Eras and Their Highlights

The Cold War

When was the Berlin Wall dismantled?

The barrier wall surrounding West Berlin began coming down in November 1989, as a wave of democratization swept Europe.

The concrete, electrically fortified wall was first built in 1961 as a barbed wire and cinder block structure. Communist East German leader Walter Ulbricht (1893–1973) convinced Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971) that the wall was needed to prevent people from fleeing communist Eastern Europe. (Before the wall was erected, an estimated 2.5 million people had fled to the free world through West Berlin; after its completion, perhaps 5,000 managed to escape. Hundreds died trying.) When the wall was complete, it had an average height of 12 feet and ran more than 100 miles, along which there were posts where armed East German guards stood sentinel, preventing their countrymen from escaping to the West. The wall completely surrounded West Berlin and divided the German capital between East and West, communism and the free world.

The wall was a symbol of communism’s oppression and of the Cold War. On June 26, 1963, President John F. Kennedy delivered his memorable “I am a Berliner” speech in its shadows, saying, “There are some who say communism is the wave of the future … Let them come to Berlin.” He went on to say that the wall was “a vivid demonstration of the failure of the communist system,” and that though democracy is not perfect, democratic nations had “never had to put up a wall to keep our people in.” On June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan (1911–2004) addressed West Berliners at the wall’s Brandenburg Gate; his now-famous speech was audible on the East Berlin side of the wall as well. There, Reagan issued a challenge to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (1931-), saying “if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization … [c]ome here to this wall … Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

East Germany’s communist government was finally toppled in October 1989. On November 9 restrictions between the two Berlins were lifted, and the wall was opened. The resulting celebration brought the wall down, with gleeful Berliners chipping away at the barrier; it was gradually dismantled. By 2005 only a few sections of the wall and some watch towers still existed—the capital no longer divided, the country a unified, democratic Germany.


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