The Rise and Fall of the Berlin Wall

**The image above is an example of the construction of the Berlin Wall which consisted of two parallel walls with guard towers. The open area between the two walls was known as the “death strip” where people tried to run to escape. The guards were instructed to “shoot to kill.”

I remember sitting in front of my television in 1989 and watching people standing on top of the Wall; sitting on the Wall; knocking over slabs of the Wall.  I didn’t really know much about the Wall at that time.  I just knew that this was a momentous World event, somehow relating to personal freedoms, and I wished I could have been there to experience it first-hand.

Fast forward 30 years, and I’m finally visiting Berlin and getting a chance to get to know more about the history of the Wall, leading up to its fall on that historic night.

When and Why was the Wall built in the first place?

After World War II, Germany was divided up between France, Great Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union. The city of Berlin was also divided up between the War’s allies. While the other three allies were able to work together to unify their three zones into one, the Soviet Union remained separate, pitting east against west; communism versus democracy.  

The capitalist democracy experienced rapid economic growth while East Germany’s economy lagged, resulting in oppressive living conditions. The East Germans wanted out. They started fleeing by the tens of thousands into West Germany. (It is estimated that over 2.5million East Germans left during this time). The skilled work force in East Germany was dwindling fast.

Until one night in August 1961, while people were asleep, a border wall was erected. Whichever side you woke up on the next day was where you would stay for the next few decades. East German guards were instructed to “shoot to kill” anyone who tried to go from east to west.  

A portion of a memorial to some of those who died trying to escape. It is not known just how many died, and the blank spaces represent the “unknowns.”

What led to the Wall coming down?

Fast forward back to 1989!  That year, was a year of protests in other countries where personal freedoms were being sought (Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia – as well as Tiananmen Square in China). 

On the evening of November 9, 1989, in an effort to avoid violence, an East German official, announced that the borders were going to be more open.  When a reporter asked when that was going to take effect, the official, not knowing the answer, blurted out that it would take effect immediately.  That night, as I sat watching this unfold on TV, thousands of East Germans showed up at the border crossing to see if, in fact, the borders were open.  When a guard called the headquarters office to ask “what should I do,” he heard an official respond….that guard is an idiot….tell him to hold the line. 

The guard, up until then a loyal officer of the Soviet Union, was offended by the official’s description of him personally; he did not hesitate; he immediately opened the gate!  Other guards quickly followed his lead.

Almost as fast as it was built, the wall came tumbling down! 

Pieces of the Wall, standing in memorium.

Thanks to my guide from Context Travel (John) for his insights on his “Walking the Wall” Tour.

Also see post– Berlin Wall, East Side Gallery.

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