World events often move fast but it is hard to match the power and pace of change that occurred during the Cold War but especially in 1989. The Berlin Wall, which had been built at the height of the Cold War, was toppled by people in 1989. Its fall occurred in the exact same dramatic manner in which the wall, one of the most powerful and enduring symbols of the Cold War, was erected. Decades of developments culminated in breaching of this ‘Iron Curtain’ that ran through the heart of Berlin. The story of the fall of the Berlin Wall is one of division and repression but also of yearning for freedom, and the events that led to its collapse are no exception.
During the 1980s, communist Eastern Bloc countries faced increasing economic challenges and major food shortages, a situation that raised questions about the future of GDR (German Democratic Republic or East Germany). Moreover, when a nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl power station in Ukraine exploded, it signalled an impending collapse of the communist bloc.
Many East Germans were hopeful of reforms, buoyed by what they had seen in their neighbouring countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, where years of anti-communist, pro-democratic activism and strikes had culminated with the socialist dictatorships losing their hold on power. Peaceful protests (Monday demonstrations) calling for democratic reform and freedom to travel began in the city of Leipzig and spread to various East German cities on 4 September 1989. No one knew the fall of the Berlin Wall was forthcoming.
The Berlin wall stood intact until November 9, 1989, but political changes in Eastern Europe and civil unrest in Germany put pressure on the government. The critical moment came when the spokesperson of East German Communist Party, Gunter Schabowski, announced a change in East Germany’s relation with the West and that citizens of GDR could cross the border ‘whenever they pleased’. The government had meant to open travel from the next day.
However, ambiguity on the part of the spokesperson led him to say that the decision was effective ‘immediately’. They did not intend for its complete destruction and tried to calm mounting protests by loosening borders, but the way people responded delivered major consequences. With this easing of travel restrictions beginning at midnight that day, East Berliners and West Berliners flocked to twelve border crossing points in the wall. Neither physically nor politically, the wall had fallen but psychologically.
With only a handful of guards faced by overwhelming numbers of East Berliners demanding to be let through the wall to the West, the border guards were forced to open the gates without official orders. The opening of gates was met with euphoria across both sides. Thousands flowed through, celebrating and crying, in scenes that beamed around the world. The party atmosphere reigned all night as East Berliners were greeted with champagne by West Berliners, who embraced in excitement, overwhelmed by the enormity of what they were witnessing.
The guards could have easily opened fire on the crowd but not a single shot was fired as no one wanted to take the authority of issuing orders leading to use of lethal force. This peaceful crossing of borders proved different from previous incidents, where a vast majority usually got killed while trying to cross fortified border points as the wall served defections from east to west between 1961 and 1989.
People climbed the wall, using hammers and pickaxes to knock away chunks of the wall themselves while cranes and bulldozers pulled down section after section. A symbol of entanglement that rose like a scar of cement and barbed wire decades ago, now ripped open to facilitate the first step towards German reunification. With only three long sections still standing today, little is left of the wall at its original site as many segments of the wall have been given to historical museums and corporations of different countries. More than 2 million people from East Germany visited West Germany that weekend to participate in celebrations. On October 3, 1990, almost one year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of East and West Germany was made official.
Despite initial euphoria, the road to recovery for East Germany was long and difficult with economic and social dislocation. As the ‘Iron Curtain’ fell down, East Germans had a far greater choice: about what they did, what they said, where they went, what they ate etc. They were amazed by the variety of items piled on shelves of West Germany’s supermarkets, an aberration from limited choice in the GDR. They were excited to sink themselves into bona fide products- a potent symbol of capitalism. Once this initial excitement had subsided, East Germans faced serious decisions about their future as the fall of the Berlin Wall was followed by a takeover of East by West Germany. Perhaps the biggest challenge they faced was economic as they struggled to pay for the costs of unification.
Food prices and rent were no longer subsidised by state and employment was no longer guaranteed, making the labour markets extremely competitive. Hundreds of state-owned enterprises were sold off to the private sector and others faced difficulties in surviving in a market economy. With this transformation, the cost of living in East Germany skyrocketed and so did the unemployment which rose from 0% to 16% within three years after reunification. Therefore, along with new freedom, the fall of the Berlin Wall brought the downsides of transformation as many struggled to put bread on the table. East Germans also felt hurt and disappointed as West Germans did not seem to acknowledge the upheaval in their lives caused by the loss of a culture they were comfortable with. Such feelings exacerbated the disconnect between Germans from either side of the border.
The fall of the Berlin Wall marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War and this pivotal moment turned out to be a global legacy. What were the reactions to this seismic change? This dramatic event was followed by an equally historic and dramatic chain of events that led to the collapse of the second world and the end of the cold war. The most seismic changes in European geopolitics- certainly in the second half of the 20th century- stemmed from events that unfolded in Berlin on 9th November 1989. One after another, eight East European countries that were part of the Soviet bloc replaced their communist governments in response to mass demonstrations.
The Soviet Union stood by, as the Cold War began to end, not by military means but as a result of mass actions by ordinary men and women. Eventually, the Soviet Union itself disintegrated. The collapse of communism was followed in most of the countries by a painful process of transition from an authoritarian socialist system to a democratic capitalist system. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, communist ideology had also collapsed and thus, formed a new world order. The power relations in world politics changed. As it turned out, US became the sole superpower.
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Currently pursuing Economics (Hons.) from SRCC, Simran is an avid reader and is always on a lookout for some ‘real’ knowledge. She is a proud member of BTS Army and has an innate obsession for Sundays. She often finds herself stuck in the rat race and struggles to have a consensus between her heart and mind.