Sunday, November 9th, marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a barrier that had divided the city of Berlin and the country in two - democratic West Germany and communist-controlled East Germany. When the barrier was finally removed on November 9th, 1989, the decision was met with much joy and enthusiasm with more than two million East Berliners crossing over to the West, that weekend.
While that may appear to be a lot of hoopla over the demolishment of what was essentially a concrete wall, it is important to remember that in addition to physically separating East and West Berlin and its residents, the 11-13 feet high wall that stretched 28-miles along the border and another 96 miles encircling the city of West Berlin, was also an important symbol of the Cold War and East/West relationships.
The genesis of the Berlin Wall can be traced all the way back to 1945. During the final days of World War II, the Allies' Yalta Conference divided Germany into four zones of occupation. Britain, France and United States were allocated the western and southern portions, while the Soviet Union, occupied the eastern side. Berlin, which stood in the midst, was also divided into similar zones. In 1949, the western and southern zones became known as West Germany and declared a democracy, while the Soviet occupied territory, called The German Democratic Republic or East Germany, adopted a communist regime.
Not surprisingly, many East German residents were not happy living under the totalitarian rule and over two million defected to West Berlin, between 1949-1961. In order to stop the exodus, on August 13th, 1961, East Germany began to build an “Antifascistischer Schutzwall”, a barbed wire border, which served as the beginning of the Berlin Wall. While it was purportedly built to keep the Western “fascists” – people with extreme nationalist fervor who support a despotic ruler, at bay, the barrier's real purpose was to stop people from escaping to the economically thriving West Germany.
Over the years, the barbed wire was replaced by a heavily fortified barrier of two concrete walls with a 160-yards wide “death strip” between that held watch towers, guard dogs, flood lights and trip-wire machine guns. The formidable Berlin Wall proved to be extremely successful in stopping people from getting across. Of the estimated 100,000 residents that tried their luck using ingenious methods ranging from hot-air balloons to underground tunnels, only 5,000 succeeded.
Fortunately as years passed, the tensions between the Western democratic nations and the Soviet Union began to ease. This helped the officials of the segregated Germany to reconsider the rationality of keeping the nation divided by a arbitrary wall. The first step towards a united Germany was taken in September 1971, with an agreement that allowed goods to be sent back and forth from West to East Berlin. A year later, the two sides signed a treaty to resume diplomatic relations and recognize each other's sovereignty.
Though the relationship between East and West Germany continued to improve, the impetus to become a single country was not triggered until November 1, 1989 when East German residents staged a protest to demand free elections. Within a week, the newly appointed Communist party leader, Egon Krenx, announced sweeping political and economic reforms. On November 9th, came the much awaited declaration that East German residents were free to cross the wall into the Western part of the country. Jubilant residents from both sides, began to take down the much hated-barrier piece by piece, and the nation was united once again.
The 25th anniversary of this momentous day was celebrated with as much joy, with thousands of visitors from all over the world flying in to mark the occasion. Some walked around the path where the barrier once stood, reading the markers that told its stories, and placing flowers in the cracks of the wall's remnants, while others lit candles in memory of those that had perished trying to get across.
Eight thousand white helium balloons perched on 3.6-meter (11.8 feet) poles, to mimic the height of the former barrier were lined up tracing its path and released one at a time, to symbolize its 1989 destruction. At the end of the day, the crowd gathered around the famous Brandenburg Gate, through which many had entered West Berlin following the announcement of the border opening, to watch the amazing fireworks display.
The celebration also evoked calls for the destruction of similar barriers elsewhere in the world. From North Korea’s Demilitarized Zone to the US-Mexico border, protesters asked to bring down walls that hinder the migration of people to lands of greater opportunity. While it may take time, the commemoration of the fall of the Berlin Wall is a reminder that such a feat is possible.
Resources: cnn.com, bbc.co.uk, wikipedia.org