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  • Merrilee MacLean

Berlin's Fall of the Wall Celebration - It's Just Part of the Story

"Visions in Motion" art installation part of Fall of the Wall celebration in Berlin
"Visions in Motion" - 30,000 ribbons containing messages of peace suspended over 17 Juni Street, next to Brandenburg Gate, as part of the Fall of the Wall Celebration in Berlin

On November 9, 2019, Berlin marked the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall with music, laser shows and fireworks, ending a full week of celebrations, exhibits and education all over the city. It was a great party, with over 100,000 attending the final concert.

Brandenburg Gate as part of the Fall of the Wall celebration
Crowds going to final concert celebrating the Fall of the Wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate

For seven days, in seven different locations around the city, Berlin had open air exhibitions, 3D video projections on historical buildings and interactive journeys along the Wall that could be downloaded through an app. For those of us that actually saw the Wall when it separated Berlin into two very different cities it was remarkable to realize thirty years had passed. It was even more remarkable to remember that people under 30 had no real concept of what life then was like since the story of the Wall was just history to them. This celebration hopefully helped explain it all a bit more.

The Brandenburg Gate was one of the places featured in the celebration. The site where Ronald Reagan said “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” was the most iconic representation of the division, since it provided a glimpse of what was on the other side. Other parts of the Wall were solid, though you could climb up to platforms to look over the Wall and see the tank traps, death strips, etc. At the Brandenburg Gate, however, what had been the most famous feature of Berlin was still visible, but behind barbed wire. As part of the Celebration, there were several open-air exhibits of photos of the Wall, as it had stood, and when it was overwhelmed by Berlin’s citizens. See below. There are few remnants of the Wall visible anymore, though in places it is still subtly marked on sidewalks, without explanation. The photo on the right is part of the sidewalk along the east side of the River Spree. The bricks in the middle show where the Wall used to stand.

What most people don’t realize is that the “fall of the wall” was essentially a mistake. There had been growing unrest over the strict restrictions on travel best exemplified by the Wall that had been built in 1961 to prevent citizens of East Berlin from crossing to West Berlin. Apparently the East German government was considering making some changes to the policy, but on the evening of November 9, 1989 the newly appointed government spokesman, Guenter Schabowski, inadvertently changed history forever. Reportedly just before a scheduled press conference he had been handed a paper describing the new policy that would be adopted; he failed to read it carefully, and when a question was posed to him about the new policy he stated, live on state TV:

"Therefore... um... we have decided today... um... to implement a regulation that allows every citizen of the German Democratic Republic... um... to... um... leave East Germany through any of the border crossings"

He went on to state that private trips abroad could now be applied for “without proof of eligibility, reasons for travel, or family ties.” Permission would be granted on short notice; as far as he knew, he said, the regulation was to go into effect “immediately.”

East German soldiers unsure how to react to people on Berlin Wall
Photo of East Berliners atop Wall, while East German soldiers aren't sure what to do

It was the lead story on the 8 p.m. news broadcasts – East Germany had opened its borders. East Germans immediately went to the border crossings seeking to exercise their new found right, by the thousands. No one had informed the border guards about this new policy, and they didn’t know what to do. Eventually, they just stood aside, letting the people pass. What could have been a bloodbath (remember tanks rolled into Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968) instead became the “peaceful revolution.”

It was a sign of the times, though. Revolution had been simmering all over Eastern Europe after Soviet Premier Gorbachev in December 1988 had announced that the Soviet Union would no longer defend communism in its satellite countries by force. In May, 1989, the barbed wire fence between Hungary and Austria was removed, opening the way for citizens of Hungary and other Eastern European countries to flee to the West. In June, 1989, Poland held partially free elections for the first time, resulting in the resignation of the Soviet backed leader, Jaruzelski in July. A non-Communist government was established in September. . Meanwhile, in August, 1989, the people of the Baltic countries (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) showed their dissatisfaction by creating the Baltic Way , where an estimated one million people linked hands creating a human chain from the Baltic Sea to the Lithuanian border, over 675 kilometers, protesting Soviet occupation and seeking independence. The following year all three countries declared independence.

The revolutions continued in the fall. In October, 1989, the Hungarian parliament adopted legislation providing for multi-party elections and creating a Republic of Hungary, with separation of judicial, legislative and executive branches of government. The day after the fall of the Berlin Wall, on November 10, 1989, Bulgaria’s prime minister, who had been in power since 1962, resigned which eventually led to democratic elections the following year. On November 17, in Czechoslovakia, riot police beat peaceful student demonstrators, but 11 days later, following a general strike that showed the broad support for change, the Communist party relinquished its power. By the end of the year, the Czech single party state had collapsed – it was called the “velvet revolution.”

All of those revolutions were peaceful. The one exception was in Romania, where the government was controlled by a dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu. He was not so tied to the Soviet Union and Gorbachev's reform minded position. On December 17, 1989, civil protests in one town were met by violence, when Ceausescu ordered the military to open fire on the protesters, causing many deaths and injuries. That resulted in even more spontaneous protests across the country. When the rank and file military switched sides and supported the protesters, Ceausescu and his wife attempted to flee the country. However, they were apprehended, and in an example of “swift justice” were tried and convicted of economic sabotage and genocide and executed on Christmas Day, 1989.

So, while the “Fall of the Wall” is certainly a reason to celebrate, it was just one of many revolutions that took place in 1989. In the thirty years since, the countries of Eastern Europe have generally prospered under democracy with increased living standards and certainly more freedoms. However, there are growing pains and some look back on those days with some fondness. There is still a lot of work to be done.


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