The End of the Berlin Wall, No Simple Barrier, Led to Change and Tumult

The Cold War divided the world from the end of World War II until 1989, when the Soviet Union crumbled and the Berlin Wall fell, reuniting Germany’s democratic and communist halves.

Thirty years ago this weekend, Western news broadcasts breathlessly reported the lifting of restrictions on travel between East and West Berlin, followed by film footage of ordinary citizens taking sledgehammers and smaller mallets to chip away the concrete barrier between the Soviet-controlled East and the largely democratic West.

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Craig Shirley, a biographer of U.S. President Ronald Reagan and an instructor at the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, argues that the fall of the Berlin Wall should be recognized as one of the greatest events in the 20th century, and credits Reagan, working with others, with bringing down the Soviet Union.

Manuela Achilles, a UVA professor of German and history, said the end of the Cold War and the Berlin Wall are complicated for Germany, generating great happiness and high hopes, but also new divisions and as-yet-unfulfilled promises.

A West German girl speaks with an East German guard through an opening in the Berlin Wall in December 1989.
A West German girl speaks with an East German guard through an opening in the Berlin Wall in December 1989. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. National Archives)

Achilles was nearby when protesters started bringing the wall down.

“I was in Berlin at the time, and only learned about it the next day,” she said. “I went to some areas where the wall was, and I remember these places as extremely crowded. The people were joyful and excited, but I was also afraid because there were so many people everywhere. That was quite something.

“I remember, too, that later on everyone was chiseling away at the wall. Some people were putting their hand through holes. I never did that. I was full of anxiety over it; I would not put my hand through that wall. Who knows what is on the other side?”

‘Ich bin ein Berliner’

The dominant political narrative of the second half of the 20th century, the Cold War between the capitalist West and the communist Soviet Union defined international relations and influenced domestic politics. The American-led West and the Soviet-led East battled proxy wars, competed for the allegiance of “non-aligned” nations and vied for the hearts and minds of the other side.

When the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, the government of the German Democratic Republic, commonly known as East Germany, dubbed it the “Anti-Fascist Protection Wall.” 

“The wall, according to the GDR ideology, was not about keeping the people in. It was about keeping allegedly bad forces, such as capitalism and aggressive imperialism, out,” Achilles said. “According to the state official view of the situation, the wall was to protect the creation of a new communist society that was to make everything better for everybody. The wall was built also to prevent interference from the West, to isolate the people from the consumerist influence of West Germany.”

Shirley said post-war U.S. presidents did a careful dance with the Soviet Union, as the policy toward it evolved from President Harry S. Truman’s “containment” strategy to a more wary “coexistence.”

President Reagan gave a speech at the Brandenburg Gate of the Berlin Wall on June 12, 1987, imploring Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.”
President Reagan gave a speech at the Brandenburg Gate of the Berlin Wall on June 12, 1987, imploring Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” (Wikimedia Commons)

“Reagan is the first who says, ‘We’re not going to coexist with the Soviet Union, we’re going to defeat the Soviet Union,’” said Shirley, whose recent books include “Last Act: The Final Years and Emerging Legacy of Ronald Reagan.”

“He hastened the victory over the Soviet Union by 20 years, because he did several things that previous presidents hadn’t done. He used the bully pulpit for eight years of railing against Soviet expansionism and Soviet communism.”

Shirley described Reagan and President John F. Kennedy as kindred spirits in opposing communism, two presidents whose terms bookmarked the Berlin Wall, built during Kennedy’s truncated term and collapsing just after Reagan’s two terms. In 1963, Kennedy traveled to West Berlin and addressed its citizens in what is considered a landmark speech against communism, declaring in German, “Ich bin ein Berliner” – “I am a Berliner.”

“Kennedy’s ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech scared the Soviets,” Shirley said.

Upon entering office in 1981, Reagan had three goals: restoring American morale, restarting the economy and defeating the Soviet Union, Shirley said. To do so, he used the economy, the bully pulpit and diplomacy. Reagan also had allies in the form of conservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II, a Pole (born Karol Józef Wojtyła) who understood the perils of communism firsthand.

“For one priceless moment, the three of the four most important pulpits on the world stage were dedicated to the defeat of the Soviet Union, and they would do something about it,” Shirley said.

