The Fall of the Berlin Wall 30 Years Ago. A Historical Overview

In 2019, it will be 30 years since the Berlin Wall fell. This event ended the split between East and West Germany, which had lasted for more than 28 years. But what exactly happened? Why was the Wall built in the first place? And how did it eventually fall? Dr. Michael T. Oswald from the Chair of Political Science at the University of Passau summarizes the course of historical-political events from the building of the Wall to the fall of the Berlin Wall in a guest contribution.

Dr. Michael T. Oswald from the Chair of Political Science at the University of Passau

After World War II ended in 1945, the victorious Allies divided Germany into four occupation zones. The western part of the country plus West Berlin were administered by the United States, the UK, and France. Because these states had a democratic understanding of government and hoped to achieve lasting peace in Central Europe, they set out to create a stable and free democracy in Germany. But because the USSR occupied the eastern part of the country, Germany’s future political system became a divisive issue. Whereas the Western Allies had a vision that focused on liberty and capitalism, the Soviets were determined to set up a collectivized socialist economic system.

These contrasting ideological principles caused the combined administration of the country by the Four Powers to fail. While the principles of the Western Allies implied the creation of a democratic system, the Soviets strived to create a socialist German state. This impasse worsened in 1947 when the Americans came to the conclusion that the Soviets’ political aspirations were in fact an aggressive policy of expansion that had to be contained by means of an economic reconstruction plan for Europe.

This situation escalated further when the deutschmark, or “D-Mark” for short, was introduced. This step caused the USSR to enact the Berlin blockade — or, at least provided it with the official justification for this measure. Over a period of 332 days, the Soviets cut the power supply to West Berlin and blocked train and road traffic as well as the inland waterways. As a result, food deliveries to West Berlin were blocked as well. In response, the Western Allies started the Berlin airlift, in which aircraft (many of which were converted World War II bombers) imports food and other important goods to the city. Because some of these planes dropped sweets and candy, they were colloquially also referred to as “Raisin Bombers” or “Candy Bombers.” The airlift ensured the supply of West Berlin’s over two million inhabitants.

Although the blockade was lifted in 1949, the division between East and West Germany deepened. The partition became official when the Federal Republic of Germany was founded on May 23, 1949, and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) on October 7, 1949. Two contrary political systems thus faced off against each other. While West Germany was a democratic country, the East was de facto a one-party state, despite the existence of non-independent “bloc parties.” Like the Soviet Union, the country had a Marxist-Leninist basis, which included a planned economy. As a result, more and more people fled to the West. In response, the East German government built barrier fences along the line of demarcation and introduced identity checks for people traveling between East and West.

In 1953, Joseph Stalin died. However, the tensions between East and West didn’t decrease under his successor, Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev.

Because the fences didn’t prevent the people of East Germany from escaping to the West, the government of the GDR decided in 1961 to build a wall. After this plan became public in June, Khrushchev met U.S. President John F. Kennedy for talks in Vienna. However, the meeting produced no results. In August, the East German government began to systematically seal its borders. It initially did this with barbed wire, which was later replaced by concrete slabs.

The Western Powers were unable to prevent the wall’s construction without risking an armed conflict. However, they continued to give West Germany their support. Kennedy, expressed his solidarity during a speech at the Schöneberg City Hall in Berlin on February 28, 1962 by saying “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

As far as I know — effective immediately, without delay.

Günter Schabowski

Even after the Wall was built, people continued to try to flee from East Germany to the West. Although some of them made it in spectacular escapes, many others were arrested during the attempt or even shot.

Beginning in the 1970s, West Germany changed its policy to the East. Chancellor Willy Brandt took a new approach, called “change through rapprochement,” in which he intended to enter into a dialogue with East Germany and the Soviet Union. This approach also improved relations with East Germany’s ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED), which was headed by Erich Honecker.

Meanwhile, the new Secretary General of the Soviet Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev, coined two new principles: glasnost and perestroika, i.e. “openness” and “restructuring” and so initiated a reform process in the political system of the USSR.

Despite this, the East German leadership initially retained its old system of government. However, the economic situation was precarious in the East and the citizens of the GDR were dissatisfied. Beginning on September 4, 1989, crowds gathered every week in Leipzig for the “Monday protests.” The number of participants eventually rose to half a million.

East Germany practically ended on November 9, 1989: During a press conference, SED politburo member Günter Schabowski announced a new law that would allow East German citizens to travel freely wherever they liked. In response to a journalist’s question, an ill-informed Schabowski stated that it was, "As far as I know — effective immediately, without delay."

This caused masses of people to gather at the border and demand that they be able to make use of their apparently newly received right of free travel. The surprised border guards acquiesced and the Berlin Wall was history. For many people, it was only logical that the GDR would now be incorporated into West Germany. Germany was officially reunified on October 3, 1990.

You will find a short summary of how the construction and later the fall of the Berlin Wall came about here in a SimpleShow, an explanatory video.

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