Fall of the Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall stood as a physical and psychological barrier between East and West for twenty-eight years, until the thaw in the Cold War allowed the people to bring down the wall and reunify Germany.

Summary of Event

After World War II, relations between the main world powers— the West and the East—broke down. Repressive political policies, collectivization of land, nationalization of industry, and imprisonment of anyone opposed to the authorities became common in the Eastern Bloc. This political disintegration reached its height on August 13, 1961, when the Soviet Union’s leader, Nikita S. Khrushchev, Khrushchev, Nikita S. ordered that the thirteen-foot-high, steel and concrete Berlin Wall be built, ostensibly to stop a “population hemorrhage”—the flight of unhappy East Germans to the West—that was draining East Germany’s economy. The next twenty-eight years produced a multitude of political crises, from the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 to the execution of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu Ceauşescu, Nicolae on December 25, 1989. Berlin Wall
Cold War;conclusion
[kw]Fall of the Berlin Wall (Nov. 9, 1989)
[kw]Berlin Wall, Fall of the (Nov. 9, 1989)
Berlin Wall
Cold War;conclusion
[g]Europe;Nov. 9, 1989: Fall of the Berlin Wall[07430]
[g]Germany;Nov. 9, 1989: Fall of the Berlin Wall[07430]
[c]Government and politics;Nov. 9, 1989: Fall of the Berlin Wall[07430]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Nov. 9, 1989: Fall of the Berlin Wall[07430]
[c]Human rights;Nov. 9, 1989: Fall of the Berlin Wall[07430]
Honecker, Erich
Gorbachev, Mikhail
[p]Gorbachev, Mikhail;Berlin Wall
Krenz, Egon
Modrow, Hans
Kohl, Helmut

The building of the Berlin Wall effectively created a country of political prisoners. East Germans were not allowed to leave the country without going through extensive bureaucratic red tape to secure visas. Usually such efforts were unsuccessful, even if the applicant had excellent reasons for leaving the country, such as a family emergency. In fact, application for an exit visa was likely to place the applicant under suspicion with the brutal East German state police.

Economic life in East Germany was also typical of that in Eastern Bloc countries: The standard of living, although better than that of most Eastern Bloc nations, was poor, especially in comparison with that of West Germany. East Germans suffered economic hardships typical of other Iron Curtain nations, including shortages of goods that were plentiful in the West.

Viewed as a poor relative of West Germany, the East German government strove to prove that it was the superstar of the Communist countries, usually at the expense of the rights of its people. To gain worldwide recognition, for example, the government instituted an athletic training program for children, taking them from their parents at an early age to ensure a high percentage of Olympic-level contenders.

Berliners celebrate atop the dismantled Berlin Wall in November, 1989.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

With increased ownership of televisions in East Germany came increased discontent: East Germans began to receive broadcasts from the West that introduced them to the most appealing sides of Western life, especially consumer goods and services that were unavailable to them. No longer content with the broken promises of Communism, the people of East Germany began to rebel against the postwar division of Berlin.

When the Berlin Wall was first erected down the middle of one street, people on the eastern side desperately tried to jump from their second-story windows to the western side. The hard-line Communist government ordered that all persons trying to escape be shot on sight, and an array of machine guns was placed along the top of the wall to fulfill this order. This arrangement did not discourage everyone, however, and between 1961 and 1989, 77 people were killed while trying to cross the wall (in total, 191 people were killed trying to escape from East Germany during that period); about 40,000 escaped successfully.

The first sign of any political weakening concerning the wall occurred in 1983, when Erich Honecker, then leader of East Germany’s Communist Party, ordered the East German troops guarding the wall to refrain from shooting people who tried to breach it. Then, in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union, and his ensuing promises of perestroika Perestroika (restructuring, or economic reform) and glasnost Glasnost (openness) began to change the face of Eastern Europe. It was not until October of 1989, however, that the East German government began relaxing its restrictions on visas issued for trips to the West. In May of that year, Western observers began to notice signs of this new attitude, and many began to believe that a revolution of democracy was about to spread throughout Eastern Europe.