Left, President John F. Kennedy on an elevated platform at Checkpoint Charlie along the Berlin Wall in June 1963. At right, former President Ronald Reagan is presented an obsolete checkpoint sign at Tempelhof Airport in September 1990.
Left, President John F. Kennedy on an elevated platform at Checkpoint Charlie along the Berlin Wall in June 1963. At right, former President Ronald Reagan is presented an obsolete checkpoint sign at Tempelhof Airport in September 1990. (Wikimedia Commons)

Reagan repeatedly talked about freedom, a message that caught on behind the Iron Curtain, encouraging people such as playwright Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia. Pope John Paul II visited his homeland and gave a sense of hope that inspired people such as Lech Wałęsa, a union organizer in a Gdansk shipyard, to oust the Soviets. Walesa later became the first president of a newly democratic Poland. 

And while Reagan enjoyed eight years in office, the Soviet hierarchy was going through a succession of leaders. When Reagan was elected, Leonid Brezhnev was the Soviet leader, followed in quick succession by former KGB boss Yuri Andropov, the hapless Konstantin Chernenko and then Mikhail Gorbachev. The instability of leadership, combined with misadventures abroad, such as the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan, and a destabilized economy weakened the Soviet grip on the captive nations of Eastern Europe. 

Inside East Germany

With unrest growing in the Eastern European countries, in the form of the pro-Western Solidarity movement in Poland and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, the GDR was dealing with protests and demonstrations. East Germans were able to pick up West German television and radio signals. Some of the other Soviet Bloc countries had eased travel restrictions to the West, and East Germans were able to enter the West through these countries.

Craig Shirley is a biographer of Ronald Reagan and an instructor at UVA’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. Manuela Achilles is a UVA professor of German and history.
Craig Shirley is a biographer of Ronald Reagan and an instructor at UVA’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. Manuela Achilles is a UVA professor of German and history. (Photos by Dan Addison, University Communications)

In 1989, the GDR was officially celebrating its 40th anniversary, while simultaneously being abandoned by the Soviet Union.

“Just before the wall fell, the GDR was celebrating this anniversary – maybe not the people, but the government certainly did. Gorbachev was invited to these celebrations. The peaceful revolution was already under way; people were demonstrating and people were leaving the country via other countries that had opened their borders to the West already,” said Achilles, who teaches modern German history and is working on a book about Weimar democracy.

“The East German government was looking for support from Gorbachev for keeping the borders intact and the populations under control,” she said. “Gorbachev rejected this. He referred East German affairs to the East German government, which then had to make a decision as to whether to use violence to suppress what we now know as the Wende [turn or change] in East Germany, or whether to negotiate some kind of peaceful resolution.”

There was a question of how hard a line the GDR government would take in opposing the pending changes.

“I am not sure violence was an option for them at that point, because they were already isolated,” Achilles said. “The communist government elites didn’t have a mandate from their own population. … They rejected change in the name of a political system that suppressed all criticism and spied on the people to keep them under control.”

Confusion added to uncertainty, leading to crowds gathering at the wall.

“A widely reported accidental misrepresentation of new travel regulations by Günter Schabowski, a Socialist Unity Party official, greatly contributed to bringing East German people to the wall in the expectation that they could travel freely from East Berlin to West Berlin,” Achilles said.

“And this pressure was the last push to open the borders. … It is an irony of history. Sometimes small errors can have these huge effects. It was quite incredible, something totally unexpected that happened in one day.”

A crowd celebrates atop the Berlin Wall following the official opening of the Brandenburg Gate in 1989.
A crowd celebrates atop the Berlin Wall following the official opening of the Brandenburg Gate in 1989. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. National Archives)

After the Fall

The Berlin Wall was in place for 28 years, long enough to develop a feel of permanence.

“One of my history professors told me that the day before the wall fell, he had given a lecture and had said, ‘The wall is never going to come down in my lifetime.’ And two days later, people were dancing,” Achilles said. “I didn’t expect it either, but I was a very young person at the time. People were expecting that something would happen, but nobody expected that the wall could come down like this.”

And this expectation of permanence existed among some in the in the U.S.

“The neocons wanted the status quo,” Shirley said of some Republican foreign policy bureaucrats in the U.S. government. “They want big defense budgets. They want big defense contracts. They want big consulting contracts. They want things to stay as they are, and they say the Berlin Wall will be there for a thousand years. It keeps them relevant. If you change the other side, they are no longer relevant.”

In Germany, Achilles said there was initially a sense of joy and optimism, but reuniting East and West Germany brought a myriad of social and economic problems. When the West German deutsche mark became the common currency and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl implemented a 1:1 conversion rate for wages, prices and basic savings, it destabilized the East German economy.

