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30 years of Wiedervereinigung: the history of the Berlin Wall

Updated: Mar 13, 2021

9th November 2019 marks 30 years since the Berlin Wall was torn down, which represented the start of the German reunification process ('Wiedervereinigung'). For some Germans, it feels like a lifetime ago; for others, it seems like only yesterday. The event will be marked by a week-long festival featuring open-air exhibitions, theatre productions, and art installations across the capital, culminating in a city-wide music festival on the evening of 9th November. But what was the Berlin Wall, and why is its destruction commemorated in Germany?

A mural from Berlin's East Side Gallery. Photo: Caro Sodar via Pixabay

Following the Second World War, Germany and its capital, Berlin, was divided in 4 zones, each controlled by one of the Allied powers (Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the USA). As the Cold War intensified, tensions between the sectors grew, resulting in the creation of two separate German states in 1949: the Federal Republic of Germany (Bundesrepublik Deutschland) and the German Democratic Republic (Deutsche Demokratische Republik).

Berlin was also divided in two with a socialist government in the East and a capitalist government in the West. Between 1949 and 1961, an estimated 2.7 million people fled East Germany to seek a better life in the West, with many crossing the inner German border in Berlin.

In a desperate bid to stop this mass exodus, the East German government took drastic action. On the night of the 12th- 13th August 1961, streets were torn up and barbed wire fences were erected. Railroad lines and road access to East Berlin were blocked, telephone wires were cut, and guards began to patrol the border.

Over the next few years, an elaborate ‘anti-fascist protective’ barrier was constructed in the capital, consisting of a 3.6-metre-high concrete exterior wall, watchtowers, a ‘death strip’ and, all patrolled by the East German border guards. Unable to join their families or leave without permission, East Berliners were now ‘walled in’. The Berlin Wall became a powerful, tangible symbol of the Cold War and for Berliners, a painful daily reminder of Germany’s division.

The Wall’s destruction 28 years later was to be as sudden and surprising as its establishment. Following mass protests across East Germany demanding freedom and reform, the East German government began relaxing restrictions on travel and border crossings.

In a fluke of history, when questioned about when the new rules would be implemented, government spokesman Günter Schabowski, unaware of any further details, simply answered “immediately", causing thousands of East Berliners to flock to the Wall. Upon facing no resistance from the border guards, Berliners began to tear down the Wall with sledgehammers and chisels.

The Wall had fallen; within a year, Germany would officially become one state again.


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