1989 – The Fall of the Berlin Wall

13/04/2015

9 November 1989 – Berlin

Mauerfall1 is one of two iconic events in my lifetime that might be said to mark the “end” of the twentieth century world.2 I would say it was the most important.

The world before 1989 was a different place. That sounds trite, but it’s true. I’m too young to remember the Cold War, but I grew up alongside people who did. My parents were alive when the wall came up, and they saw it fall again. My grandparents fought in the War that helped establish the capitalist and communist “zones” within Europe. Those of my colleagues teaching undergraduates at the moment will be explaining a geopolitics very different to today. None of this should be underestimated – though I will explain later why the Berlin Wall is perhaps more representative of a number of cultural shifts since the twentieth century than the cataclysmic event that changed everything.

Much like with Chernobyl, the iconicism of the Wall – what its construction, presence and destruction symbolised – was as important as the edifice itself.

I’ve already said that I felt that 9/11/89 was the most important in my lifetime. But that has to be seen as part of the political narrative of the past 25 years. Democracy beat communism, Europe became united, and we now live in a globalised world. But – obviously – the Eastern Bloc did not disintegrate overnight. It would not be until 1991 that the USSR declared its disillusion; the same year Yugoslavia broke into a bloody civil war. And if, indeed, this is a story about how the capitalist West “won”, it wasn’t until 1999 that the Czech Republic joined NATO, and 2004 when they joined the European Union. The Wall was therefore a symbol of change, and reflected political and social shifts on both sides of the Iron Curtain. It came to represent the literal dismantling of a system of government that had lasted since the Second World War. Indeed, for a country like Poland, one could argue that this was the end of the Second World War.

Why was the wall built? Well, as with all things in history, the answer is long and rambling.3

In the run up to VE Day,4 the American-led armies to the West and the Soviet-led armies to the East were in a race to Berlin – the capital of the German and Prussian Empires since the eighteenth century. It was the heart of modern Germany. It represented not just the capital of the Nazi Reich, but the very concept of the German nation state. Sure, there was a lot of industrial technology to be looted (such as rocketry5 and mass production techniques), but there was also a sense that the mistakes of the First World War needed to be righted. In short, Germany had to be thoroughly and unequivocally beaten. And marching through the centre of Berlin was the most explicit way of achieving this.

Lloyd-George, Clemenceau and Wilson, the leaders of the UK, France and USA who negotiated the Armistice. (Source)

Lloyd-George, Clemenceau and Wilson, the leaders of the UK, France and USA who negotiated the Armistice. (Source)

Part of Hitler’s political appeal was based on the idea that the German Empire had been sold out by socialists and cowards in 1918. By signing the Armistice rather than fighting to the bitter end, the German state had been subjected to foreign interference, crippling reparation payments and had its territories in Africa and central Europe seized. The Austro-Hungarian Empire suffered similar dismantling. Many in Vienna and Berlin believed that Bohemia, Poland and Hungary were legitimately “German” lands, taken away by the vengeful French and their accomplices.6 With the Great Depression and hyperinflation in the inter-war Weimar Republic, the Nazi party gained widespread support on the back of promising to restore the Empire and right the injustices of the 1920s. In order to crush fascism in the German-speaking world, the Allies believed that total victory was paramount.

This left Germany cleft in half. The East was occupied by the Soviet Union, and the West by a mix of French, British and American troops. Following the Potsdam Conference, the Germany was split into 4 zones of control. The three western zones eventually became capitalist West Germany; while the eastern zone effectively became a puppet of Moscow. Berlin, wholly in the Soviet zone, was also split into four parts – effectively leaving a capitalist island within East Germany.

Map outlining the zones of control in Germany and Austria following the War. Austria eventually became an independent, democratic country in 1955 after the Soviet Union withdrew. Germany would remain split, however, until 1990. (Source)

Map outlining the zones of control in Germany and Austria following the War. Austria eventually became an independent, democratic country in 1955 after the Soviet Union withdrew. Germany would remain split, however, until 1990. (Berlin is in grid reference C3.) (Source)

Being an exclave during the early Cold War was not particularly helpful. Since Moscow could effectively block all land vehicles entering West Berlin by patrolling the border between East and West Germany, food and supplies were difficult to obtain. A blockade began in 1948 in response to the Western powers’ introduction of a new Deutschmark. For over a year, the only way to keep Western Berlin running was to airlift supplies into West Berlin. It proved successful, and eventually the Soviets backed down. But it showed the tension between two sides would be a constant threat.7

President Kennedy visiting the Berlin Wall in 1963. Ich bin ein Berliner... (Source)

President Kennedy visiting the Berlin Wall in 1963. Ich bin ein Berliner… (Source)

By 1961, East Germany was concerned at the number of defections to West Berlin. Since it was relatively easy to get across the border and never return, the Democratic Republic8 was losing skilled men and women. Around 3.5 million had managed to leave the country before the wall was erected. Sold as an “anti-fascist” protection against insurgency from the West, the wall effectively ended East-to-West migration, and sealed West Berlin off from the rest of the Russian-occupied zone. Or, perhaps more accurately, it sealed East Germany off from the Western world.

