ON TODAY'S DATE in 1989
Although I have always been a huge fan of Ronald Reagan, and I don’t want to take anything away from his legacy, the US puts far more weight on his 1987 “Tear Down This Wall” speech than the Germans do. In fact it was two years after the famous Reagan speech when the wall finally came down, however, many would argue that his speech gave German protesters the US nod they needed to ultimately make a difference, and the impact of the protesters in Germany over the Berlin Wall has been said to have sparked the protest culture of today.
Weird note regarding the date celebrated: While Germany celebrates their “Reunification” on October 3rd, the date “the wall came down” is actually November 9th, 1989. Knowing it would become an annual national holiday, and the date November 9th had some bad vibes in previous German history, they decided to make October 3rd of the following year the official reunification date.
The Cold War officially began to thaw when the head of East Germany’s Communist Party, announced that citizens could now cross into West Germany freely. That night, thousands of East and West Germans headed to the Berlin Wall to celebrate, many armed with hammers, chisels and other tools. Over the next few weeks, the wall would be nearly completely dismantled.
Why the Wall was Built
The wall’s origins traced back to the years after World War II, when the Soviet Union and its Western allies carved Germany into two zones of influence that would become two separate countries, respectively: the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). Located deep within Soviet-controlled East Germany, the capital city of Berlin was also split in two. Over the next decade or so, some 2.5 million East Germans—including many skilled workers, intellectuals and professionals—used the capital as the primary route to flee the country, especially after the border between East and West Germany was officially sealed in 1952.
Seeking to stop this mass exodus, the East German government closed off passage between the two Berlins during the night of August 12, 1961. What began as a barbed wire fence, policed by armed guards, was soon fortified with concrete and guard towers, completely encircling West Berlin and separating Berliners on both sides from their families, jobs and the lives they had known before.
Many Berlin residents on that first morning found themselves suddenly cut off from friends or family members in the other half of the city. Led by their mayor, Willi Brandt, West Berliners demonstrated against the wall, as Brandt criticized Western democracies, particularly the United States, for failing to take a stand against it. President John F. Kennedy had earlier said publicly that the United States could only really help West Berliners and West Germans, and that any kind of action on behalf of East Germans would only result in failure.
The Berlin Wall was one of the most powerful and iconic symbols of the Cold War. In June 1963,
Kennedy gave his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” (“I am a Berliner”) speech in front of the Wall, celebrating the city as a symbol of freedom and democracy in its resistance to tyranny and oppression. The height of the Wall was raised to 10 feet in 1970 in an effort to stop escape attempts, which at that time came almost daily. From 1961 to 1989, a total of 5,000 East Germans escaped; many more tried and failed. High profile shootings of some would-be defectors only intensified the Western world’s hatred of the Wall.
Finally, in the late 1980s, East Germany, fueled by the decline of the Soviet Union, began to implement a number of liberal reforms. On November 9, 1989, masses of East and West Germans alike gathered at the Berlin Wall and began to climb over and dismantle it. As this symbol of Cold War repression was destroyed, East and West Germany became one nation again.
The Myth That Reagan Ended the Cold War with a Single Speech
Reagan’s speech received relatively little media coverage, and few accolades, at the time.
On June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan stood just 100 yards away from the concrete barrier dividing East and West Berlin and uttered some of the most unforgettable words of his presidency: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
No one watched Reagan’s “Tear Down this Wall” speech. Despite its later fame, Reagan’s speech received relatively little media coverage, and few accolades, at the time. Western pundits viewed it as misguided idealism on Reagan’s part, while the Soviet news agency Tass called it “openly provocative” and “war-mongering.” And Gorbachev himself told an American audience years later: “We really were not impressed. We knew that Mr. Reagan’s original profession was actor.”
In the end, Gorbachev’s reforms, and the resulting protest movements that put pressure on the East German government to open barriers to the West, ultimately brought the wall down, not Reagan’s words. As Douglas Brinkley, professor of history at Rice University, told CBS News in 2012, Reagan’s speech is “seen as a turning point in the Cold War” because it “bolstered the morale of the pro-democracy movement in East Germany.” Yet the greatest impact of the speech may have been the role it played in the creation of Reagan’s enduring legacy as president, and in solidifying his legendary status among his supporters as the “great communicator.”
Citation Information: History.com Editors
The More Likely Reason the Wall Came Down:
The Berlin Wall was in effect breached in the summer of 1989 when a reformist Hungarian government began allowing East Germans to escape to the West through Hungary’s newly opened border with Austria. By the fall, thousands of East Germans had followed this route, while thousands of others sought asylum in the West German embassies in Prague and Warsaw, demanding that they be allowed to emigrate to West Germany. At the end of September, Genscher, still West Germany’s foreign minister, arranged for their passage to West Germany, but another wave of refugees from East Germany soon took their place. Mass demonstrations in the streets of Leipzig and other East German cities defied the authorities and demanded reforms.
In an effort to halt the deterioration of its position, the SED Politburo deposed Honecker in mid-October and replaced him with another hardline communist, Egon Krenz. Under Krenz the Politburo sought to eliminate the embarrassment occasioned by the flow of refugees to the West through Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. On the evening of November 9, Günter Schabowski, a communist functionary, mistakenly announced at a televised news conference that the government would allow East Germans unlimited passage to West Germany, effective “immediately.”
While the government had in fact meant to require East Germans to apply for exit visas during normal working hours, this was widely interpreted as a decision to open the Berlin Wall that evening, so crowds gathered and demanded to pass into West Berlin. Unprepared, the border guards let them go. In a night of revelry tens of thousands of East Germans poured through the crossing points in the wall and celebrated their new freedom with rejoicing West Berliners.
Thousands of celebrants climb atop the Berlin Wall in front of Brandenburg Gate on the night of November 9th, 1989. Crowds had flocked to the border crossings after a botched news announcement spread rapidly that the East German Government would start granting exit visas to anyone who wanted to go to the West. (Credit: Robert Wallis/Corbis via Getty Images)
Robert Wallis/Corbis/Getty Images