After being both a physical barrier that divided the German city of Berlin, and part of a metaphorical symbol that highlighted the East-West divide, the Berlin Wall was opened after more than 28 years of being a fixture in the German city. In the late evening of November 9, 1989 the six checkpoints between East and West Berlin were opened.
Less than a month later, the Malta Summit marked the unofficial end of the Cold War, while German reunification took place the following year. Just over two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in December 1991 the Soviet Union was dissolved.
Berlin Divided by The Wall of Shame
Following the defeat of the Nazis in 1945, Germany was divided by the victorious Allies. The Americans, British and French controlled parts that would become “West Germany,” while the Soviet Union controlled what became “East Germany.” The former capital city of Berlin was located deep within the Soviet’s zone of control, and it, too, became divided into sectors.
The inner German border was closed on 1952 as a way to keep those in the East from fleeing to West Germany, but the border in Berlin remained far more accessible. Throughout the 1950s Berlin became the route by which East Germans left for the West. The East German government attempted to stop the flow of people by creating a controlled border within the divided city of Berlin.
Originally the barrier consisted of barbed wire and checkpoints, but in August 1961 the first physical wall was constructed. The wall was officially referred to as the “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart” by East German officials, while West Berlin city officials dubbed it the “Wall of Shame.”
The Berlin Wall eventually was more than 87 miles long, and while it was first just a simple brick wall, within a year, a second parallel fence was built some 110 yards further into East Berlin. All the houses and other structures that had been contained between the fences were razed, and the gap between the two walls became known as the “death strip.”
The fourth and final version of the wall was constructed between 1975 and 1980. The top of the wall was lined with smooth pipe to make it harder to scale, and it was also designed to prevent cars from driving through the barriers – but Soviet and East German officials secretly included weaker points that would allow for Communist military vehicles to break through in the event of a war!
There were a total of nine valid checkpoints including the famous “Checkpoint Charlie” that was located in the American “sector” of Berlin, however for many East Germans crossing to West Berlin was not allowed. Despite that fact, some 5,000 people successfully defected to West Berlin.
Early attempts usually involved jumping over the barbed wire or jumping from a window in a building along the border. On August 15, 1961 East German border guard Conrad Schumann famously jumped the barbed wire and ran to West Berlin, and just seven days later Ida Siekmann became the first to die in an attempt to cross the border, when she jumped out of her third floor apartment into West Berlin.
Günter Litfin was the first person to be shot and killed while attempting to swim the Spree River to West Berlin. According to the Center for Contemporary Historical Research in Potsdam, at least 140 people died attempting to cross the border to freedom.
Tear Down This Wall
Much credit for the fall of the Berlin Wall goes back to the June 17, 1987 speech made by President Ronald Reagan when he stood at the foot of the Berlin Wall and called for the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, to open the border between West and East Berlin. The Berlin Wall Speech is more commonly known from a key line in its middle: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
That line is now famous today, and is remembered as one of the most significant moments of the 1980s.
However, that particular speech actually received relatively little media coverage at the time. Reagan made his 1987 speech at the Brandenburg Gate to commemorate the 750th anniversary of Berlin, and ironically, while the “tear down this wall” statement is remembered in a positive light today – and is often associated with the masses who stormed the wall two and a half years later – in fact there were 50,000 protestors who demonstrated against Reagan’s visit to Berlin.
The speech was also controversial within the Reagan administration. Several senior staffers even advised against the inclusion of the “tear down this wall” line, suggesting it might cause East-West tensions. There was a real – and probably valid concern – that it could embarrass Gorbachev at a time when Reagan had built such a good relationship.
It had been only four years since Reagan had delivered his “Evil Empire” speech, but this time instead of suggesting the Soviets were the villains of the world, this 1987 speech called for freedom and peace as well as the limiting of nuclear weapons.
Moreover, it was also not the first time that Reagan had addressed the issue of the Berlin Wall. In fact, he visited West Berlin five years earlier, and in a speech asked the question, “Why is the wall there?” In 1986, the German newspaper Bild-Zeitung interviewed Reagan on the issue of the wall to mark the 25th anniversary of its construction, and Reagan said, “I call upon those responsible to dismantle it.”
While largely ignored in the American media, Reagan’s 1987 speech was noted by West German Chancellor Helmet Kohl, who had stood next to Reagan at the time. He was quoted as saying of Reagan, “he was a stroke of luck for the world, especially for Europe.”
Ich bin ein Berliner
Reagan was of course not the only U.S. President to deliver a speech at the wall. President John F. Kennedy gave his “Ich bin ein Berliner” (“I am a Berliner”) speech on June 26, 1963 just 22 months after the wall had been erected. His speech was seen to be aimed at the Soviets as much as towards the people of Berlin.
It is considered by some to be one of the most well-known speeches of the Cold War and certainly Kennedy’s most anti-communist speech. It served to boost morale for West Berliners, but also sparked an urban myth that lasts to this day – that Kennedy used the phrase incorrectly and that it means “I’m a doughnut.”
However, while a “Berliner” is a regional name for a type of German pastry similar to a jelly doughnut, this term isn’t widely used in Berlin or the surrounding area. More importantly, Kennedy did use the phrase correctly – but the misconception might in fact have gained traction due to a passage in the spy novel Berlin Game, by Len Deighton, in which a character suggested Kennedy misspoke!
End of the Wall
On November 9, 1989 the world saw the wall come down as protesters began to literally hit it with hammers and other tools. Within hours they were joined by bulldozers that broke large sections, and by December 22, the Brandenburg Gate was opened and West German Chancellor Kohl walked through to be greeted by East German Prime Minister Hans Modrow. West Germans and West Berliners were allowed visa-free travel beginning the next day.
On June 13, 1990 East German Border Troops officially began to dismantle the wall, and by August every road that once linked West Berlin to East Berlin was reconstructed and opened. Other military units from both East and West Berlin joined the efforts to dismantle the wall, and by November 1991, the wall was no more. Painted segments of the wall were saved and sold at auction, while small pieces were sold as souvenirs.
Over the years there have been calls to make November 9 a German national holiday – but in a country with both a rich and tragic history, the date also marks other significant events. These include the 1918 abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II and declaration of the Weimar Republic, but also 1923 Beer Hall Putsch led by Adolf Hitler in Munich, and most infamously the Kristallnacht pogroms directed against German Jews in 1938.
For those reasons, October 3 was chosen instead as “German Unity Day.” November 9 should still be remembered as the day the Wall of Shame finally came down.