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Reading up on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall

“This is a historic day. East Germany has announced that, starting immediately, its borders are open to everyone. The GDR is opening its borders … the gates in the Berlin Wall stand open.”
—Hans Joachim Friedrichs, reporting for the Tagesthemen, 9 November 1989

On 9 November 1989, at midnight, the East German government opened its borders to West Germany for the first time in almost thirty years: a city divided, families and friends separated for a generation, reunited again. For much of its existence, attempting to cross the wall meant almost certain death, and around 80 East Germans were killed in the attempt, shot down by the border guards as they tried to make their escape. With this announcement, however, the gates were thrown open.

The mood was euphoric. East Germans surged through the opened gates, shouting and cheering, to be met by the West Germans on the other side. That same night, they began dismantling the barrier which had kept them apart together, chipping away the bricks to keep as mementos. The fall of the Wall — an ugly scar across Berlin, adorned in barbed wire and patrolled by guards with machine guns — was a pivotal event in German history. A nation crippled by the most devastating conflict in living memory, and then carved up and separated from itself by the victors, could finally shrug off the long shadow cast by a dark history, and look toward a brighter, unified future.

The seismic consequences of the demolition were also felt well beyond the borders of Germany, and, along with the slow rusting and decay of the Iron Curtain, helped to spell the end for the USSR. In just two years after the wall’s demolition, the Soviet Union would cease to exist, thus ending the era we now call the Cold War. A period of around fifty years, marked by suspicion, space rockets, assassinations, espionage, show trials, paranoia, and propaganda, and which brought the world to the brink of destruction with the Cuban Missile Crisis, was finally at an end.

To mark the 25th anniversary of this momentous moment, we’ve compiled a selection of free chapters and articles across our online resources, which shed further light on the history behind the wall, what it meant to live in a city divided by it, and how the USSR declined and eventually fell.

‘Walled in: 13 August 1961’ in Behind the Berlin Wall: East Germany and the Frontiers of Power by Patrick Major

On Sunday 13 August 1961, the wall was erected. This chapter, drawing on first-hand accounts, examines the initial reactions to the wall. As quoted in the chapter, one source describes the atmosphere of the day the wall went up as if “East Berlin was dead. It was as if a bell‐jar had been placed over it and all the air sucked out. The same oppressiveness which hung over us, hung over all Berlin. There was no trace of big city life, of hustle and bustle. Like when a storm moves across the city. Or when the sky lowers and people ask if hail is on the way.”

‘Escape tunnels, death, and the commemoration of the GDR’s hero-victims’ in Death at the Berlin Wall by Pertti Ahonen

Whilst taking very little direct action against the wall, the West did offer covert assistance to groups of East Berlin activists trying to provide escape routes for those who wanted it. One of these groups was led by Rudolf Müller and his associates, who had dug a tunnel underneath the wall and were busy ferrying through escapees when a group of East German soldiers surprised them. Though they escaped unscathed, the confrontation left a twenty-one year-old soldier – Egon Schultz – dead. This chapter examines how Schultz and his death became idealised and politicised by the East German state, transforming him into a hero-victim of the ‘socialist frontier.’

Berlin Wall on 16 November 1989. Photo by Yann. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Berlin Wall on 16 November 1989. Photo by Yann. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

‘The final phase, 1980–90’ in The Cold War: A Very Short Introduction by Robert J. McMahon

In the early 1980s the USSR was struggling with a war in Afghanistan, economic problems, and changes of leadership. From the middle of the 1980s, Soviet policy changes under Gorbachev ended the arms race and eventually relinquished control of Eastern Europe, bringing about an end to the Cold War and the USSR. This chapter looks at these final years of the Cold War, and explores the impact of Reagan and Gorbachev.

‘Gorbachev and the Reversal of History’ in The Rise and Fall of Communism in Russia by Robert Daniels

One of the key factors in the demise of the USSR was the USSR itself – or, rather, the reforms of Gorbachev. With twin policies of ‘perestroika’ (literally ‘restructuring’) and ‘glasnost’ (a policy calling for increased transparency in the Soviet Union), Gorbachev began the slow process toward democratization, dismantling the totalitarian psychology that had marked previous Soviet regimes and paving the way for progressive reforms.

‘The Collapse of the East German State’ in Nonviolent Revolutions: Civil Resistance in the Late 20th Century by Sharon Erickson Nepstad

Gorbachev’s policies, coupled with Hungary opening its borders to tens of thousands of East Germans, left the state with a crisis on its hands. When it decided to close its Hungarian borders, many citizens took to the streets to protest in what quickly became a large movement. Troops were sent to forcibly dispel the protesters, but their use of non-violent tactics made it difficult to justify the use of force, leading many of the troops to defy orders and defect. As the momentum for the movement grew, the strength of the state declined, leading to the fall of the wall and the eventual dismantling of East Germany.

‘The End of the Cold War’ in The Oxford Handbook of the Cold War by Nicholas Guyatt

Guyatt examines different historical perspectives on what caused the end of the Cold War, as well as the psychological, strategic, and political effects of its aftermath. Was it the press statement made by Gorbachev’s spokesman after the fall of the Berlin Wall that the tensions, which spread “from Yalta to Malta,” were over that marked the War’s official end? Perhaps the end came with Gorbachev’s statement to the United Nations announcing the end of Soviet Union military force to subdue the satellite states of the Warsaw Pact in 1988. The article explores these catalysts, among others, to present a comprehensive look at the War’s end and its resulting feelings of anxiety, fear, and “triumphalism” that abounded in Western Europe.

‘After the Fall of the Wall: Living Through the Post-Socialist Transformation in East Germany’ in After the Fall of the Wall: Life Courses in the Transformation of East Germany, ed. Martin Diewald, Anne Goedicke, and Karl Ulrich Mayer

As the wall came down, Germans were faced with a new challenge: how to forge a new, modern Germany. Linking the ‘macro’ worlds of institutional change to the ‘micro’ worlds of the lives and individual histories of its citizens, this chapter paints a fascinating portrait of once socialist and totalitarian state transitioning into the democratic Federal Republic of Germany.

‘Making Room for November 9, 1989?: The Fall of the Berlin Wall in German Politics and Memory’ in Twenty Years After Communism by Michael Bernhard and Jan Kubik

The dismantling of the wall, which was both a symbolic and literal division between East and West, could have served as a potent symbol for a unified Germany and played an integral part in its foundation myth, yet this was not the case. Why was this? Charting the reasons behind this – including the pre-existing German fields of memory left by its dark past – the chapter explains why the fall of the wall is likely to remain a “muted, tempered memory” in German politics.

What books would you add to our Berlin Wall reading list?

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