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. 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.
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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The Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall
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
- East German GDR
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.
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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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.
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.
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 on of joy, it has also served as a painful reminder of one of the most difficult episodes in German history.
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. 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.