The Communist Bloc was in crisis in the late 1980s. Things came to a head when Hungary dismantled its armed border with Austria in August 1989, allowing “tourists” in the East a quick means of escape to the West. East Germany attempted to impose a travel ban, hoping to stop the flow of migrants. Resentment and protest grew and, following the resignation of Erich Honecker in October, events reached boiling point. On the night of 9 November, protesters began to hack away at the wall, effectively causing a revolution.

Photograph taken by astronaut Chris Hadfield from the International Space Station. The angle is skewed, but you can clearly see the bright white street lamps of Western Berlin towards the top, and the dimmer, yellow lights in Eastern Berlin towards the bottom. This is caused by the lower-quality lighting used in the East - in the West, street lamps were updated, indicating a higher level of investment in infrastructure. (Source)

Photograph taken by astronaut Chris Hadfield from the International Space Station. The angle is skewed, but you can clearly see the bright white street lamps of Western Berlin towards the top, and the dimmer, yellow lights in Eastern Berlin towards the bottom. This is caused by the lower-quality lighting used in the East – in the West, street lamps were updated, indicating a higher level of investment in infrastructure. (Source)

The Berlin Wall has always been a symbol as much as a physical barrier. While many died trying to get across it, it served an important political purpose for both sides of the political divide. This was as true while it stood and with its fall.9 Today, the wall has come to represent a memorial to the past – not to celebrate the division, but as a lesson that ought not to be forgotten. The site of the wall has become an important place for tourists, not just from abroad but from within the German Republic. As Hope Harrison argues, the wall has in some ways been ‘resurrected’ as an important artefact of German history.10 This is a common theme in European history – much like Auschwitz was not razed to the ground, these buildings serve as a stark and important reminder of what people can do when their power remains unchecked.

For those outside Germany, it represented the Rubicon for the anti-communist revolution. But it also reflected a number of other changes that were stirring at the time. In the West, almost-universal ownership of televisions, telephones and automobiles had created a much smaller world than the one of the 1940s. Affordable air travel, the growing reach of multinational corporations and the increasing importance of the European Economic Community were creating a globalised world. 1989 marked the point at which the Communist East became part of this world too, no longer in self-imposed exile on the other side of the Iron Curtain. It was a victory for capitalism, democracy and freedom. Whether or not this “really” happened, the resulting invasion of the East by McDonalds, Pepsi, Nike and David Hasselhoff created a very different geopolitical landscape.

As the articles following this will show, the next 25 years were very different to the previous 25 in so many ways. 1989 marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War; or perhaps the end of the Second World War; or even the end of the twentieth century itself, stretching back to Versailles. Everything else in this series is informed by these events. This is why it had to be included in the 30-for-30.

  1. The German word for the Fall of the Berlin Wall. Replicated here to bolster my hipster credentials. “Europa geht durch mich“, etc.
  2. The “short” twentieth century being roughly World War I (c. 1914) to the fall of the Eastern Bloc (c. 1989-1991). Longer versions (usually Americo-centric) position the “end” with the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York in September 2001.
  3. (c) Grampa Simpson.
  4. 9 May 1945. “Victory in Europe Day”, known in some countries as Liberation Day, or similar. See: ‘Victory in Europe Day’, Wikipedia < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victory_in_Europe_Day > (accessed 9 March 2015).
  5. The popular narrative is that this kick started the space exploration programmes in the US and USSR. See: ‘Soviet space program’, Wikipedia < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet_space_program > (accessed 9 March 2015).
  6. Clemenceau is traditionally seen as the more vengeful of the three leaders who negotiated the Treaty of Versaille. Having been stung by the 1875 Franco-Prussian War, he wanted revenge on Germany without too much care for the social or political consequences. Lloyd-George was sympathetic, but willing to go along with it, while Wilson was horrified. Thus, another lesson of the First World War was not just that Germany had to be conquered – the country needed to be rebuilt, with an emphasis on democracy and co-operation. German Imperialism had be be thoroughly destroyed. See: ‘Treaty of Versailles’, Wikipedia < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Versailles (accessed 9 March 2015).
  7. ‘Berlin Blockade’, Wikipedia < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berlin_Blockade > (accessed 9 March 2015).
  8. East Germany. I’m just getting bored of typing the word “East”…
  9. Pertti Ahonen, ‘The Berlin Wall and the battle for legitimacy in divided Germany’, German Politics and Society, 29(2) (2011), 40-56.
  10. Hope M. Harrison, ‘The Berlin Wall and its resurrection as a site of memory’, German Politics and Society, 29(2) (2011), 78-106.
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