The Berlin Wall fell shortly before I turned four, and it’s fair to say that being a three-year-old living in Australia I had absolutely no idea that the wall existed, let alone any clue of the significance of it falling. Now, despite being aware of both these things, I still cannot imagine how it must have been living in a city where a twelve foot high concrete wall separated you from friends, family, colleagues and your previously relatively normal life. Yet the film footage and photographs that you see of the wall coming down on 9 November 1989 cannot fail to move you.
The Berlin Wall [version 1] was erected overnight on 13 August 1961 by the East German government [the German Democratic Republic or DDR] to stop East German citizens fleeing to West Germany – a serious problem for the DDR. Prior to the construction of the wall, three and a half million East Germans fled to the West and the population drain was a disaster for the DDR. It completely surrounded East Berlin – which was inside Soviet East Germany – stretching more than 140km. It might be wrong to find anything funny about the Berlin Wall, but the fact that the DDR referred to it as an ‘Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart’ does make me laugh.
The wall itself was rebuilt and improved a number of times, and it wasn’t in fact just one wall – it was two walls, both on DDR soil, with a wide empty strip of land between them referred to as the ‘Death Strip’. There were guard towers, barbed wire, some built in automatic guns and plenty of soldiers patrolling. The wall kept the fascist Western capitalists from destroying the glorious socialist state of the DDR, and made escape to the West far more difficult for those trapped in the East, behind the Iron Curtain. The Berlin Wall became the foremost symbol of that line on the map that separated the Western European countries from the Soviet inspired/enforced socialist and communist nations of Eastern Europe.
I found the story of the fall of the Berlin Wall amusing, sad and triumphant at the same time. It was never supposed to happen; in fact in January of 1989 Erich Honecker, the president of the DDR, said that the Wall would stand for another fifty to one hundred years if circumstances on the ‘other’ side of the wall didn’t change. Civil protests in East Germany in October led to the government deciding to allow controlled travel to West Berlin and West Germany.This was mistakenly announced at a live press conference on 9 November 1989, where the audience was told that East Germans would be able to cross the wall with immediate effect.
Crowds of people from both East and West Berlin gathered at the wall, climbing over it, smashing holes in the wall and chipping pieces out for souvenirs. While the wall in its entirety did not come down immediately – in fact England and France both contacted Gorbachev in the USSR with pleas not to allow the Berlin Wall to fall as they feared the prospect of a united Germany – the wall as a symbol fell on 9 November 1989 when it no longer prevented travel across it.
Sections of the wall have been shipped off to countries around the world, but there are still sections left standing. The most popular is the East Side Gallery, which consists of murals painted by 105 artists from around the world along 1.6km of the old Berlin Wall. The murals were painted in 1990 and restored in 2009 before the twentieth anniversary of the fall – the restoration caused something of a controversy when the work of eight artists, who had refused to repaint their pieces, was simply copied over by others. The East Side Gallery is supposed to be a memorial to freedom, although I’ll be the first to admit that some of the murals don’t appear to bear any relation to this. Some of it was beautiful, some of it was inspiring, some of it…I just don’t get.