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30 years Berlin Wall History

Remains of the Berlin Wall at Potsdamer Platz (photo: visitBerlin; Wolfgang Scholvien)
Remains of the Berlin Wall at Potsdamer Platz (photo: visitBerlin; Wolfgang Scholvien)

Geographic location: Eastern Germany

Berlin, 2019

For more than 28 years East and West Berlin were divided by an almost insurmountable Wall. Not only did it divide families and friends but it also brought much pain and suffering to the city. At least 136 people lost their lives here, mostly when attempting to flee from East to West. The joy which accompanied the fall of the wall on 9th November 1989 generated a feeling of euphoria in which the majority of border posts disappeared. There are only a few original relics left.

The following round-up is intended to help with the search for evidence. In addition, it will provide an insight into the history of the Wall and highlight the dramatic events that took place on 9th November 1989.

Berlin Wall Graffiti Gorbachev and Erich Honecker
Street Art at the Berlin Wall: Gorbachev and Erich Honecker

The Wall – the Background up to its Construction in 1961

As early as during the course of the Second World War the Allies had resolved to divide Germany, once defeated, into occupation zones and allow the country to be administered by the victorious powers, that is, the USA, Great Britain and the USSR.

France only came on board as the fourth occupying power after the Yalta Conference in February 1945. At the Conference held in Potsdam at the beginning of August 1945, the victorious powers approved the four zones and the four sectors of Berlin, the eastern boundary along the Oder Neiße line as well as the economic unit of Germany.

Nevertheless, the first signs of the Cold War were already becoming evident. In the Western and the Eastern Zones a very different pattern of development evolved.

In May 1949 the Federal Republic of Germany was established with Bonn as its capital city; in the October of that year the German Democratic Republic was formed (GDR).

The borders were still open but they were being watched. However, this situation was set to undergo a rapid change. In a number of operations, one of which went by the (telling) name of “Vermin“, persons who, in the eyes of the Socialist Unity Party (SED), were “not to be trusted” were forcibly expelled from the border area. Although controls on the internal German borders were tightened, Berlin still continued to offer a good escape route for people fleeing from East to West. The Soviet leaders regarded free West Berlin as a “splinter“ in the heart of “socialist Europe“ that had to be removed. In the spring of 1961 the economic situation in the GDR worsened dramatically.

There was a significant increase in the flow of refugees. It seemed that the GDR was on the brink of collapse, both economic and political. Thousands of people were turning their backs on the country.

The Building of the Wall – 13th August 1961

The Facts

  • The Wall around West Berlin was a total of 156.4 kilometres in length; the border between West and East Berlin accounted for 43.7 kilometres of it.
  • 13th August 1961 may have been the day the Wall was built and the day on which all traffic routes between West and East Berlin were cut, but it was several days before an almost complete cordon was in place.
  • The demolition of the internal city wall, which commenced on 10th November 1989 with the opening up of new border crossing points, was officially completed on 30th November 1990. In the surrounding area of Brandenburg the last sections disappeared in November 1991.
  • Some of the sections of the wall can be found today in different places throughout the world. The US Secret Service, the CIA, secured a few artistically decorated segments of the wall for its new building in Langley, Virginia. A few segments of the wall with St. Michael’s Church painted on them were erected in the Vatican Gardens in August 1994. Another piece of the wall is on view in the House of History (‘Haus der Geschichte’) in Bonn.
  • According to research carried out by the Centre for Research into Contemporary History (‘Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung’) – Potsdam and the Berlin Wall Memorial Site – between 1961 and 1989 at least 136 people were killed on the Berlin Wall or lost their lives in circumstances in which the GDR border regime was directly implicated. In addition, at least 48 travellers from East and West died before, during or after checks at Berlin crossing points. The majority of casualties were fugitives from the GDR trying to get across the barriers to West Berlin. Eight GDR border soldiers lost their lives in service – at the hands of deserters, colleagues, refugees, an escape agent as well as a policeman from West Berlin. More than half of the 136 casualties met their deaths in the first five years following the building of the Wall.

The Circumstances Surrounding the Fall of the Berlin Wall

The surprise opening of the barriers at a number of Berlin border crossing points on the evening of 9th November 1989 is frequently represented as the result of misunderstandings within the leadership. In fact, there were a number of events that preceded the stampede of thousands of GDR citizens who fell upon the completely unprepared border guards, and the importance of these events in terms of world history could not be foreseen at the time.

