When the world split into East and West after the Second World War, Berlin became an anomaly. Split into four sectors, it was run jointly by the USSR and the Western powers. Crossing between the various zones was easy, and once in a Western zone, East Berliners were able to emigrate unhindered. And until 1961, over three and a half million had done just that.
Eventually, as tensions between West and East increased, the East German regime decided to act. So, virtually overnight on 13 August 1961, it threw up the “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart”, AKA the Berlin Wall. Officially, the wall was built to protect the pure-minded citizens of the East from being corrupted by the lies and decadence of the West. In reality, it served to imprison them.
By the time it was complete, two million tonnes of concrete had been poured and 700,000 tonnes of steel used in its construction. Armed guards, tripwires, anti-tank traps and vicious guard dogs made sure nobody could approach. But even so, over the lifetime of the Wall, 5,000 people tried to escape – up to 200 are believed to have died in their attempts.
It became a potent symbol of the Cold War, a backdrop for spy thrillers and presidential grandstanding. Many people thought it would become a permanent feature.
But towards the end of the 1980s, cracks began to appear in the Communist bloc. Political change was under way in Poland. And in Hungary, the ‘Pan European Picnic’ saw thousands cross the border into Austria.
Emboldened by these events, East Germans began protesting. And on this day in 1989, the East German government announced it was to allow its citizens to cross the border. Thousands of them streamed over on foot and in their Trabants. West Germans flocked to the wall to greet them, and began to rip sections down.
The official demolition didn’t get under way until the following summer, and it wasn’t until 1992 that it had been completely dismantled.
After days of mass protest, the East German government announced on 9 November 1989 that all East German citizens could visit West Germany and West Berlin.