On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall, a firmly dividing force between Eastern and Western Europe, finally fell. With the wall’s destruction, East Germans were finally granted the same social, political, and economic rights as the rest of Western Europe, ushering in a new era of freedom throughout the continent. Had The End of History finally been achieved? In order to understand the events which led to the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall, it is important to contextualize the events of the Cold War at the time, which served as a critical backdrop to the divide which occurred between the East and West.

What was the Berlin Wall? 

Officially erected on August 13, 1961, the Berlin Wall served as a physical barrier between West and East Berlin, including the rest of East Germany. Under the administration of Nikita Krushchev, the formation of the physical division between East and West Berlin caught many Germans by surprise. Essentially constructed overnight, the division of Berlin was initiated when the East-West border in the city was closed with barbed wire. Shortly after, Soviet powers would construct the concrete walls which would officially divide the city in two for 28 years. The Berlin Wall would quickly come to be perceived as a physical manifestation of the Iron Curtain. 

While physical barriers in the city occurred rather suddenly, the formation of the wall was ultimately the result of a series of tensions which had accumulated since the beginning of the Cold War in 1947. Coupled with mounting Cold War pressures, sparked by some of the events which occurred during the Space Race and Berlin Airlift incident, the division of Germany by the allied leaders following World War II at the 1945 Potsdam Conference, is also fundamental in explaining how territorial divisions among the allies would lead to the wall’s creation. 

The Potsdam Conference divided the country of Germany into four occupation zones – Western Germany, which was occupied by the British, French, and American allies – and Eastern Germany, which fell into the hands of the Soviet powers. Additionally, while Berlin was located in the Soviet sector, the country’s capital was also divided among the allies into four zones, with West and East Berlin controlled along the same model which divided East and West Germany.

Mounting Cold War Tensions 

Even before the wall was erected, citizens of West Germany, officially recognized as the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), came to experience very different day-to-day experiences from their counterparts in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) of East Germany. Under the occupation of the prosperous and growing economies of the Western powers, which included the provision of several subsidies, West Germany became increasingly affluent in comparison to East Germany. The stark economic contrast between East-West Germany resulted in the East Germany’s brain drain throughout the 1950s, in which migration from East to West Germany rose, with many young professionals hoping to seek better opportunities under Western powers. Figures indicate that by 1960, East Germany’s working population decreased by nearly 10% from its pre-war levels. Ultimately, the fear of losing skilled labour was one factor which provoked the Soviets to construct the Berlin Wall.

Thus, on the 12th of August 1961, a barrier between East and West Berlin was constructed overnight – separating families, friends, and neighbors without warning. With the construction of the Berlin Wall, travel between East and West Berlin became restricted. Checkpoints were established across the city to screen those who would cross the border, with access limited to diplomats and certain officials. In short, East Berliners were cut off from the West – not that this stopped them from trying to cross the border. Over the course of the wall’s history, at least 171 individuals lost their lives attempting to cross over to the West, with at least 5,000 succeeding in their mission.

What Happened after the Wall?

Following the wall’s construction, East Berlin gradually began to face a series of failed economic reforms, with relations to the West becoming increasingly strained. Walter Ulbricht, the leader of the GDR, was eventually forced to resign, and replaced by Erich Honecker who would improve methods of collaboration and increase dialogue with the West. 

In celebration, Erich Honecker embraces Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev during the GDR’s 30th anniversary commemoration in 1979. Depicted is the iconic recreation of the kiss on the Berlin Wall in 1990. Image by Javier de Martín via Flickr Commons

By the time Leonid Brezhnev came into power as the Soviet leader, the Berlin Wall had already become representative of a bipolar world, philosophically divided by the principles of democracy and liberalism of the West, and the Communism of the East. Two years after the wall’s construction, and prior to Brezhnev’s leadership, U.S. President John F. Kennedy delivered his famous I am a Berliner speech upon his visit to West Berlin. The speech became an infamous praise of freedom and one of the most memorable moments of the Cold War. 

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

The 1985 election of Mikhail Gorbachev by the Politburo as leader of the Soviet Union ultimately changed the course of East-West relations during the Cold War. Gorbachev’s initiatives for political, social, and economic reform and liberalization were heavily supported by the West. Ultimately, Gorbachev’s calls for change inspired U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s 1987 address at the 750th anniversary of Berlin, where he called on Gorbachev to “tear down [the] wall!”. 

By the time Reagan’s speech was delivered, anti-wall movements were already beginning to take root, and events in neighbouring countries would only propel further anti-wall sentiments in the final years of the wall’s existence. Notably, revolutions in several Soviet satellite states, including in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, resulted in the downfall of several Communist regimes, in what many perceived as a transition in Eastern Europe towards democracy. Additionally, Gorbachev’s China visit in 1989 during the Tiananmen Square Protests only further propelled sentiment towards freedom-based revolution throughout the continent and in Berlin. 

On November 9, 1989, exactly thirty years ago, borders dividing East and West Berlin were officially opened. Europe was thawing out; the Cold War was coming to a close. In the aftermath of the GDR’s announcement, thousands of Berliners joined together at the wall, and celebrated the city’s unification in an outdoor celebration, drinking, dancing, and making their way through the border’s checkpoints. 

Thirty years later, the legacy of the Berlin Wall reminds the world of a divided Europe overcome by the victory of liberal principles. In the weeks after the dissolution of the Berlin border, pieces of the wall were destroyed, and now, some blocks constitute memorials across the globe, dedicated towards the message of unity, peace, and harmony. Throughout the beginning of November, Berlin will be celebrating its 30th anniversary since the fall of the Berlin Wall, proving to the world that united, the city, and Germany itself, will continue to remain strong. 

Edited by Sophia Kamps.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association. 

Featured Image by Neptuul via Wikimedia Commons