“Politically, the conversion rate made sense. But economically, it was a disaster for many people in East Germany,” Achilles said. “Many industries were not competitive and broke down, and people lost their jobs. And your job wasn’t just about the money; it was about your place in society.”

Graffiti on the west side of the Berlin Wall depicts the transition toward a unified Berlin in 1989.
Graffiti on the west side of the Berlin Wall depicts the transition toward a unified Berlin in 1989. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. National Archives)

The economic conditions led to other problems, some of which still persist.

The division of Germany, coupled with the wartime depletion of the population, had created a labor shortage in West Germany at a time when the country was rebuilding and undergoing an economic resurgence. To solve this, West Germany brought in so called “guest workers” from around Europe and from Turkey, many of whom stayed and built lives there.

After reunification, “some East Germans raised questions about guest workers when they lost their jobs. In their minds, they weren’t competing with West German workers, they were competing, in their minds, for the jobs of the migrants,” Achilles said.

Achilles said guest workers and other immigrants experienced discrimination, of different types, in East and West Germany. Some of this discontent has also been directed at asylum-seekers and immigrants who have come to Germany in more recent years, leading to “hostile attacks on migrant communities,” she said.

European leaders at the time were wary of a reunited Germany and what tensions this might create, given the history of the 20th century, Achilles said. But she said Germany has worked on defining how it views itself.

“What is it that binds people of different backgrounds together and what sort of nationalism should it be?” Achilles said. “Germany is having this discussion now. For many West Germans, the answer is constitutional patriotism. They don’t like to talk about nationalism, or to use national flags and this kind of symbolism. The constitution and the values it defines are what bind the nation together, and this mechanism is open enough to bring in people with different kinds of heritages. As long as they are attached to the democratic constitution, people with different heritages and backgrounds can become Germans in this way.”

Geopolitical Legacy

The end of the Cold War and the reunification of Germany has had far-reaching effects on the world.

“The fall of the Berlin Wall is not just about Germany; it has changed the European Union,” Achilles said. “When the Soviet Union disintegrated, the East European countries … were integrated in the following years, this changed Europe tremendously. We see now that the new East European member states have a somewhat different agenda than the older members. ... It has made the idea of a progressive, further unification of Europe very complicated.”

Shirley views the fall of the wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union as one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century.

“It wasn’t the ending of the Cold War – it was the victory of the Cold War,” Shirley said. “Gorbachev gave up. The Soviets had gained ground through each U.S. president from 1917 up until 1980. They gained no ground against Ronald Reagan from 1980 forward. In fact, they start losing ground.”

President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in the East Room of the White House in 1987.
President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in the East Room of the White House in 1987. (Wikimedia Commons)

Shirley said Reagan did not receive the credit he deserved for defeating the Soviet Union.

“There are a lot of historians in the establishment who will tell you Gorbachev and Reagan did it together, and Gorbachev got the Nobel Prize for having the wisdom to surrender,” Shirley said. “Reagan puts the neck of Soviet Communism under his cowboy heel, applies pressure and snaps it. Gorbachev was dragged kicking and screaming. But Gorbachev, in the end, pays tribute to Reagan, who vanquished him and his ideology. After the end of the Cold War and the dust has settled, Gorbachev says that a historic shift has occurred in the Soviet Union “away from totalitarianism towards freedom and democracy.”

 Shirley and Achilles look at the 30th anniversary differently.

“This should be a national holiday,” Shirley said. “This 30th anniversary should be an American national holiday. I am surprised that not one politician has suggested it. It should be an American holiday because we brought it about. Every American president did something to hasten it.”

Achilles has a different view. “One of the things we want to avoid is a certain triumphalism, because when you look back now, I think many things have not developed as expected,” she said. “There was a lot of joy, high expectations and great hopes in 1989, especially also in East Germany. But the transformation that followed was in some areas quite unexpected.  It caused suffering and also a sense of loss in East Germany, where many people lost their jobs and social standing after the fall of the wall.

Following Germany’s reunification, a couple reads grave markers of East Germans who died in an effort to escape over the Berlin Wall to the West.
Following Germany’s reunification, a couple looks at a memorial to East Germans who died in an effort to escape over the Berlin Wall to the West. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. National Archives)

“It is really important that we give credit to the East German people who put their lives at stake for freedom and democracy, who were in the streets; who didn’t know whether heavy police forces or even tanks would be coming,” she said. “First and foremost, we should remember the people who were holding up their posters saying, ‘We don’t want violence, we want change,’ to the world looking on.”

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