The fall of Berlin wall, an event that forever marked the year 1989 - although not for the whole world - marked the beginning of German reunification as well as the beginning of the fall of the iron curtain.

So what was it that led to this unforgettable moment, and what was life like for Germans living on both sides of the wall during that time?

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The Most Important Monument in Germany

While German history and German culture has been forever marked by Kingdom of Prussia, the Treaty of Versailles, Westphalia, the Holy Roman Empire, the Brandenburg gate and the Reichstag – there is no more defining moment in modern German history than the fall of this wall.

While the fall of the Berlin wall is generally associated, in history lessons, with the Cold War – understanding of it cannot be done without discussing the German Democratic Republic, or GDR, East and West Germany, the Weimar Republic and the destructive German reich of the Nazis.

While planning out your stay in Berlin can be as simple as finding a place to live or rent, you also might be interested in the city's history.

Understand more about one of the most important monuments in the capital of Germany in this historical guide.

Berlin during communism
While hard to believe today, Berlin used to be the site of international tensions

The Geopolitical Divide Post-World War II

Whether you ask someone from Bremen, Hamburg or Regensburg, from the Rhine river to Zeugspitze – any German will most likely recognize the date 8 of May 1945.

A moment that the those living in Germany will remember well, this day marked the final end of institutional Nazism in Europe.

It was accomplished by two countries who would become the competing superpowers of the world in the years to come: the United States and the USSR.

Attempting to get rid of the final vestiges of Fascism, from the Reichstag building to the Berlin palace, Berlin city was divided into 4 zones occupied by the US, Great Britain, France and the USSR. The zones occupied by the first three countries formed what became known as West Berlin, while the zone occupied by the USSR is known as East Berlin.

In 1946, Churchill made a speech in which he notoriously declared that an “iron curtain” had fallen over Europe, dividing the continent into two powers that divided Germany into Eastern Germany, known as the German Democratic Republic, and Western Germany, called the Federal Republic of Germany.

Looking at a map of Germany at the time, the distinctions between Southern and Northern Germany take the backseat as the population of Germany belonging to the East German government fell behind this “iron curtain.” Tensions in Berlin, which became the official German capital after 1990, were especially emblematic of the fight between Capitalist and Communist ideologies. What was once hailed as an important city for the German Reich and German national pride and culture became the centre of the first incident of the Cold War, known as the Berlin Blockade, in 1948.

From 1949 to 1961, the USSR and East Germany faced a major problem: East Berliners fleeing from the DGR to the FGR, or from East to West – the number estimated at about 3 million German people.

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Why Did They Put Up the Wall?

On the 13th August 1961, the Communist government of East Germany (or the German Democratic Republic/GDR) starting building a divide using barbed wire. Within two days, however, this barbed wire fence was replaced by a robust concrete wall, built by East German authorities with lookout towers which armed guards would use for surveillance, under orders to shoot any person trying to cross from the East to the West.

The main purpose of the wall was to prevent Western "fascists" from entering the Eastern sector of the capital as it was believed they undermined the socialist state, yet an additional use for the wall was that it stemmed mass defections from Eastern to Western Berlin.

Despite Berlin being located in an entirely Soviet region, the Yalta and Potsdam agreements split the city allowing the Soviets to take the eastern half, and leave their allies to take the western.

The Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall

Let's go back to the start.

The beginning of the physical separation between the two German states began with the Warsaw Pact in 1955, which created a military alliance between the states that formed part of the Soviet bloc:

  • The USSR
  • Bulgaria
  • Hungary
  • East German GDR
  • Poland
  • Albania
  • Czechoslovakia
  • Yugoslavia

The eastern bloc, placed in direct opposition to the western one, adopted a communist regime and responded as an ally to the USSR in all political and military decisions. In November of 1958, an ultimatum launched by the Soviets in question to the situation in Germany, now known as the Khrushchev ultimatum, put Berlin into a second crisis. When no agreement was reached, a division was wrought in Berlin like no in no other city in any country in Europe: the Berlin Wall.

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How Long Did the Berlin Wall Stand?

Built in 1961, the wall was meant to physically separate the territories in eastern and western Berlin. The wall lasted for longer than many anticipated: 28 years, during which the migration between the two was forbidden. It marked a time in Germany where many families were forcefully separated. While the wall symbolized a hard-line policy against migration, it also symbolized a distinct ideological division.

Whether you study in Germany, want to know more about the city, or are interested in the history of the Berlin wall, it is often said that the wall was erected in a single night. This is actually only partially true – in reality, only barbed wire and brick walls were mounted rapidly along the border, while the actual wall as we know it today was completed in a much longer time frame. However, by 1962, the wall was 15 kilometres long.

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West Berlin and East Berlin
Life was difficult in both West Germany and East Germany

Life Behind Each Side of the Wall

While modern-day visits to Germany are now perceived to be made up entirely of German beer, the Grimm brothers, visiting famous monuments like the Cologne Cathedral or struggling to understand a language that used to has earned many prizes for the longest word – understanding the country’s complex history is a favourite amongst tourists.

