National Opinions

Tearing down misconceptions about the Berlin Wall

Germans celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9. 1989. The wall sought to prevent those in the Soviet-controlled East from leaving. Thousands escaped and hundreds were killed trying.
Germans celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9. 1989. The wall sought to prevent those in the Soviet-controlled East from leaving. Thousands escaped and hundreds were killed trying.

By Hope M. Harrison

November marks 25 years since the world changed with the fall of the Berlin Wall. The event is now weighted down, not just by its historical significance but by interpretation, memory and legend. Many recall the coverage of jubilant Berliners dancing on top of the wall at the Brandenburg Gate on that evening, but what really happened — and what it really meant — are less clear. Let's tear down some misconceptions about this relic of the Cold War:

The Berlin Wall was one wall.

In fact it was two walls, separated by up to 160 yards, and between them was a "death strip" with dogs, guard towers, floodlights, tripwires, anti-vehicle obstacles and armed guards with shoot-to-kill orders. This 96-mile border encircled democratic, capitalist West Berlin, separating it from communist East Berlin and the surrounding countryside. Another barrier, with more than 1 million mines, was erected along the 850-mile border between East and West Germany. All of this was to keep East Germans in, not to keep others out.

More than 5,000 people managed to escape: by hiding in secret compartments of cars driven by people from the West, by flying over the wall in hot air balloons, by traveling through a tunnel West Berliners dug under the wall, by swimming across canals or rivers in Berlin, or by just making a run for it and being lucky. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people were killed trying to escape; others were caught and imprisoned.

Building the wall was a key Soviet move in the Cold War.

In 1952, the Soviets closed the East-West German border, but since all of Berlin was still under the control of the Four Powers — the United States, the U.S.S.R., Britain and France — they left the city alone. When West Berlin became an escape hatch for disgruntled East Germans, East German leader Walter Ulbricht wanted to close it down. The Soviets argued that sealing the border would make them look brutal and was technically impossible.

For eight years, East German leaders pushed their case with Kremlin leader Nikita Khrushchev and quietly began preparation. In the summer of 1961, when more than 1,000 East Germans were leaving every day via West Berlin, Khrushchev gave Ulbricht the go-ahead to seal the border.

President Ronald Reagan brought down the wall.

Many Americans believe Ronald Reagan's June 1987 speech in Berlin — "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" — led to the wall's fall in 1989. However, Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms in the Soviet bloc were far more important than Reagan's speech, as were the actions of the East Germans themselves.

When the wall started to fall on Nov. 9, it was a mistake. In the face of mass protests against the regime in 1989 and thousands of East Germans seeking refuge at West German embassies in Eastern Europe, East German leaders waived the old visa rules stating that citizens needed a pressing reason for travel, such as a funeral or wedding of a family member.

Yet the Communist Party official who announced these changes, Guenter Schabowski, missed most of the meeting about the travel procedures and went unprepared to a news conference. In response to reporters' questions about when the new law would take effect, he said, "Immediately, without delay."

Over the next several hours, thousands of East Berliners gathered at the checkpoints. The chief officer on duty at the Bornholmer Street checkpoint, Harald Jaeger, kept calling his superiors for guidance on how to handle the growing mass. Jaeger finally gave up around 11:30 p.m. and allowed people to pass through. Guards at other crossing points soon followed suit. The East German regime never fully regained control.

The wall fell on Nov. 9, 1989.

That night and in the weeks following, East German authorities removed pieces of the wall to create more crossing points between East and West, and countless "wall peckers" with hammers and chisels came to take home their own pieces. But most was left standing.

Official demolition of the wall began in the summer of 1990. It took almost two years to remove all of the border fortifications around Berlin, and four years to dismantle them along the former East-West German border. In Berlin, a little over a mile of the wall remains, spread out over several sites. But there are now more segments of the wall on public display in the United States than in Berlin.

Germans are enthusiastic in celebrating the fall.

Actually, Germans have been far more ambivalent about the wall than others. After all, Germans shot their own people to prevent them from leaving East Germany. And for many Germans, particularly from the East, unification proved more challenging than expected, with high levels of unemployment and accompanying resentment. Another factor complicating celebration is the fact that Nov. 9 is the date in 1938 when the Nazis attacked Jewish businesses, synagogues and homes on the Night of Broken Glass, or Kristallnacht.

It took 20 years for the fall of the wall to become a positive collective memory for Germans. Today. Germans will celebrate the 25th anniversary with 8,000 illuminated balloons forming a "border of light" along the wall's former path in central Berlin. Chancellor Angela Merkel, former Polish president Lech Walesa and Gorbachev will be present — along with thousands of Germans — as the balloons are released into the night sky to the strains of the Ode to Joy from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

Hope M. Harrison, an associate professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University, is the author of the forthcoming After the Berlin Wall: Memory and the Making of the New Germany, 1989 to the Present.

The Washington Post