11.13.2009

The Berlin Wall

November 9th marked the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I am old enough to remember seeing the historic moments on television, but also was too young to really understand the significance at the time. I just knew that in 3rd grade geography, I was taught that there was East Germany, West Germany, and the USSR... but in 4th grade they were called Germany and Russia...

Here is a history of the Berlin Wall in 10 points for those of you, like me, who only have a vague idea of what happened (of course, don't expect these 10 points to do this topic justice!):

1. After World War II, four major powers (the US, France, England, and the Soviet Union) controlled Berlin in four separate occupation zones. As time went on, the West side ended up using a capitalist system, while the East side was run by the Communist party.

2. In 1952, the East German government put restrictions on the border to West Germany because more and more of the Eastern population was emigrating to take advantage of the Western freedom. However, the restrictions weren't strict enough, and East Germany was worried they would lose all of their young educated population, so the wall was constructed in 1961.

3. Everything in Berlin (train tracks, cemeteries, roads, neighborhoods, etc) was separated by a 12' high concrete structure, barbed wire, anti-vehicle trenches, a 100-meter-wide gravel span (nicknamed "The Death Strip"), a second fence, guard dogs, and guards watching from 116 watchtowers and 20 bunkers.

4. Not only did emigration become impossible for the East Berliners, but also families were split, people who worked on the other side of the wall lost their jobs, and East Berliners could no longer freely travel.

5. There were 8 border crossings in the wall, which allowed visitors with appropriate visas and permits to travel to and from East Berlin (although anyone could be denied at the border for any reason) after December 1963. However, it was significantly easier for a West Berliner to enter East Berlin than vice versa -- mostly East Germans were only allowed to cross the border for family emergencies or business matters.

6. Guards were told in 1973 that people trying to cross the border illegally were to be considered criminals and should be treated as such. Despite this, about 5000 people successfully escaped, although about 100-200 people died trying to cross the wall.

7. On June 12th, 1987, on the 750th anniversary of Berlin, President Ronald Reagan said this in a speech to the General Secretary of the Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev:
"We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. 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!"
8. Starting in early 1989, a series of events led to the fall of the communist system: the first free labor union was started in communist Poland, Hungary removed its physical border with Austria (allowing 13,000 East Germans to escape to Austria), East Germans took part in mass demonstrations against the system, longtime East Germany's head of state Erich Honecker resigned, and more East Germans escaped through Czechoslovakia.

9. To calm things down, new leader Egon Krenz decided to allow refugees and travelers to cross the border directly at the border crossings with permission. The politburo spokesman G√ľnter Schabowski, though, was given this information without any instructions about how the plan would be carried out. At the press conference on November 9, 1989, Schabowski announced the new travel law, saying it was "effective immediately, without delay".

10. The East Germans saw this as a sign that the restrictions of the wall were finally being taken away. East Germans fled to the wall, and the guards, not knowing what they were supposed to do, allowed the masses to cross the border! West and East Germans, reunited at last after 28 years, celebrated in the streets. Visa-free travel was allowed after December 23rd, and German reunification officially concluded on October 3rd, 1990.


What an awesome way to end the 1980s!

(this info was compiled from the wikipedia entry. I am no historian, so please let me know if any of my facts are inaccurate!)

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