Monday marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall on 9 November 1989. I can remember my mum and dad waking me up to watch it on tv, and not really being sure what it was about. My how things change, now its me explaining things to them!
The fall of the Berlin wall, in hindsight, seems to have been inevitable, with Reagan’s ‘tear down this wall’, Lech Walesa’s soliarity in Poland, and Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika policies. But it was anything but inevitable. While there was a growing movement for change in Eastern Europe, the East German regime was still relatively Stalinist in outlook. But communism had always sat uneasily in Germany. Although it was the most prosperous communist state in eastern europe – not that that is saying much – there was widespread discontent at living conditions, archaic restrictions and the arbitrary division of a country.
Matters came to a head in 1989. Widespread protests gave the regime a dilemma. Refugees had found a way of escaping to the west via Czechoslovakia. To ease the complications and attempt to stop the flood the politburo agreed to lift restrictions on the border crossings with West Germany, including in Berlin. The Govenrment spokesman making the announcement made a critical error, and informed the media that this was with immediate effect. This unleashed a tide of humanity, East German citizens who flocked to the wall and eventually crossed over to the west. The Border Guards, overwhelmed by the sheer numbers and the situation, were ordered to let them pass.
Within a year, East and West Germany were reunified once more.
But how did the wall come about in the first place?
Since its inception shortly after the end of the second world war, the east had suffered a flood of people leaving to go to the better living conditions in the west. Millions of people fled. It was estimated that in a short time there would be hardly anyone left in the east. In particular, most of the refugees were young, skilled and educated people – exactly the kind of people the east could ill afford to lose.
The regime in the east were faced with a dilemma. The situation could not continue, but could they risk appearing so draconian under the worlds gaze? Berlin was already a miscroscopic view of the wider Cold War. In June 1961 the East German Leader Walter Ulbricht said ‘No one has any intention of building a wall’. Perhaps, with the benefit of hindsight, this was giving the game away.
In August 1961 construction of the Berlin wall started. Miles and miles of barbed wire were installed, and eventually transformed into a three metre high concrete wall, with wide killing zones, look out towers and anti-personnel mines. Although the East would call it an ‘anti-fascist barrier’, they were not fooling anyone. It was to keep people IN, not OUT. However, it also effectively sealed West Berlin inside East Germany.
There was little the West could do. In 1961 American tanks faced down their Russian counterparts at Checkpoint Charlie, before both sides withdrew diplomatically. Kennedy visited in 1963 to lend his moral support, and spoke those famous words ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’. But he was also pragmatic about the wall, saying ‘its not a nice solution, but a wall is sure better than a war’.
136 people died attempting to cross the wall, out of around 5,000 escape attempts. Among them were Peter Fechter, who was caught in no mans land, shot and left to bleed to death in full view of the worlds media. Conrad Schumann, an east German border guard, found his moment to escape across the wire, and was captured in one of the most famous photographs of all time.
In the end, the Berlin Wall was probably one of the events that put a nail in the coffin of global communism. If you need to build a wall to keep people in because they are so unhappy, it says a lot about the life you are making them live.
Berlin is one of my favourite places in the world to visit, and the Berlin Wall is such a fascinating story in world history. But, I have to stress, anyone who goes to Berlin and buys what they think is a piece of the Berlin wall, congratulations, you’ve just purchased a piece of the Tricorn!