Three decades after the so-called ‘Peaceful Revolution’ toppled the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany, people are celebrating the anniversary of its climax — the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989.
More time has passed since the Wall came down than the nearly three decades it stood, but painful memories associated with this symbol have not faded for many in a reunified Germany.
Though the first sections of the Wall weren’t constructed until 1961, division in Germany began with the conclusion of the Second World War. Germany was divided into four occupation zones and Berlin was divided into four sectors, with each superpower, The United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union, responsible for the administration of the respective zone. According to ‘Facts about Germany,’ 2010 historical publication of the German government, the post-war division was made official in 1949 with the creation of a democratic constitutional state in the Federal Republic of Germany, or West Germany, and a Soviet-style socialist workers’ and farmers’ state in the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany.
Between 1945 and 1961, more than three million people fled conditions in East Germany, or the GDR, according to ‘The Berlin Wall Story’ a 2016 book by Hans-Herman Hertle, PhD, a researcher at the Center for Contemporary History Potsdam. In 1957, It became illegal for East Germans to leave the GDR, Hertle reported.
As economic and political conditions in the East deteriorated, leaders of the Socialist Unity Party, or SED, tried to stop end the mass migration and ordered the sealing of border crossings in Berlin by August 1961.
This process evolved over time, with the construction and fortification of wall barriers, the demolition of buildings, and the evacuation of thousands of citizens along the border. Ultimately more than 95 miles of wall was erected, encircling Berlin and the surrounding areas.
Over the course of nearly three decades, the number of attempted escapes escalated. According to the Berlin Wall Memorial Foundation, East Germany had lost a sixth of its population by August 1961. To counter this trend, the barrier system evolved, incorporating new methods and technology.
Sections of the 12-foot tall wall were topped with pipes to prevent climbing. A “death strip” with lighting, trip wires, dog patrols, guard towers, fences with alarms, and trenches were designed to discourage restrict unauthorized access to the border. Those violating the border were ordered by the SED to be shot by border guards.
By the time the Wall came down in 1989, at least 140 people had been killed or died while trying to cross the border, according to the Berlin Wall Memorial. It is also estimated that 250 people died during or after they passed through Berlin border checkpoints.
Bowing to pressure from its citizens, East Germany struggled to address the concept of political reforms introduced by Soviet leaders in the mid 1980s.
“When a new emigration law was falsely announced on November 9, 1989, crowds rushed to the border and the Wall fell under the onslaught of people,” the foundation’s website states.
Almost immediately, “wall peckers” as they are known, began chipping off pieces of the wall. Many are kept as mementos, while large quantities are sold as souvenirs.
The dismantling of the Wall began in 1990. Today, sections remain at Bernauer Straße, Niederkirchnerstrasse, and the East Side Gallery, which are all popular tourist destinations. Elsewhere in Berlin, the former wall’s footprint is marked with cobblestones placed in pavement and sidewalks.
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