On this day in 1989, East German officials opened the Berlin Wall, allowing travel from East to West Berlin. Within hours celebrating Germans, nicknamed Mauerspechte (wall woodpeckers), used all manner of tools to chip off souvenirs, demolishing lengthy parts of the wall in the process, opening several unofficial border crossings, and reveling in new-found freedoms and fantastic live television.
In 1961, to stem the growing tide of Cold War refugees attempting to leave East Berlin, the communist government of East Germany began construction of the Berlin Wall. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had become emboldened upon seeing US President John F. Kennedy’s youth and inexperience as weakness against Khrushchev’s bellicose aggression. At the 1961 Vienna summit, Kennedy made the error of admitting the US wouldn’t actively oppose the building of a barrier, and Khrushchev elected to test the theory, stem the East German brain drain and flex his Bolshie muscle.
Physically and emotionally dividing East and West Berlin, the advent of the wall caused a short-term logistical crisis in US–Soviet bloc relations; the wall itself came to symbolize the Cold War for nearly 30 years. In the main, the Wall proved a public relations disaster for the communist bloc as a whole. Western powers portrayed it as a symbol of communist tyranny, particularly after East German border guards shot and killed would-be defectors. Such fatalities were later treated as acts of murder by the eventually reunified Germany.
Back to the future in 1989, as President (Premier) Mikhail Gorbachev pursued the dual policies of glasnost and perestroika, the wall’s physical and political fate slowly sealed. Amid growing demonstrative dissent, the longtime leader of East Germany, Erich Honecker, resigned on October 18, 1989, replaced by Egon Krenz. Hungarian officials had opened the border between Hungary and Austria, effectively ending the purpose of the Berlin Wall, and East German citizens could now pour over the iron curtain by going through Hungary, into Austria, and thence into West Germany. In essence, East German citizens began giving their repressive government the finger, often literally.
Unlike 1956 and 1968, when Soviet forces ruthlessly crushed protests in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, respectively, Gorbachev actually encouraged the East German action. As such, the destruction of the Berlin Wall was one of the most stunning acts of the 20th Century, marking the defacto end of the Cold War’s bilateral world and the dawn of a multi-lateral muddle we bravely endure every damn day.
In 1950, the US gifted a replica of the Liberty Bell to West Germany during the early years of the Cold War. Hanging in Berlin City Hall, the bell was rung frequently during those years, all the way up through the opening described above. Since then, it is only rung for very special observances, Christmas, and this past Saturday, the projection of Joseph R. Biden as President-elect of the United States.