The Fall of the Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall was erected in 1961 along the border of the Soviet occupied sector of the city of Berlin, separating West Berlin from East Berlin. The Eastern Bloc claimed that the wall was erected to protect its population from fascist elements conspiring to prevent the “will of the people” in building a socialist state in East Germany. In practice, the Wall served to prevent emigration and defection from the communist Eastern Bloc.

Over the years, the Berlin Wall was modified several times:

  1. Barbed wire fence (1961)
  2. Improved barbed wire fence (1962-1965)
  3. Concrete wall (1965-1975)
  4. Border Wall 75 (1975-1989)

The fourth-generation barrier included guard towers placed along large concrete walls, with barbed wire and a “death strip” that contained anti-vehicle trenches and other defenses. The East German government issued shooting orders to the border guards. The number of people who died trying to cross the wall is estimated to be well above 200. The last person to be shot and killed while trying to cross the border was Chris Gueffroy on February 6, 1989.

During the years of the Wall, around 5,000 East Germans defected to West Berlin. These people successfully crossed the border by a variety of methods: digging long tunnels under the wall, escaping through the sewer system, waiting for favorable winds and taking a hot air balloon, sliding along aerial wires, flying ultralights and airplanes. One East German soldier who became disillusioned with the communist regime stole a tank one night and drove it, at full speed, right through the wall.

In a speech at the Brandenburg Gate commemorating the 750th anniversary of Berlin on June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan challenged the Soviets to “tear down” the wall that divided the city. Reagan’s 1987 speech came at a time when Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was encouraging reform in the Eastern bloc. Reagan said that dismantling the Berlin Wall would be a powerful gesture for peace.

The longtime leader of East Germany, Erich Honecker, had predicted in January of 1989 that the wall would stand for 50 or 100 more years “if the conditions that had caused its construction did not change.” In September 1989, protest demonstrations broke out all over East Germany, with people chanting “Wir wollen raus!” (“We want out!”). On October 18 of that year Honecker resigned.

The protest demonstrations peaked in early November, when half a million people rallied in East Berlin’s large public square. Finally the East German authorities issued a decree for the wall to be opened, allowing people to travel freely into West Berlin. In some cases, families that had been separated for decades were finally reunited.

The date on which the Wall fell is considered to have been November 9, 1989, but the Wall in its entirety was not torn down immediately. Starting that evening and in the days and weeks that followed, people came to the wall with sledgehammers, hammers and chisels to chip off souvenirs, demolishing lengthy parts of it in the process and creating several unofficial border crossings.

The wall was torn down altogether by the end of 1990 upon the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and in Soviet Russia itself, marking the end of the Cold War era. Many segments of the wall have been given to various museums, universities, government buildings, and public spaces around the world, including over 40 in the United States.

For info and memorials related to Reagan’s famous “Tear Down This Wall” speech, go to:

Berliner Mauer: 1961-1989 – The Berlin Wall has long since disappeared from reunified Berlin. Memories of the Wall, however, are still very much alive. These memorial pages are intended as a guide to exploring the former course of the Wall.

Berlin Wall Online – Chronicle of the Berlin Wall history includes an archive of photographs and texts.

Newseum: The Berlin Wall – Interactive exhibit on news coverage of the Berlin Wall from its construction in 1961 to its destruction in 1989.

See if there are any segments of the Berlin Wall near you:

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