In September, 1989, Hungary opened its border with Austria to allow East German refugees to leave the East without the previously required exit visas. This group of refugees, about 30,000 in all, became the largest single group to leave East Germany since 1961. Refugees;East Germans Within days of Hungary’s decision, people visiting Czechoslovakia and Poland began applying for refuge with the West German embassies in Prague and Warsaw. By the beginning of October, approximately 7,000 East Germans had boarded trains from these cities headed for West Germany. On October 9, nearly 70,000 people marched in Leipzig, East Germany, demanding governmental reforms. In what was the first sign of the government’s softening of attitude, the police did not disperse or interfere with the marchers, apparently on orders given by Egon Krenz, then chief of internal security.

On October 18, Honecker was forced to resign as head of the country, a position that he had held for eighteen years, and Krenz was chosen to replace him. It was Krenz’s grasp of Gorbachev’s glasnost aims that led to the ouster of Honecker, who had by that time angered Gorbachev with his unwillingness to accelerate the pace of reforms in East Germany. The subsequent uncovering of the corruption within Honecker’s government further aroused the East German people, and civil unrest continued in cities such as Dresden, despite the announcement on October 31 that travel restrictions to Czechoslovakia were being lifted. The next day, East Germans by the thousands rushed to the West German embassy in Prague. It is estimated that between 20,000 and 50,000 people fled the country within a week, and on November 5, more than 500,000 East Germans rallied in Berlin for democratic reforms. On November 7 and 8, the entire East German cabinet, or Politburo, resigned; the members were replaced by politicians in favor of reform.

On the evening of November 9, the East German government quite unexpectedly opened the borders to West Berlin and West Germany. As crowds surged through, the Berlin Wall became less a barrier than an architectural curiosity. Although crossing the border required a police permit, the government did not order the soldiers to resist, and throughout the night, thousands of people entered West Berlin. The border guards, faced with lines of cars three miles long filled with East Germans, did not look twice as they stamped papers and waved people through. Some of the guards even helped those who wanted to avoid the long lines to climb over the wall. On their arrival in West Berlin, most East Germans headed for the banks, where each was given approximately fifty-four U.S. dollars as a “welcome to the West” gesture. Relatives and friends from the two sides of the wall hugged as they were reunited, in some cases for the first time in years.

One of the most symbolically important acts surrounding the fall of the wall occurred when, on November 12, a new crossing point was installed at Potsdamerplatz (a major crossroads once called by The New York Times the Piccadilly Circus of the German Empire) as the mayors of West and East Berlin—Walter Momper Momper, Walter and Erhardt Krack, Krack, Erhardt respectively—shook hands. On that morning, what has been called the cruelest symbol of Europe’s division and the long suffering of the people of Berlin became merely a memory.

On November 13, Hans Modrow became East Germany’s new prime minister. Demonstrations in Leipzig and other cities continued despite Modrow’s promise of imminent reforms. The end to the Berlin Wall came officially on December 22, when West German chancellor Helmut Kohl and East German prime minister Modrow together opened the Brandenburg Gate. Kohl became the first West German chancellor to set foot in East Berlin. The actual dismantling of the wall occurred in a matter of days, although Germany had remained divided for almost three decades. What had started as a multinational squabble over the spoils of war and had escalated into a dispute that threatened World War III ended at last with the reunification of Germany on October 3, 1990.


The global consequences of the fall of the Berlin Wall included the reunification of Germany and the broader reconciliation between East and West. With the wall’s dismantling, the relationship between the Soviet Union and the United States moved, at least symbolically, to much firmer ground.

On a personal level, the breakdown of the Berlin Wall changed people’s lives overnight. Many East Germans fled to West Germany, only to find that their lives were not miraculously better there. The deluge of refugees after the borders opened placed a considerable strain on West Germany’s social services, as under West German law all East Germans were entitled to automatic citizenship. In East Germany, medical treatment was free; the burden placed on the West German infrastructure by the sudden increase in immigrants created the threat of fees for health care.

Early in 1990, the East German government implemented a system of partial state ownership of businesses to counteract economic stagnation. Foreign enterprises were then allowed to invest in businesses and to hold up to 49 percent of a venture. Significant economic restructuring commenced, and the East German people were given hope of enjoying free elections and upgraded housing. In the wake of such promises of reform, many who had left East Germany returned.

