As Europe surfaced from the destruction of World War Two, the emerging ‘superpowers’ of the United States and the Soviet Union – ever more ideologically opposed – looked to divide Europe into ‘spheres of influence’. In 1945 the defeated German capital Berlin was split into four zones: the US, French and British held the city’s west side, and the Soviets the east.
On the night of 12-13 August 1961, a wall was built across these zones to prevent East Germans from crossing the border into West Germany, where opportunity and living conditions were greater. Overnight, families and neighbourhoods were separated.
In the following decades, the Berlin Wall grew from a simple wall topped with barbed wire to become two walls separated by an almost impassable space that came to be known as the ‘death strip’. Many people lost their lives attempting to cross into West Germany. More than a physical barricade, the Berlin Wall also symbolised the “Iron Curtain”, Winston Churchill’s metaphor for the division of Europe as war once again loomed.
However, as impenetrable as the Berlin Wall seemed, less than 30 years later it would crumble along with the conflict it came to represent. A combination of factors brought down the wall on 9 November 1989, as the immediate actions of Soviet individuals collided with years of growing discontent from East to West.
“Down with the wall!”
By 1989, the states of the Eastern European Soviet Bloc were experiencing growing unrest and the rise of solidarity movements. Most notable among these movements was a Polish trade union called Solidarity.
Founded in 1980, Solidarity organised strikes and protests across the country, and was eventually successful in forcing Poland’s communist leadership to legalise unions. In 1989, partially free elections even allowed Solidarity to gain seats in the parliament.
Berlin itself began to see the tremors of discontent. From September 1989 onwards, East Berliners would meet every week at peaceful protests known as the ‘Monday Demonstrations’ – calling for the pulling down of the border-wall, chanting “Down with the wall!”. Not only did Germans want the wall gone, but they demanded the allowance of political opposition groups, free elections and freedom of movement. The demonstration numbers swelled to 500,000 by November that year.
It was not just those under Soviet influence in Europe that wanted the wall gone. From across the pond, US Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush called for the Soviets to remove the wall as the Cold War wound down.
The West’s cries coupled with the pressure of demonstrations in the bloc – in Hungary, Poland, Germany – and within the USSR – in Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Georgia – revealing the cracks in Soviet domination of the region and providing openings for change.
Gorbachev’s Soviet Union
Unlike previous Soviet leaders such as Brezhnev, who had tightly controlled states under the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev understood a changed and more modern approach to governing the USSR was needed when he became General Secretary in 1985.
In an attempt to prevent the USSR bleeding money through the arms race with the US, Gorbachev’s policies of ‘glasnost’ (opening) and ‘perestroika’ (restructuring) encouraged a more ‘open’ approach to dealing with the West and the introduction of small, private businesses into the economy for it to survive.
The opening also included the ‘Sinatra Doctrine’. The policy, named for the popular song “I Did It My Way” by American singer Frank Sinatra, recognised that each Soviet state under the Warsaw Pact would need to be in control of their internal affairs for European communism to be sustainable.
In 1989, at Tiananmen Square in China those protesting for liberalisation were violently put down by the Chinese military, showing communist governments were not afraid of using force to quell unrest. Indeed, the USSR killed 21 independence protesters in Georgia. However, as demonstrations spread across the Bloc, Gorbachev was largely unwilling to use violence to repress them as part of his ‘Sinatra Doctrine’.
It was therefore under a different Soviet Union – Gorbachev’s Soviet Union – that protest was met with compromise rather than bloodshed.
The border opens
On 9 November 1989, speaking to reporters, Soviet spokesperson Günter Schabowski mistakenly interpreted a press release about the border ‘opening’ between the West and East, inadvertently declaring that people could cross the border prematurely and without visas. The border policy was in fact meant to come into effect the next day, once administrators had had time to get themselves and the relevant paperwork organised.
The original report was the East German leadership’s response to growing unrest, and they anticipated that loosening border control would calm mounting protests. In the heat of August, Hungary had even opened their border with Austria. The Soviets had not, however, sanctioned total freedom of movement across the East-West border.
Unfortunately for Schabowski, the news that people could now travel “without prerequisites” hit TV screens across Europe and immediately drew thousands to the Berlin Wall.
Hammers and chisels
Harold Jäger was a border control guard in Berlin who also watched in awe as Schabowski announced the opening of the borders. Panicking, he called his superiors for orders but they too were stunned. Should he open fire on the growing crowd or open the gates?
Recognising both the inhumanity and futility of a handful of guards attacking the colossal crowd, Jäger called for the gates to be opened, allowing West and East Germans to reunite. Berliners hammered and chiselled at the wall, demonstrating a collective frustration at the symbol of partition. Yet official demolition of the wall did not follow until 13 June 1990.
The fall of the Berlin Wall was a symbol of the beginning of the end for the Soviet Bloc, Union and Cold War. For 27 years the Berlin Wall had physically and ideologically cleaved Europe in half, yet was brought down by a culmination of grassroots organisation and protests, Gorbachev’s liberalisation of Soviet internal and foreign policy, the blunder of a Soviet bureaucrat and the uncertainty of a border guard.
On 3 October 1990, 11 months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany was reunified.