Saturday 9th November marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9th November 1989.
The German capital is hosting a weeklong arts and music festival to celebrate and commemorate the event that marked a pivotal moment in world history.
Walking around Berlin today, you can still see sections of the wall that remain standing as a sombre reminder of a recent past. While parts have been reappropriated as a canvas for public art, poignant memories of an era of division remain tangible within its brickwork.
The Mauerfall (fall of the Berlin wall) was not only the first critical step towards German reunification, but also a physical symbol for the collapse of Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain that cut an ideological divide across Europe during the Cold War.
A boundary that stood for 28 years, the wall was ostensibly erected by the German Democratic Republic (DDR) to protect East Germany from fascist enemies. In reality, it was a measure to prevent its own citizens from leaving, after around 3.5 million people fled from East to West Germany between 1945 and 1961.
The 3.6-metre high barrier was composed of one inner wall, one outer wall, and a so-called “death strip” up to 160 yards wide that was monitored by guard dogs and armed soldiers. Crossing was almost unthinkable.
The beginning of the end
By the end of the 1980s, public uprisings and demonstrations against Communist rule were spreading rapidly throughout the Eastern bloc. But even as cracks began to emerge in the Soviet sphere of influence, the Berlin Wall appeared to be a permanent fixture to those living on both sides of its shadow.
In the end, the fall came as something of an accident.
On 6th November 1989, the East German Interior Ministry published a draft of new travel regulations that would loosen travel restrictions in order to appease East Berlin citizens who demanded freedom of movement to the west.
The spokesperson for the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany, Günter Schabowski, announced the new regulations at a press conference the following evening, but was not fully briefed regarding details of its implementation.
When a journalist asked when the new regulations would take hold, Schabowski hesitated before responding: “As far as I know, it takes effect immediately, without delay.”
His comment sparked an immediate response from the world’s media and the people of East Berlin, who flocked to the wall and vastly outnumbered guards who were similarly unsure of how to react.
At 10:45pm, the commander of the Bornholmer Straße border crossing guard Harald Jäger opened the gate and around 20,000 people flooded through that night alone.
Over the following days and weeks, the wall was demolished brick by brick as East and West Berliners were reunited.
Less than a year later, all border controls were stopped and the DDR was dissolved. The road to the official reunification of the German state had been laid.
30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall: is Germany unified?
This year’s annual government report on the status of German unity labelled the process of reunification as “an impressive success story,” with per capita GDP in the former East Germany growing from 43% of that in West Germany in 1990 to 75% in 2018.
But the report also revealed that 57% of East German citizens still perceive themselves as second-class citizens.
Lingering dissatisfaction and sentiments of political alienation, exacerbated by issues of unemployment and poverty, have also seen a rise in support across East German regions for the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in East Germany herself, said: “Official German reunification is complete. But the unity of the Germans, their unity was not fully complete on October 3rd 1990, and that is still the case today.
“German unity is not a state, completed and finished, but a perpetual process.”
Built to divide
While the ramifications of the Cold War era continue to teach important lessons, walls continue to divide communities across the world.
On the 20th anniversary of the Mauerfall in 2009, a group of Palestinians held a demonstration and pulled down parts of the Israeli West Bank barrier, which has been protested as a means by which to annex Palestinian land under the guise of security.
More recently, President Trump announced a further $300 million will be spent on “quality assurance” after his Mexican border wall proved easily breached.
As we remember the fall of the Berlin Wall today, we should not look to it as a purely historical anecdote, but as a source of learning. The legacy of the Berlin Wall is as a reminder of what was and what should never be again.