A city now known for its famous composers, powerful German companies, and a particularly delicious jelly doughnut was actually the site of much distress and cruelty on both sides of the Berlin wall.

The wall quickly became a symbol of hate and saw the largest population of defectors to leave East Germany in the first few months of its creation. Those who opposed the wall by trying to leave or by critiquing it were silenced by the GDR, being either killed or condemned to a life of prison. It is estimated that 5,000 successful passages were made into West Germany, while 80 passages involved deaths and 115 included injuries by bullets fired by the border guards.

What was Life Like in East Berlin?

Inhabitants of East Berlin remember the years of the Berlin Wall as a form of captivity with extreme shortages and rations.

Understandably, thousands of Germans (making up a sixth of the city's population) attempted to flee the East in spite of the risks to their lives. Nearly 150 people were shot trying to cross the border, yet this didn't stop more people trying to break free from the suffocating Soviet state over the three decades that the wall was in place.

For those who stayed behind, life was somewhat different. People in the East could not access the things they wanted or needed, waiting for months for clothes, seasons for fruit and, at times, decades for cars!

In addition, the residents had to abide by Communist rule which meant no attending church for religion was disapproved of. Further education was also banned for some, stating political reasons. And West German television was off-limits, being made illegal in the state.

Furthermore, some people were even spied on by the Stasi Government, tapping telephone lines and intercepting post

The Fall of the Berlin Wall and the End of the Cold War

From the 1970s and onwards, the policy put in place was called Ostpolitik.

This policy allowed for a decrease in tensions and relationship between the western bloc and the Soviet bloc. It wasn’t until 1987, however, that the tide seemed to be changing, marked by Mikhail Gorbatchev’s visit to the German Democratic Republic. This visit was largely taken as a signal towards a new, more open political atmosphere.

In 1989, following the advice of GDR ministers, following this type of policy and many protests from the German population in the east, the government decided to open the frontier and take down the Berlin wall.

The 9th of November of that year saw the demolition of the Berlin wall, to the joy of Berliners on both sides.

One interesting fact to point out actually has to do with the condition of the wall before its destruction. While the east side of the wall was, on the whole, kept pristine – the same could not be said of the west side of the wall. The west side was filled with graffiti tags, designs and inscriptions.

While this serves to show the differing atmospheres on both sides of the wall, it also shows how heavily protected and inaccessible the east side of the wall was to its citizens.

History through the Berlin wall
Many German people visit Berlin today to learn about their past

The reunification of Germany was produced in 1990. While this can sometimes seem like ancient history, it is important to remember, no matter what side your country was on, that some people are still living through the consequences of this important moment in history.

While the will and spirit of unification in Germany was one of joy, it has also served as a painful reminder of one of the most difficult episodes in German history.

What Is Berlin Like Today?

Today, the majority of the wall has disappeared. However, there are still some remains that can be seen both in order to experience history as well as to serve as a reminder against the dangerous politics the generation before us engaged in.

Today, Berlin is more than just its past – the modern city is home to some of the most interesting cultural and social activities in the world. The city, who was first documented in the 13th century, is now home to orchestras, universities and venues. In fact, the city is one of the world’s most important hubs for film, music and the arts.

According to some sources, it is estimated that there have now been over 6,000 films shot in Berlin alone.

Not only does Berlin play an important role in the creative arts, it is also one of Germany’s most important financial hubs. Looking at the economy of Berlin, it has the 4th largest GDP of any city in the world. That being said, the cost of living is relatively cheap - depending on where you're from, of course.

Who Took Down the Berlin Wall?

On the 12th June 1987, more than a quarter of a decade after the Berlin Wall first divided the East and West of the city, U.S. President Ronald Reagan spoke to the masses at Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. During his speech, the American politician challenged Soviet  Mikhail Gorbachev, asking him to "tear down this wall.”

Within a couple of years, and no thanks to Gorbachev but instead to the German people, the barrier was finally torn down. Representing repression, division and lack of freedom, Germans rejoiced in seeing the concrete barricade topple down even if it was as a result of a bureaucratic accident which saw a total wave of East Germans pouring over to the West.

Images of the wall crumbling and being torn down graced TV screens all across the world, as many had expected to see the wall still standing 100 years on from its erection.

The fall of the Berlin Wall reshaped not only the history of Berlin, but also the country as a whole.

If you're in Berlin for a short stay, you'll also be contributing to the city's economy in an unexpected way. Some economic research conducted for the year 2018 showed that tourism, specifically Berlin's nightlife, brought an estimated 1.3 billion pounds in revenue.

Now that you have discovered more about the Berlin Wall, we imagine that you would love to visit the city and see the remains of this historic monument with your own eyes.

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Shana

A South African in France who loves to travel and discover new cultures, is passionate about photography, and who is happiest near the ocean.