1989 –Year of Upheaval: the Opening of the Border in Hungary

On 2nd May 1989 Hungarian border soldiers started dismantling the barbed wire fence between Hungary and Austria under the supervision of the Foreign Ministers of both countries. Confident that the border would continue to be secured, the GDR passed this off as simply a “cosmetic border operation“. Initially there was no change to the situation. Even though it had acceded to the Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Hungary was still deporting GDR escapees back to their homeland. The situation only began to change over the course of the following few weeks. By mid-July it was being increasingly reported that refugees from the GDR were being handed over to the GDR authorities on fewer and fewer occasions. Finally, on 19th August, the Iron Curtain between East and West opened after more than four decades of the Cold War. On the occasion of a “Pan-European Picnic“, the border gate to Austria was opened for three hours on 19th August. More than 600 GDR citizens made use of this opportunity to flee into the West. And, in other places, tens of thousands of people wanting to leave were waiting for their chance. The Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Budapest was hopelessly crammed and the same was true in Prague and Warsaw. Starting on 11th September, Hungary opened its borders up to citizens of the GDR. In the first three days alone, 18 000 of them made their way into Austria and from there on into the Federal Republic of Germany.

Embassy Refugees

During the summer of 1989, more and more GDR citizens attempted to leave for the West via the Embassies of the Federal Republic of Germany in Prague, Warsaw and Budapest. In September of that year a particularly dramatic situation arose in Prague, with 3 500 people jostling in the building and in the garden. The GDR leadership saw their celebrations to mark the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Republic on 7th October in jeopardy, whilst the Federal German government was anxious to do what it could to help the people. To scenes of indescribable jubilation, Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher announced, on 30th September, that all embassy refugees could leave. Because by now increasing numbers of GDR citizens were occupying the Embassy, trains were laid on over the next few days to carry a total of 17 000 refugees from Prague to the Federal Republic of Germany via the GDR. On 3rd October the GDR closed its borders to the ČSSR. On 4th October a serious dispute with the police erupted at the main station in Dresden when thousands of extra people tried to board the trains.

Monday Demonstrations

Rumours were also rife internally in the GDR. The City of Leipzig, through its Monday Demonstrations, became the symbol of the Peaceful Revolution. On 4th September an initial demonstration by around 1 200 people took place following the Monday prayers for peace in St. Nicholas’ Church. Demonstrators anxious to leave shouted “We want out!“ Two weeks later it was the choir, chanting “We are staying here!” who prevailed. Arrests were made. By 2nd October there were 20 000 people taking part in the Monday Demonstrations. It is here that the slogan that subsequently became so meaningful “We are the people! “was chanted for the first time, conceived originally merely as a response to the loudspeaker announcement “This is the People’s Police”. On 23rd October the number of participants had risen to 300 000. In the wake of church services in Magdeburg, Dresden, Schwerin, Zwickau, Halle, Stralsund and Berlin too, thousands of people took the opportunity to demand free elections, authorisation of opposition groups and freedom to travel. The turn of the tide in the GDR was by now unstoppable, even if at the time no-one could yet imagine that the Wall would come down quickly.

The Events of 9th November: A Normal Everyday Meeting of the Central Committee

On the morning of 9th November the Central Committee of the State Party, the SED, met for one of its regular meetings. The 231 members and candidates from all parts of the GDR were to debate economic policy, the authorisation of the Reform Movement ‘New Forum’ as well as a new version of a travel law. As regards the first draft (which had actually been rejected by the relevant committee of the People’s Chamber of the GDR Parliament) there was now to be a permanent right to leave the country and to undertake private journeys away from the GDR. The Czech government in particular had exerted strong pressure on the East Berlin leadership to halt the flow of refugees leaving the GDR via their country. Hence the new travel law was rubber-stamped by the Central Committee at around 4pm without any discussion.

