Friday, 7 November 2014

November 9th, 1989: the fall of the Berlin Wall

Building the "Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart" in August 1961

On the 9th of November 1989, the Berlin Wall, that terrible symbol of the Cold War, finally fell after having divided the city for 28 years. Family members and friends who hadn’t seen each other in decades were finally reunited.

It was a momentous and joyous event, marking the beginning of the end of a divided Germany and of a divided Europe. The Soviet Union collapsed two years later...

After Germany’s unconditional surrender at the end of the Second World War, control of the country was divided between the Allies: Britain, America and France took over the west of Germany and the Soviet Union controlled the east of Germany. By 1949 Germany had become two separate countries. 

Berlin was also divided between the former Allies (into four Sectors, cf. the map below) and it quickly became the focal point of the Cold War.

Hostilities between the ideologically-opposed superpowers, the USA and the USSR, grew.

Map of 1961 showing the wall around West Berlin

Life in the Soviet-controlled East was bleak. Many became disillusioned with communism and the increasingly oppressive social and economic conditions. Large numbers of people began defecting to the West.

The Berlin "Wall of shame", 1960s

In 1961, the East German authorities erected the Wall ("die Mauer") around West Berlin, soon fortified with huge slabs of concrete and 300 control points, mostly to prevent the young, well-educated citizens of East Germany from fleeing to the “Free world” (via West Berlin’s airport).

By the end of the 1980s, demands for freedom were growing across the ‘Eastern Bloc’. There was a series of largely peaceful revolutions in Eastern Europe. Within months of the Wall’s checkpoints being opened, German reunification was complete.

The end of Communism in Europe cannot of course be explained by or reduced to just one event; the fall of the Wall remains however very important in many people’s lives because it symbolised the liberation of millions and an end to the constant threat of world-wide nuclear war.

The fall of the Wall showed too that change can happen quickly and involve the people directly (i.e. through "people power"); it has inspired people across the world, like the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong recently.

It is important, however, to keep the significance of that event in perspective... China and Russia, among other countries, still run authoritarian regimes, so to think that more freedom and more democracy can be won through a peaceful and joyous resolution like in Berlin 25 years ago seems somewhat na├»ve…

"Die Mauer", November 1989


The fall of the Berlin Wall is often seen as proof of the "power of the powerless" (i.e. of the people) to bring about important social and political change... Do you think it is up to the people themselves to determine what is best for them (think of the separatist mouvements in Scotland, Catalonia, or Ukraine, and the pro-democracy mouvement in Hong-Kong)?

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