On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall opened for free movement for the first time since it was erected in 1961.
Many factors went into the opening of the wall. Upon his election in 1980, President Ronald Reagan reengaged the Soviet Union militarily through a major rebuilding of the American military. His administration also pushed the Soviets and other communist governments in Eastern and Central Europe to abide by their human rights commitments as outlined in the Helsinki Accords of 1977. And finally, Mikhail Gorbachev, the head of the Soviet Union, began a program of gradual liberation of the economy, and of individual liberty which gave people the confidence to begin expressing their frustration with communism openly. Through movements like Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, led by Vaclav Havel, the Solidarity movement led by Lech Walesa, in Poland, and the East German churches, people began demanding their freedoms.
These movements came to a head in October and November of 1989. Suddenly, on November 9, rumors began spreading that the border crossings in Berlin were going to open. Crowds showed up. They pushed through. And no one stopped them. A trickle became a flood, and history was changed.
The revolutions of 1989 in Europe were remarkable for what didn’t happen. Apart from a few people in Romania, virtually no one lost their life. By contrast, a similar uprising in China’s Tiananmen Square earlier in the year was put down with tanks and gunfire and later executions. But in Europe, all was peaceful. In Czechoslovakia, they even called in the Velvet Revolution.
- Students today were not alive when the Berlin Wall fell. What does the event mean to you?
- Many people succeeded in escaping over, around, and under the wall in tunnels, homebuilt ultralight planes, and even submarines. If you were trapped, and not allowed to travel, can you imagine risking your life to try to escape?
- Why do you think the East German government felt compelled to build a wall to keep its people in?
- How has American history been changed by the fall of communism?
- Why do you think President Reagan cared about the freedom of East Germans?
15, Dec. 2009, Berlin Wall [Digital image]. Retrieved from <history.com/topics/cold-war/berlin-wall >.