and Britain would form West Berlin while East Berlin would be occupied by the Soviets.
The Cold War Breaks Out
Even though the allied powers cooperated well during World War II, all was not well among the superpowers afterward. The laudable diplomatic relationship that united the allies began to shake, even in 1942. The United States and the Soviet Union failed to see eye to eye on crucial matters regarding the future of the European continent after the war.
By 1945, it was obvious that the US and the Soviets had different agendas. Both countries began flexing their muscles in Europe. The arms race and rampant espionage in the form of the Cold War started silently between the US and the USSR. As the two powers charged on, divisions became more and more intense. Germany found herself being misused as a fertile ground for Cold War political games.
An Iron Curtain Goes Up
In 1949, the internal divisions of Germany took a wider margin as the country was sectioned into two independent countries – West Germany (Federal Republic of Germany) and East Germany (German Democratic Republic – GDR). The Soviets belonged to the East while the Western democracies sided with West Germany.
In 1952, East Germany officially shut down its borders to the West, but due to the absence of a physical barrier, some East Germans frequently crossed the borders to the West in search of greener pastures and a more liberal lifestyle. By this time, it had become apparent that the Soviets were looking for means of not just ideologically (i.e. the Iron Curtain) but physically erecting concrete walls to separate the east from the west.
Construction of the Berlin Wall
In 1961, information came out that the mass emigration of East Germans to the West would be addressed in the near future. At that time, some people started anticipating the construction of a wall – Walter Ulbricht of East Germany denied the wall claims in June 1961.
On the nights of 12th and 13th of August 1961, a physical barrier was erected suddenly to halt migrations between West and East Berlin. Built by East Germans, the barrier quickly moved from barbed wires to concrete fortifications. This separated families within the twinkle of an eye.
Number of Lives Claimed by the Berlin Wall
Due to heavy security around the wall, those who attempted to flout the boundaries met their untimely deaths. In the three decades that the Berlin Wall stood, the number of people that tried making it across the Wall from East Germany (GDR) was around 100,000. Sadly, about 600 of those East Germans lost their lives. The fleeing East Germans were either shot dead on the spot or captured only to be tortured later.
In the vicinity of the Berlin Wall alone, it has been estimated that about 140 people lost their lives in the process of fleeing from the Soviet bloc to the West.
It was an absolutely terrible time to be an East Berliner. To show you how much pain and suffering they faced, some of the East Berliners that were caught fleeing preferred suicide to being taken alive by the GDR border guards. The reason being that: the conditions that awaited them back in the hands of East Berlin officials, to a certain extent, were far worse than death.
The GDR leaders purposely installed directives that allowed GDR border guards to shoot fleeing East Berliners with impunity. There were even pay perks and rewards given to any GDR border guard that shot persons trying to escape East Berlin.
There were also some accidents recorded. About 30 innocent lives – both East and West Berliners – were lost when border guards mistakenly fired at them. Not until the early part of April 1989, this directive continued to exist.
All in all, if you were to take into account the numerous lives that were lost from sheer grief and pain suffered by just being separated from their loved ones, the total number of lives claimed by the Berlin Wall would be slightly above 1,000.
Dimensions and Structure of the Wall
The combined lengths of the walls was about 91 miles (155 km). One extraordinary thing about the fence was that, it didn’t only cut through central Berlin, it completely enclosed West Berlin.
The wall was redeveloped on 4 major occasions since its erection in 1961. Barbed wires gave way to reinforced concrete coupled with steel girders, permanently making unlawful entry to be dangerous and physically impossible. When concrete slabs were fixed on the wall from 1975-80, it’s height reached 12 ft (3.6 m), and the width was about 4 ft. (1.2 m).
Reasons for the Fall of the Berlin Wall
After decades of excellently performing its job of separation and killing offenders, the Berlin Wall eventually destroyed on November 9, 1989. This was an exhilarating moment for East Germans. For over three decades the Wall had thorn families apart, preventing them from embracing their Western counterparts. At long last, there was no East or West Germany; there was now one Germany – just as it used to be, before the Allies tore it apart in the name of disagreements and Cold War propaganda.
First of all, the disintegration of the Berlin Wall was globally celebrated because of the peaceful atmosphere that came with it. The Berlin Wall’s fall meant that, the Cold War was considered to be over.
Germans became more unified. After the fall, previously locked windows of opportunities opened themselves to the citizenry. But what necessitated the destruction of the monumental wall that was so good at killing and separating people? Read further as we explore the truths.
When and How did the Berlin Wall fall?
Germans grew tired of the 28 years of separation. In 1989, East Germany’s political transformation, in addition to civil disobedience activities put pressure on government to take a soft stance on travel bans to West Germany. The widespread protests, demonstrations, and senseless shootings of border crossers were enough. The two sides, East German in particular, badly needed the Wall to go if it wanted to prosper.
Additionally, the 1980s came with hopes of relative peace between Soviets and Americans. Due to change of leadership, U.S. President Ronald Reagan of the United States and Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union had several meetings to lessen tensions between the two countries. Gorbachev wanted to revive his economy; so he had to welcome liberal changes by extending a warm hand to the West.
During a press conference on November 9, 1989, Günter Schabowski of East Germany answered questions about emigration reforms. His answers appeared to have given the go-ahead that the Berlin Wall would be opened that day.
As rumors of the Wall opening spread throughout the nation, larger crowds went and gathered at the checkpoints and demanded border security to allow them entry. At about 10:30 pm on November 9, a guard stationed at the Wall – Harald Jäger – out of anger, frustration, and security concerns, controversially disobeyed orders by opening the Bornholmer Straße border to traffic.
Hell broke loose to redefine German history; 30 years down the line, pundits still question whether the fall of the Berlin Wall was accidental or a well-thought-out strategic decision.