The Rise and Fall of the Berlin Wall

A wall that was built to keep people in was torn down to do the same—19 years ago this week.

Berliners sing and dance on top of The Berlin Wall to celebrate the opening of East-West German borders, Friday afternoon, Nov. 10, 1989.

Berliners sing and dance on top of The Berlin Wall to celebrate the opening of East-West German borders, Nov. 10, 1989.

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The Berlin Wall represented a feat of Communist organization—but also brutal, undeniable proof of that system's long-term failure.

West Berlin remained an "island city" of 2 million, a democratic showcase.

East Germany, meanwhile, seemed to stabilize. Its rulers convinced themselves that their captive subjects, brainwashed by propaganda and cowed by the fearsome Stasi secret police, would resign themselves to their fate.

They were wrong.

Short on natural resources and desperately inefficient, East Germany ran into problems during the "oil shock" of the mid-1970s. Soon it was on life support, dependent on subsidies, cheap Russian oil, and a disgusting trade in human life. Imprisoned dissidents and failed escapers were sold to the West for ever-increasing sums of hard currency. In the 1980s, this shameful business earned billions of vital West German marks.

Then came Mikhail Gorbachev, a humane, reformist Soviet leader no longer willing to rob needy Russian consumers to prop up failing satellite regimes. He decreed an end to subsidies—and to the Soviet occupation army's role as suppressor of unrest. Other Communist-ruled countries began to liberalize.

Not East Germany.

During the early months of 1989, thousands of East Germans clambered into their little Trabant cars and headed for these neighboring lands, planning to claim asylum or even cross directly to the west. At home, small, church-based demonstrations grew into huge rallies demanding freedom to travel and declaring, ominously for the rulers of a supposed "people's republic": "We are the People!"

The Communist Party tried sacking its diehard, 80-year-old boss, Erich Honecker. A new leader, Egon Krenz, known for his horsy features, vainly tried to position himself as the "East German Gorbachev." "Oh, Grandma," mocked the demonstrators' banners in the words of Red Riding Hood, "what big teeth you have!"

The East German state, demoralized and bankrupt, tried one more desperate roll of the dice. On Nov. 9, 1989, it decided to announce some relaxation of the decades-old travel restrictions, hoping to calm the situation and snatch a breathing space.

Wrong again. At a press conference, portly East Berlin Communist boss Günther Schabowski became flustered by journalists' probing questions. In response to NBC's Tom Brokaw, he wrongly stated that travel restrictions would be lifted "with immediate effect."

Within minutes, East Berliners besieged the border posts with West Berlin. The guards, overwhelmed, phoned for instructions. Should they use force?

The leadership had no stomach for a massacre. Soon, hordes of eager East Berliners pressed past the unresisting officials into the freedom of West Berlin.

As a drinker in a bar on the eastern side remarked with dry Berlin wit: "So...they built the wall to stop people leaving, and now they're tearing it down to stop people leaving. There's logic for you."

Nineteen years ago this week, the wall had fallen overnight, just as it had risen. The city and the world celebrated into the small hours and beyond. Thousands of East Berliners wandered the glittering streets of the western districts that had been barred to them for so long.

Berlin was reunited—as Germany soon would be also—and the Cold War had come to an end.

Frederick Taylor is the author of The Berlin Wall: A World Divided, 1961-1989 (Harper Perennial).

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