At the end of World War II, what remained of Germany was divided into four territories, each occupied by one of the major Allied powers – The US, France, Britain, and the Soviet Union. Berlin was set as the central control area for all four powers, an arrangement which doomed it into being split by political strain between the victors.
The Soviets refused to agree to the reconstruction plans put forth by the other three powers, which would have allowed a devastated Germany to again become self sufficient, and continued to pillage the city for goods and dismantling any industry it had left. As the tensions grew, Britain, France, and the US combined their controlled areas and extended the Marshall Plan even further, allowing the western part of Germany to being rebuilding and growing again.
Following these disagreements, Stalin instituted the Berlin Blockade in 1948, which many consider the first major crisis of the Cold War. This prevented food or supplies from arriving in West Berlin. The other allied countries responded by airlifting in a massive amount of food and supplies to West Berlin, causing a war of propaganda to erupt between the Soviet and Allied governments. Ultimately the blockade was lifted, but the damage was done. Only a few months after the shipments restarted, East Germany was formally absorbed into the USSR as the German Democratic Republic, and West Germany began to embrace western capitalism and democracy wholeheartedly. Throughout the 1950s, the West’s economy and standard of living grew rapidly, while the East saw only stagnation, resulting in a permeating feeling of envy and a desire to escape to the West.
Hundreds of thousands of East Germans began to emigrate west, largely unrestrained until 1952, when Stalin decreed that the border should be restricted and guarded – not to keep the West out, but to keep the East in. A barbed wire fence was erected, but the border between East and West remained open, making it the central stage for all those still trying to escape the East. The border in Berlin was slowly restricted until it became essentially impossible to legally travel between the two parts of the city in 1956. This did not stop those seeking freedom, however, and by 1961 over 20% of the total population of East Germany had escaped west, a number which included a disproportionately high number of youth and well-educated, leaving the Soviets to believe they had to act decisively.
In 1961, Nikita Khrushchev ordered the borders closed permanently and the construction of a physical barrier between the two parts of Berlin. The wall was concrete, and reinforced by chain fence, mines, and armed guards posted along its length. This sudden, permanent division split families as East German parents were unable to return home from work and left many more unemployed. Thousands still attempted to escape over the wall, and hundreds died trying.
As the Western world established its strength and the USSR weakened, people began to hope that the wall would come down, allowing the city – and perhaps the country – to finally be whole again. The political atmosphere around the wall and its effects was tense; the US was reluctant to openly challenge the Soviets about the wall, and did not interfere with its operation. Then on June 12, 1987, US President Ronald Reagan traveled to Berlin to celebrate its 750th anniversary, and at the Brandenburg gate issued one of this country’s most famous presidential speeches, with an explosive and controversial challenge to the USSR:
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!
In August of 1989, Hungary removed its border defenses,which allowed thousands of East German tourists to escape through Hungary into Austria in the first exodus of its size since the 1950s. The Hungarians responded by preventing any other East Germans from crossing their borders for any reason, which simply caused the East Germans to use Czechoslovakia instead. The political fallout of these border countries trying to contain their people resulted in mass demonstrations throughout East Germany, and the Communist Chairman resigned in October. By November 4, over half a million people had gathered in protest in East Berlin, and the new Chairman’s lighter hand allowed many to begin escaping west via Czechoslovakia again. Because of the complications it was causing the new politburo, it was decided a change had to be made.
On November 9, 1989, 20 years ago today, the East German government announced that all citizens of East Germany could finally cross the Berlin Wall and visit the other side for the first time in almost 30 years. Immediately, crowds of people swarmed the wall, climbing onto and over the wall, as their West German compatriots greeted them with a great celebration. Over the next few weeks, the physical wall was largely demolished, and Germany took its first step toward reunification, which finally happened in October 1990.
20 years later, after the fall of the Soviet Union and looking at a vastly different Europe, the world faces a new and different set of challenges. But the events of November 9th, 1989, will be remembered for years to come as the day freedom finally came again to Germany, and eventually all of Europe.