Ingram Blog

When the Wall Came Tumbling Down: 30th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall

By Laura Barkema, MLIS, Collection Development Librarian
On November 9, 1989, in Germany, a monumental shift in world politics occurred by the bringing down of not only a physical barrier, but a division among families, friends, and humanity. Thirty years ago, citizens from both East and West Germany worked together to tear down that physical barrier, the Berlin Wall. This act came to signify the beginning of the end of communism’s hold over the eastern half of Europe. As we celebrate the anniversary of this pivotal day, we’ll walk through the history of the Iron Curtain and the division between East and West Germany during the latter half of the 20thcentury.

Following the end of World War II, Germany was divided into four pieces, one for each of the main Allied powers: The United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. Berlin was also separated into four sections. With the Soviet Union refusing to aid in making a post-war Germany self-sufficient, and wanting to further exert its control, the country was split into West Germany (The Federal Republic of Germany) and East Germany (The German Democratic Republic) when the GDR was formed in 1949. The GDR was considered a puppet state and effectively ruled by the USSR.

For the next decade, thousands of citizens from the GDR defected or attempted to defect to West Germany. In response, the GDR restricted many citizens from visiting West Germany, often for arbitrary reasons. In 1952, the first barrier was put into place between East and West—a barbed-wire fence along the inner German border, but not between East and West Berlin, causing a tremendous influx of East German citizens to flock to the capital to cross. By the beginning of the 1960s, more than three million East Germans had fled across the border. With the significant decrease in their population, the GDR’s economy suffered, and they were forced to erect a true physical barrier in Berlin that halted nearly all crossing of the border. In 1961, this concrete barrier was officially in place: The Berlin Wall. It didn’t come down for nearly 30 years.

There were nine official checkpoints in Berlin where border crossings could occur, the most famous being Checkpoint Charlie, but there was extremely limited movement from east to west. Many attempted to cross anyway, with tactics that included digging tunnels under the wall, flying a hot air balloon over the wall, or jumping out of higher floors of apartment buildings. As you can imagine, quite a few died in their attempt to cross the border, especially once the border guards were issued shooting orders. The estimated death toll varies but is typically between 130-200 deaths.

By 1989, things were changing in Eastern Europe, and revolutions were beginning. Poland’s and Hungary’s revolutions in the first part of the year provided the impetus for the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany. Spurred by the revolutions in the other countries, mass protests and demonstrations began in the GDR in October and continued into November, when eventually the government decided to open the border on November 9. Celebrations and tears on both sides of the wall were on display that night, which came to be known as the night the Berlin Wall fell. By mid-1990, all the former communist governments were overthrown, thus ending the decades-long Cold War.

To read in more detail on the Berlin Wall, coming out just days before the anniversary, Iain MacGregor’s Checkpoint Charlie: The Cold War, the Berlin Wall, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth is an excellent place to start. The paperback reprint of the well-reviewed Burning Down the Haus: Punk Rock, Revolution, and the Fall of the Berlin Wall by Tim Mohr gives a musical twist to a story from behind the Wall. Though not new, Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder, a work of investigative nonfiction about the lives of ordinary East German citizens as well as those charged with keeping them in line, is worth the read. For youngsters, a new title in the “What Was?” juvenile nonfiction series, What Was the Berlin Wall? in hardcover and paperback by Nico Medina, comes out in late September. Lastly, The Other Side of the Wall by Simon Schwartz is a nonfiction graphic novel for older elementary and middle school children published in 2015 and is an important backlist title to highlight.

Thirty years ago, the world was changed in one night. A concrete wall symbolizing the famed Iron Curtain and the force that was communism came tumbling down. Today, only a handful of countries in the world are communist states. Out of the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the domino effect that occurred in its wake came more than 20 new independent countries allowed to govern themselves. One of those is Germany (officially the Federal Republic of Germany), a land that was once divided, but is now reunified and stronger.