The Berlin Wall was the perfect representation of the divide between the Soviet Union and the U.S. during the Cold War. On one side (East Berlin/Soviet Union) there was repression, fear, and a failing system. On the other (West Berlin/U.S.) there was prosperity and a hope for reconciliation and peace.
Most people know that the “Fall of the Wall” was a big deal, and that it became symbolic of the end of the Cold War. What a lot of people don’t know, however, was that it was also the end of a separation that was over 40 years old.
When Germany was defeated in World War II, the US and its allies (at this point Russia and Great Britain) determined how certain areas of Germany would be governed. The Russians occupied the East German area surrounding the city and the eastern section of Berlin. West Berlin was occupied by the U.S., Britain, and France.
The Allies wanted to create a single economic zone in West Berlin, but the Soviets were not pleased with that. In 1948, Josef Stalin instituted a complete blockade of Berlin, cutting off all access points to the city, to try to press the city into submission. This led to the Berlin Airlift and greatly increased tensions between the Soviets and the Allies.
In 1949, Germany was officially split into two countries, the Western Federal Republic of Germany (BRD) and the Eastern German Democratic Republic (DDR). In 1955, the Allies declared that the BRD was sovereign, and occupation ended. There was a constant stream of DDR residents escaping to the better conditions of the Western area.
In 1961, East German troops were ordered to start placing barbed wire and barriers in an effort to keep residents confined to Eastern Berlin. People made last minute attempts to enter West Berlin before the actual wall was built. The wall eventually reached for 100 miles, completely shutting East Berlin off from the rest of the city. It would remain that way for nearly 30 years.
Travel between East and West Berlin was tightly monitored. Although not the largest, it was the most famous of the gated and guarded crossings was Checkpoint C, or Checkpoint Charlie (using the NATO phonetic alphabet). It was the only checkpoint where foreigners were allowed to enter and leave East Berlin. It was the site of many an attempted escape, as well as a few tense standoffs.
The Soviets did allow tourists into East Berlin, but it was a serious matter. Stasi (East German) guards boarded buses, checked every person’s passport, scrutinized all documents, and thoroughly searched every area of the bus. Leaving East Berlin sometimes took over two hours, because the guards wanted to ensure that there were no defectors.
By the time that President Reagan first visited Berlin in 1982, the living conditions of those in East Berlin – and other Soviet areas – was well documented. Infrastructure had crumbled, the economy was non-existent, and there was quite literally no hope for the people of East Berlin. Meanwhile, West Berlin was thriving.
Reagan had tried negotiating with three different Soviet leaders to no avail. However, when Mikhail Gorbachev was appointed General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (how’s that for a title?) there was a glimmer of hope. He was at least open to the necessity for economic reforms and potential for improved relations with the West. The two met several times, most notably in Geneva and Reykjavik.
In 1997, during his second visit to Berlin, President Reagan gave a speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate. While it was not the first time that he had expressed his beliefs regarding the wall, he minced no words when he stated, “…if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev…Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
It was a powerful and unforgettable moment, and it turned out to be pivotal in negotiations between the President and Gorbachev.
Even as the two leaders continued to meet to discuss taking further steps of reconciliation, it was two years before world events forced the hand of the Soviets. The student uprising in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in April was a difficult blow to communism.
Around the same time, Hungary opened its border with Austria, allowing over 700 residents of the GDR to escape the totalitarianism of East Germany. There were numerous protests held across East Germany. The people wanted reform. Several members of the GDR government resigned. By November, it was apparent that change was imminent.
During a news conference on November 9, 1989, an East German spokesman announced that residents of the GDR would be able to travel freely between East and West Berlin, effective immediately. This was actually an error, as the announcement was supposed to be made the following day to allow time to put personnel in place.
But the floodgates had been opened. Thousands of people streamed through Checkpoint Charlie, where the guards were overwhelmed by the sheer number of people. Families were reunited for the first time in over 20 years. People climbed over the wall, and used hammers and picks to tear chunks out of it
. As one reporter put it, the streets of Berlin were home to “…the greatest street party in the history of the world!”
It would be another two years before the Berlin Wall was officially dismantled, but the images of East and West Germans coming together freely for the first time in over 40 years are indelible in the minds of millions who watched it happen, live, on televisions around the world.