Sunday 9th November 2014 will mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This momentous occasion marked the beginning of the end for Communism in Europe and began the process of German reunification. Perhaps what is most surprising is the circumstances in which it occurred.
The Berlin Wall had been erected overnight on 13th August 1961. People awoke to find themselves cut off from their friends and family, not knowing when they would see them again. The ‘Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart’ had been erected by the GDR on the pretence that it was to protect its citizens from the capitalist West (implying also that West Germany had not been completely denazified). However, its real purpose was to stem the tide of East Germans who had been rushing to the West – a phenomenon that not only threatened to embarrass the GDR authorities and their Soviet backers, but also to undermine them.
The Wall came to represent the Iron Curtain which separated Western Europe from the Eastern Bloc and was a very real symbol of the Cold War. East Germans were subject to mass surveillance, censorship and other strict policies on how they should behave in their day-to-day lives. Most lived in fear of the Stasi (the official state security service), or being betrayed to them by a friend or neighbour.
The loss of many well-educated professionals, who had earlier defected to the West in what became known as the ‘brain-drain’, followed by the pressure put on the economy by the Russians, also meant that the population of East Berlin could afford few luxuries. Living conditions were certainly difficult and to many outsiders it did appear that the GDR had imprisoned their citizens by building the Wall. Many died attempting to escape the clutches of the GDR. It is not known exactly how many people lost their lives trying to climb or, in some cases, jump to freedom, although most estimates place this at somewhere between 100 and 200.
Over the course of the 1980s, resentment towards the Wall, and the government, grew. More and more protests took place as people demanded to be allowed to travel to the West. As Gorbachev’s liberalising policies began to take effect in other Eastern Bloc states, East Germans started to escape through countries like Hungary and Czechoslovakia.
On the evening of 9th November 1989, Politburo member, Gunther Schabowski gave a press conference. Having been given the information only shortly before the press conference began, he announced a new law that would permit East Germans to travel. When pressed by a journalist for information on when the border checkpoints would open, he answered that he understood they were to open immediately.
People rushed to the checkpoints and, although border guards initially refused to allow them through, without clear orders and to avoid bloodshed, they eventually allowed them to cross. Many West Berliners had also seen the news and were waiting to welcome them on the other side. Although the Wall was not immediately torn down, it was no longer able to keep the people of Berlin apart. The following year, the country would reunify.
Such an important anniversary of such a momentous occasion cannot, of course, pass by unmarked, and the city of Berlin will see several celebrations over the course of the weekend.
Today (Friday 7th November 2014), 8,000 balloons will be illuminated, marking the site of the former wall. They will glow throughout the weekend until they are released into the air on Sunday. Alongside the ‘Lichtgrenze’, or ‘border of light’, will be an open-air exhibition called ‘100 Wall Stories’, documenting the history of the Wall and its effect on the city’s population.
Memorial services will take place at the Chapel of Reconciliation and the Berliner Allee Wall Memorial on Sunday 9th November. On the same day, the Berliner Philharmoniker will play a special concert at the Berliner Philharmonie. Other musical celebrations include chamber ensembles at Mauerpark, East Side Gallery and Checkpoint Charlie on Saturday 8th November.
Bring the Cold War to life for your students with a school history tour to Berlin. Our tours are all tailor-made to suit each group’s specific requirements and can include tours of the interactive DDR Museum, the East Side Gallery and the Stasi Museum, amongst others.
For further information, please do not hesitate to contact us.