Schabowski at the Press Conference at 6.53 pm

An hour later Günter Schabowski, the acting spokesman for the Politburo of the Central Committee of the SED, who had not been present at the Meeting of the Central Committee, received the draft of the Travel Act from SED General Secretary Egon Krenz. Schabowski recalls Krenz saying “This will make a big splash“. Schabowski rushed into the international Press Conference with the text. Then, at 6.50 pm, uttered the crucial sentences: “And for this reason we have (er) decided to implement (er) a regulation that will make it possible for any citizen of the GDR (er) to travel beyond (er) GDR border crossing points“. On being asked by an Italian correspondent when the new regulation was scheduled to come into force, Schabowski rummaged around in his papers and spluttered: ”According to my information, immediately, without delay“.

Right up to the present day Egon Krenz has always maintained that the paper bearing the new travel regulation was confidential information and bore a note to this effect. It was not until the morning of the following day – at four o’clock precisely – that the news was to have been broadcast on GDR radio. Schabowski later dismissed this version as a crazy idea. “No way could they have issued a statement to the world press several hours before, then decided to seal their lips, typewriters and telephones by means of an ‘embargo’. Not even the GDR Press, accustomed as it was to orders, would tolerate being trussed up like that“, he declared.

Newsflash shortly after 7.00 pm

Shortly after 7.00 pm the first newsflashes from western news agencies, screaming “GDR opens the border”, were coming over the ticker. ARD Television’s main news broadcast, “Tagesschau“, also began its broadcast at 8.15 pm with this truly sensational item of news. A short time later the first hundred people were elbowing their way through at the crossing points at Bornholmer Straße and Heinrich-Heine-Straße. On the Bornholm Bridge the first few individuals were let through to the West at around 9.30 pm. These were, by all accounts, ”provocative persons“. According to an instruction from the Ministry for State Security (Stasi), these persons were to have their passport photographs stamped so that they could be refused re-entry to the GDR. ‘’The GDR citizens saw that we were allowing a few people to leave“, recalled Lieutenant Colonel Harald Jäger who was on passport control duty in the Bornholmer Straße. ”They didn’t appreciate why. They assumed it was happening there and then“. Shortly after 11.00 pm the number of people at this crossing point alone increased to 20 – 30,000 after the ARD daily roundup had announced the”opening of all the borders“. In view of the pressure, the border officials were forced to suspend checks.


GDR Museum, Mauer (Wall) Museum and more… see our article GDR and Berlin Wall Memorials

Monuments that tell the story of a divided Germany

The reunification of Destination Germany can be traced all the way back to the peaceful revolution, which eventually led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The demolition of the most potent symbol of East German injustice is still to this day an event that embodies hope, expectation for the future and a new beginning.
Those with an interest in Germany‘s recent past can satisfy their curiosity at a number of historic sites. Some of these lie well beyond the old Iron Curtain, such as St. Nicholas‘ Church in Leipzig, or the museums of East German history in Thuringia, and some are in Berlin, including the Mauerstreifen (the route along which the Berlin Wall ran), Checkpoint Charlie and the Stasi Museum.
Equally fascinating are the bunkers that were built as shelters for East German leaders in the event of a western attack. The Eichenthal bunker, the Cape Arkona bunker in Putgarten on Rügen Island and the Stasi bunker in Leipzig bear witness to the paranoia that reigned on both sides of the border during the Cold War.
But the roster of attractions doesn‘t stop at military monuments. People in East Germany still had normal, everyday lives to deal with and a world of consumer goods, distinct from those in the west. Although these virtually disappeared from the shelves after reunification, visitors can pick up a souvenir of their trip from various nostalgia stores in Leipzig, Berlin and all over eastern Germany.

Exploring the secrets of a border without mercy

East and West Germany were separated by a strip of land that was closed to the public and subject to strict military surveillance from both sides.
One of the landmarks that was sealed off as a result was Mount Brocken in the Harz hills, the highest peak in the region and the fabled setting for the ‚witches‘ dance‘ on Walpurgis Night. The wildlife there was left to grow undisturbed and the area now forms part of the Green Ribbon, a trail that offers a lesson in history along with a rich variety of flora and fauna (www.wandern-im-harz.de).Nature walks can also be enjoyed on the Route of Peace, which runs through the old border village of Zasenbeck, near Gifthorn in the Lüneburg Heath. Visitors can learn all about the history of Zasenbeck and how the local people‘s lives have changed in the community centre (www.suedheide-gifthorn.de).

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