Fall of the Berlin Wall

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Fall of the Berlin Wall


By: John Gaps III

Date: November 12, 1989

Source: AP Images.

About the Photographer: John Gaps III is a photographer with the Associated Press (AP), the largest and oldest news organization in the world. It serves thousands of daily newspapers, radio and television channels, and online customers by providing comprehensive news coverage. AP is a nonprofit organization with 3,700 employees working in more than 240 offices in 121 countries.


On July 25, 1945, two months after victory in Europe, the Allies met in the German city of Potsdam to discuss Germany's fate. Intended to give Germans "the opportunity to prepare for the eventual reconstruction of their life on a democratic and peaceful basis," the country was divided into four occupied zones, one for each of the Allies—Britain, France, United States, and Soviet Union. The first three zones were capitalist and democratic; the Soviet zone, under the control of Joseph Stalin (1879–1953), became communist.

On May 23, 1949, the British, French, and American zones became the Federal Republic of Germany or West Germany, a capitalist state that advanced rapidly toward social and economic reform. In October of that year, the Soviet quadrant became East Germany, the socialist German Democratic Republic (GDR).

The situation in East Germany was dismal. Food and resources were scarce; there was little political freedom and even less economic development. Millions of East Germans left their homes to move to the West, a drain of labor that threatened East Germany with economic collapse. On April 1, 1948, the Soviet Union blockaded routes in and out of East Germany, causing food and fuel shortages. After the blockade was lifted in 1949, the number of East Germans migrating west increased. As many as 2.5 million people fled the country between 1949 and 1961.

Starting in 1952, East Germany tried to stop the exodus with fences, walls, barbed wires, and mine fields around its borders. By the end of May, the only way to get out of East Germany and escape to freedom was through Berlin.

Berlin was a problem, as it was the seat of the Allied Control Council, yet it was situated in the Soviet-occupied zone. Its western sector, a capitalist oasis in a communist country, became a magnet for those hoping to escape to freedom. As the final push in its effort to seal its borders, the GDR began to build a wall around the three western sectors of Berlin on August 13, 1961, using barbed wire and cinder blocks; these were later replaced with concrete, guard towers, electrified fences, and mines.

The wall divided not only the city, but segregated whole families and communities. And it slowed—but did not stop—escape attempts. As many as 10,000 people tried to get over the wall—as many as 5,000 made it. 260 people died while trying to cross the wall between 1961 and 1989.

By the mid 1980s, however, the Soviet Union was imploding, the Cold War was waning, and the Warsaw Pact was disintegrating. Mass protests against the East German government began in the fall of 1989, and Erich Honeker, the country's prime minister, resigned. On November 9, 1989, his replacement, Egon Krenz, decreed at a press conference that East Germans would be allowed to apply for visas to travel to the West. Ecstatic crowds swarmed the city's checkpoints, demanding entry into West Berlin.

The overwhelmed guards, faced with the option of opening the border or opening fire, chose the former. Gates along the Wall were opened, and Berliners united amidst joyous celebrations on both sides. Jubilant crowds climbed on top of the wall and began to attack it with sledgehammers. In less than a year, the two countries were reunited.



See primary source image.


The Berlin Wall was a potent symbol of communist tyranny and the Cold War. Although by the 1960s and 1970s, East Germany was not officially governed by the Soviet Union, the country was strongly influenced by its policies and allied to it by the Warsaw Pact.

When Mikhail Gorbachev became head of the Soviet Union in 1985, he instigated democratic reforms in an effort to improve his economically ailing country. While commending Gorbachev for the improvements, President Ronald Reagan (1911–2004) delivered a challenge in 1987 at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin: "General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

Two years later, the Berlin Wall had been destroyed and the Cold War effectively ended. The first free parliamentary elections were held in East Germany on March 18, 1990; the Treaty of Union united the two regions into one Germany on October 3, 1990.

The new country, however, was confronted with several challenges, the most significant of which was incorporating the communist East German economy into capitalist West Germany. Another was the high rate of unemployment among East Germans, thousands of whom lost their jobs to more progressive West German workers and companies.

More than fifteen years after the wall's demise, marked cultural and economic differences remain between east and west. The cost of reunification appeared to be a sore spot for westerners, while east Germans resented their lower wages and standard of living. A 2004 survey conducted by the Forsa Institute found thirty-seven percent of West Germans said that the government is focused only on development projects in the east, whereas almost a third of former East Germans indicated dissatisfaction towards development in the eastern part of Germany.



Buckley, William F. The Fall of the Berlin Wall. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons, 2004.

Powaski, Ronald E. The Cold War: The United States and the Soviet Union, 1917–1991. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Web sites

BBC News. On This Day. "November 9, 1989: Berliners Celebrate the Fall of the Wall." <http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/november/9/newsid_2515000/2515869.stm> (accessed May 24, 2006).

CNN: Cold War. "The Wall: 1958–1963." <http://edition.cnn.com/SPECIALS/cold.war/episodes/09/> (accessed May 24, 2006).

MSNBC. "One in 5 Germans Wants Berlin Wall Rebuilt." <http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/5942091> (accessed May 24, 2006).

Reagan Foundation. "Tear Down This Wall." June 12, 1987. <http://www.reaganfoundation.org/reagan/speeches/wall.asp> (accessed May 24, 2006).

Time—The Berlin Wall: Ten Years After. "The Wall That Defined Us." <http://www.time.com/time/daily/special/berlin/opener.html> (accessed May 24, 2006).

Library of Congress. Country Studies. "Germany." <http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/detoc.html> (accessed May 24, 2006).