The flight of educated East Germans, such as medical professionals, placed the country at risk of a shortfall of skilled workers to maintain the country’s hospitals and other important elements of its infrastructure, threatening to leave the remaining East Germans with even fewer social resources. In East Germany, day care for children under age three was available to about 60 percent of that group. In West Germany, the system had been operating at capacity before the arrival of the immigrants. One group of East Germans, however, was relatively unaffected by the political changes: the farmers. Prosperous and contented, few felt the need to reestablish themselves in West Germany.

The almost instant rejection of Communism that took place in East Germany caused concerns that the people would try to take revenge for the suffering they had experienced at the hands of their government, with its strict censorship, economic deprivation, and brutal police force. Reports were not uncommon of Communist Party officials (notably the regional chiefs of the districts of Schwerin, Halle, and Bautzen) who committed suicide rather than face an uncertain future as the reform process got under way. Old abuses of power were not going to be forgotten: The bloody revolution in Romania, followed by the execution on December 25, 1989, of President Nicolae Ceauşescu, presented an object lesson in the fury that could build in an oppressed populace. Honecker and top members of his cabinet had to be placed under house arrest to protect them while the excesses of their regime were being investigated.

The fall of the Communists in East Germany also led to fears of a resurgence of anti-Semitism. Ironically, as other East Germans were tasting their newfound freedom, East German Jews were living in renewed fear. The prospect of the switch from an antireligious state to a unified Germany, site of Nazism and the Holocaust, left many Jews uneasy about their future.

In East German schools, the Berlin Wall had been described as an “antifascist protection barrier,” a bit of rhetoric that was tossed out with much of the Communist Party. In order to prevent new and equally damaging rhetoric from replacing it, however, the impact of German reunification on school curricula needed to be no less strong than reunification’s impact on political ideology. Cultures emerging from behind the Iron Curtain began to face new economic, educational, and civic challenges in adapting to the demands and responsibilities of democracy and individual freedom. Berlin Wall
Cold War;conclusion

Further Reading

  • Bark, Dennis L., and David R. Gress. Democracy and Its Discontents, 1963-1988. Vol. 2 in A History of West Germany. New York: Blackwell, 1989. Focuses on the division of Germany and the Berlin Wall and discusses the connections among student protests, human rights, and the German view of politics. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • Buckley, William F., Jr. The Fall of the Berlin Wall. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2004. Written from a politically conservative viewpoint. Discusses the role of Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy in bringing about the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe and suggests the lessons to be learned from the way the Cold War ended.
  • Dulles, Eleanor Lansing. Berlin: The Wall Is Not Forever. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1967. Written in a somewhat dated style, but intriguing for the author’s conviction, more than two decades before the fact, that the wall would “be dismantled in a meaningful period of contemporary history.” The vision presented here of student protests against human rights infringements and the subsequent reunification of Germany cannot be dismissed. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Garton Ash, Timothy. The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of ’89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin, and Prague. New York: Random House, 1990. Account of the major political upheaval that almost every Iron Curtain country experienced in 1989. Includes detailed information about the final days of a divided Germany and the reasons the East Germans rebelled.
  • Merritt, Richard L., and Anna J. Merritt, eds. Living with the Wall: West Berlin, 1961-1985. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1985. Collection of essays outlines the history of the wall and discusses the methods the East Germans and West Germans used to cope with this division of their country. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Schmemann, Serge. When the Wall Came Down: The Berlin Wall and the Fall of Soviet Communism. Boston: Kingfisher, 2006. Journalist’s account, supplemented by archive articles from The New York Times, presents the entire history of the wall. Includes time line, photographs, and index.
  • Waldenburg, Hermann. The Berlin Wall Book. London: Thames and Hudson, 1990. Primarily a pictorial overview of the wall’s history, but also includes a brief chronology that is useful for its distillation of conditions leading to the uprising of the East German people.
  • Wyden, Peter. Wall: The Inside Story of Divided Berlin. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989. One of the most in-depth sources available on the topic. Provides a detailed history of the wall’s rise and fall as well as interesting information on the various methods of escape used to get across (or through or under) the wall.

East and West Germany Establish Diplomatic Relations

Kohl Becomes Chancellor of West Germany

Gorbachev Initiates a Policy of Glasnost

Poland Forms a Non-Communist Government

Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia

Poland Begins Switching to a Market Economy

Soviet Troops Withdraw from Czechoslovakia

Gorbachev Agrees to Membership of a United Germany in NATO

Dissolution of the Soviet Union