World remembers the fall of the Berlin Wall

Breakthrough: West Berliners hammer down the Wall, as water cannons are fired © PA

It was a momentous and joyous event 25 years ago, signifying not just the end of a divided Berlin and Germany, but of a divided Europe. But does it still have the same meaning today?

On November 9th, 1989, the Berlin Wall finally fell after dividing a city for nearly 30 years. It had been a great symbol of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union and its end also marked the end of communism in eastern Europe. The towering blocks of concrete became the site for a huge, euphoric street party. Family members and friends who hadn’t seen each other in decades were finally reunited.

This weekend marks the 25th anniversary of that occasion, and as celebrations get underway in Berlin many are reflecting on the history and significance of the event.

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 and the Soviet Union controlled the east. Berlin, the capital, was also divided between them. By 1949 Germany had become two separate countries, and hostilities between the ideologically-opposed superpowers in charge were growing. Berlin quickly became the focal point of the Cold War.

Life in the Soviet-controlled east was bleak, and many grew disillusioned with communism and increasingly oppressive social and economic conditions. Large numbers of people began defecting to the west. In 1961 East Germany erected the Wall to prevent the ‘brain drain’ of its young, well-educated citizens. It was eventually fortified with huge slabs of concrete and 300 control points to stop people from escaping.

But by the 1980s demands for freedom were growing across the Soviet-dominated ‘Eastern Bloc’, and in November 1989, as part of the great series of largely peaceful revolutions which ushered in the end of Communism, the Wall’s checkpoints were opened to allow free movement. Within months most of the Wall had gone, leaving the way clear for the reunification of Germany.

People power

The fall of the Wall is still the most remarkable political event in a great many people’s lives. It symbolised the liberation of millions and brought to an end a global conflict that threatened nuclear war. As people across the world continue to fight for their liberties, like the recent protesters in Hong Kong, the lesson from 1989 is clear: change can happen suddenly, as it did then.

Yet others argue that the end of Communism in Europe was far too huge a phenomenon to be reduced to one symbolic event, however emotional. China — which learned its own lessons from the collapse of the Soviet Union — and Russia still run repressive, authoritarian regimes, so it’s important to keep the significance of the Berlin Wall in perspective. Such a peaceful and joyous resolution to the world’s current problems seems very unlikely.

You Decide

  1. How significant was the fall of the Berlin Wall?
  2. Have political freedoms increased for people around the world since 1989 or decreased?

Activities

  1. Make a list of other walls, either modern or historical, that have been put up to divide people.
  2. Do some research and list all the contributing factors that led to the fall of the wall. Rank them in order of importance, and explain your choice.

Some People Say...

“A wall is a lot better than a war.’John F. Kennedy”

What do you think?

Q & A

This is ancient history — why should I care?
The fall of the Berlin Wall didn’t happen all that long ago, and lots of people alive today will have strong memories about the Cold War and just how momentous the fall of the Wall really was. Social historians often look back on it as a symbol of people power, or the 'power of the powerless', to bring about huge social and political change. It’s an important and inspiring history lesson for all of us.
Do people still talk about it today?
Yes, particularly Western politicians, such as Barack Obama and David Cameron, who have used the event as a metaphor for freedom in their speeches. Many journalists also compared the Arab Spring of 2011 with the same changes as those that took place in 1989.

Word Watch

Separate countries
The Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) was created from the zones occupied by Britain, America and France, and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) was created from the Soviet Union’s zone.
Cold war
The Cold War was a long period of military and political competition following WWII when the US and the Soviet Union emerged as rival superpowers, with most of the world’s states allied to one or the other. The two fought proxy wars around the globe and the threat of catastrophic nuclear war was never far away.
Escaping
Around 5,000 people tried to escape over the Wall to the West and it is thought more than 100 people were killed trying to cross it in the 29 years between 1961 and 1989.
Lessons
China’s Leninist leaders learned not to let power slip from their fingers by making the liberalising mistakes of Gorbachev and East European communist leaders as communism collapsed in Europe.
Russia
Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, was stationed as a Soviet KGB agent in Dresden, in East Germany.