On the morning of the 31st of August 1961, West Berliners woke up to find a wall being build around them. Starting off as a barbed-wire barrier, it grew to become a huge concrete construction, 3.6m tall and 45km long, encircling West Berlin and cutting the city off from the surrounding Eastern Germany (then named the German Democratic Republic, run by the USSR). This wall not only presented a physical divide in the country, but also a more significant ideological one between the East, dominated by the Communist Soviet Union, and the West, considered the pillar of democracy and Capitalist ideals. It was also considered to be the physical manifestation of the ‘Iron Curtain’, separating and polarising these deeply diverging political beliefs that developed in Europe throughout the Cold War.
The Berlin Wall lasted for 28 years, during which migration between West and East Berlin was strictly forbidden, and anyone caught attempting to cross what was termed the ‘death strip’ (a section of no man’s land between the wall containing hundreds of soldiers and watchtowers) would be shot on sight by the East. During this period it is estimated that over 100,000 people attempted to cross and, while 5,000 were successful, the death toll is thought to have been around 200. This was a time of fear, isolation and demoralisation for many Berliners both in the West and the East, and growing resentment towards the wall increased over the years, exacerbated by events such as Kennedy’s early speech in 1963 in which he famously said “ich bin ein Berliner” (I am a Berliner), the famous concerts by Bowie and Springsteen, and Reagan’s speech in 1987 challenging the then leader of the USSR Gorbachev to “tear down this Wall!”
A series of revolutions in neighbouring Communist countries like Poland and Hungary sparked a chain reaction in East Germany which culminated in the demolition of the Berlin Wall on the 9th of November 1989. That day, East Berliners climbed onto the wall and united with West Berliners in an atmosphere of celebration and freedom, as they teared pieces of the wall down with their own hands. Many kept chunks for themselves as small pocket-sized reminders of the symbolic meaning behind the destruction of such an oppressive and significant boundary.
2019 marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. To celebrate it, Central and Eastern European leaders gathered in Berlin this Saturday, placing flowers along the wall to commemorate the reunification of Germany and lighting candles alongside German citizens as a way of remembering the victims of Communist violence. German Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed the importance of not taking for granted the “values that Europe is based on -- freedom, democracy, equality, rule of law, human rights…”, especially now in times of great global changes. As someone who grew up in East Germany, she declared that the fall of the Berlin Wall goes to show that no barrier is truly strong enough to restrict or repress freedom: “We want to ensure that no wall will separate people ever again. It proves that no wall is so high and so strong that we could not break it.”
Many moments in history have been described as a ‘turning-point’, but the fall of the Berlin Wall is perhaps one of the most important events that epitomises this phrase. What took place on the 9th of November in 1989 was monumental, as it was what jump-started the gradual collapse of the most powerful Communist nation in the world, marking an end to almost 50 years of hostility, proxy wars and global tensions. It marked a new chapter in the history of Europe, instilling genuine overwhelming hope and optimism. The fall of the Berlin Wall was never simply the collapse of a concrete boundary; it symbolised the unification of people, divided for 28 years, unable to see each other without risking their lives, and demonstrated how liberty and freedom would always prevail, even in the face of violence, horror and oppression.
“But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme”
- Seamus Heaney
Sofia C, Year 13