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On This Day: The Berlin Wall Comes Down

Last updated: February 14, 2023

On Nov. 9, 1989, jubilant East and West Berliners began tearing down the Berlin Wall, a symbol of the Iron Curtain for 28 years.

Tearing Down the Wall

The Berlin Wall had stood since 1961 when it was erected by the Communist East German government to prevent residents of East Berlin from moving to West Berlin, an island of democracy in the center of East Germany.

The 96-mile wall split families and friends and became a symbol of the Cold War divisions between East and West, and communism and capitalism. East German guards were ordered to shoot anybody who attempted to cross to West Berlin, and nearly 100 people died trying to escape.

The situation in East Germany began to change in the mid-1980s when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev instituted the liberalizing perestroika and glasnost reform measures. East German leader Eric Honecker rebuffed Gorbachev’s calls for openness, and the country remained one of the most repressive in the Eastern Bloc. In January 1989, he declared, “The Wall … will still be standing in fifty and even a hundred years’ time.”

In August 1989, Hungary opened its borders, and thousands of East Germans escaped through Hungary to Austria or flocked to the West German embassy. Meanwhile, calls for openness in East Germany grew louder, as peaceful protests in the cities of Leipzig and Dresden drew tens of thousands of people. In October, Honecker resigned and was replaced by the more liberal Egon Krenz, who was open to reunification with West Germany for economic reasons.

Sources in this Story

  • Deutsche Welle: At Least 136 People Lost Lives at Berlin Wall, Study Shows
  • Center for History & New Media: Making the History of 1989: East Germany
  • Chronicle of the Berlin Wall: Overview 1989
  • Time: Freedom!
  • Berlin International: The construction of the Berlin Wall
  • Newseum: Berlin Wall
  • History Place: Ronald Reagan: “Tear Down this Wall”

Struggling to stop the flood of refugees, the East German government decided on Nov. 9 to allow limited and regulated travel across the West German border, including through the Berlin Wall. The policy was announced by Communist Party spokesman Gunter Schabowski at a press conference that night. When asked when it would take effect, Schabowski incorrectly responded, “As of now, immediately.”

Hundreds of thousands of East and West Berliners gathered around the wall within hours of hearing the news. With no orders on how to handle the situation, the guards stood back as the checkpoints were overrun by the crowds. East and West Berliners were united in celebration while taking the wall down with hammers and chisels.

“What happened in Berlin last week was a combination of the fall of the Bastille and a New Year’s Eve blowout, of revolution and celebration,” wrote Time. “They spilled out into the streets of West Berlin for a champagne-spraying, horn-honking bash that continued well past dawn, into the following day and then another dawn. As the daily BZ would headline: BERLIN IS BERLIN AGAIN.”

Within a year, in August 1990, East Germany voted to reunite with West Germany. On Oct. 3, 1990, East German states officially became part of the reunified Federal Republic of Germany, with Berlin as its capital.

Background: Construction of the Berlin Wall

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After World War II, the four main Allied Powers (the United States, Britain, France and Soviet Union) divided Germany into four sections, each controlled by one Allied country. They did the same with Berlin, located in Soviet-controlled East Germany, known as the German Democratic Republic (GDR).

More than 3.5 million East Germans fled to West Germany—half through West Berlin—between 1945 and 1961 to escape the poor economy and repressive government of East Germany. Needing to stop the flow of emigrants, the East German government decided to close the West German border.

On Aug. 13, 1961, East German workers began to erect temporary barricades to separate East and West Berlin. They soon put up barbed wire and began building a stone wall.

“The West Germans called it Schandmaur, the ‘Wall of Shame,’” says the Newseum. “It was rebuilt at least three times—each time bigger, stronger, and more repressive—hand-mortared bricks, pre-cast blocks and finally concrete slabs. Towers, guards, and dogs stood to watch over a barren no man’s land.”

The Western world, trying to avoid a direct confrontation with the Soviet Union, did nothing to stop the wall’s construction. But President John F. Kennedy showed solidarity with the West Germans in one of his most famous speeches on June 26, 1963, in West Berlin’s Rudolph Wilde Square. In front of 120,000 citizens, he said, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” meaning, “I am a Berliner.”

President Ronald Reagan also gave a historic speech in West Berlin near the end of the Cold War on June 12, 1987. “There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance the cause of freedom and peace dramatically,” he proclaimed. “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

The BBC has an archive of news clips relating to Cold War conflicts in Berlin.

The city of Berlin’s official Web site shows maps of the wall, its checkpoints and other important sites. It also has information for tourists who wish to trace the path of the wall.

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