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The fall of the Berlin Wall: Europe as we know it today was born 25 years ago, when the Berlin Wall came crashing down.

Imagine it was illegal to leave the United States and if you tried to escape, armed guards all along the Canadian and Mexican borders would be waiting to shoot you down. That's what life was like for millions of people in Eastern Europe after World War II, when the Soviet Union seized control of their countries. And there was no greater symbol of Communist repression and isolation than the Berlin Wall. The concrete and barbed wire structure, reaching up to 15 feet in some areas, ran for 96 miles, cutting off Communist East Berlin from West Berlin and the rest of democratic Europe for nearly three decades.

All that changed 25 years ago, when East German authorities gave up trying to keep their people locked in. Birgit Cristaudo, a nurse who lived in East Berlin, remembers the moment vividly: "I was watching television," she says, "And suddenly the announcer proclaimed that the Wall was open, repeating it again and again. I ... sat there stunned. "

The Cold War

The Berlin Wall epitomized the Cold War--the decades-long conflict pitting the U.S. and its democratic allies against Communist nations led by the Soviet Union. During World War II (1939-45), the U.S., Great Britain, and the Soviet Union joined forces to fight Adolf Hitler's Germany. But as their armies advanced separately on Berlin, Germany's capital, to finish the war, the Soviets seized control of a third of Germany and most of Eastern Europe, where it installed puppet Communist governments.

In March 1946, former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill warned that "an iron curtain has descended across the continent." In 1949, Germany was formally split into two nations: a democratic West and a Communist East.

Though Berlin sat entirely in East Germany, American, French, and British forces controlled West Berlin (see map). That part of the city remained democratic and accessible to the West by plane, trains, and highways.

For 12 years, Berliners could travel freely within the city. That changed when more and more East Germans used Berlin as an "escape hatch," as historian Frederick Taylor says, to flee Communism altogether. According to Taylor, about 2.5 million East Germans escaped to freedom in West Berlin from 1949 to 1961.

Alarmed that their country was losing its professionals and skilled workers to the West, East German leaders came up with a drastic solution.

On Aug. 13,1961, Berliners awoke to a barrier of barbed wire and concrete posts laid through the heart of the city. At a train station, one elderly woman asked a police officer when the next train to West Berlin would be.

"None of that anymore, Grandma," he said. "You're all [living] in a mousetrap now."

Soon, East German authorities began building the Berlin Wall, along with watchtowers from which guards would shoot to death anyone attempting to flee to the West.

"In some cases, the Wall went down the middle of streets," says Taylor, "brutally dividing neighborhoods and even families."

Crossing the Wall was a crime punishable by heavy fines, prison sentences, and worse. But East Berliners never stopped trying to escape. Over the years, about 5,000 of them made it, another 5,000 were caught, and nearly 200 were killed. Among them was 18-year-old Peter Fechter, a bricklayer shot dead by East German police while trying to jump the Wall in 1962, a year after it was built.

The Wall cut off East Berliners from the world in many ways. Living under a police state deprived them of basic freedoms. The restrictive Communist economy meant people had to stand in long lines to buy few consumer goods.

"Nobody had a home phone," says Bert Esenherz, who lived in East Berlin--unless you were a "privileged person" like a doctor or government official. The wait list to buy a car could last years.

Most East Germans lived in constant fear of the Stasi, the secret police that was created to root out dissent. In every workplace, school, and home, the Stasi played an elaborate game of "cat and mouse," Esenherz says, to get East Germans to inform on one another.

Cristaudo, the East German nurse, says the Stasi threatened to take her daughter when she refused to work with them. Some people who resisted the Stasi simply disappeared. Esenherz, who wouldn't inform on friends, was expelled.

"I had to turn in my passport and leave within 24 hours," he says. "Basically, I left with just the shoes on my feet."

Two American presidents famously condemned the Wall. In a 1963 speech at the Brandenburg Gate, once a central passageway between East and West Berlin, John F. Kennedy declared, "Ich bin ein Berliner! " ("I am a Berliner!") And in 1987, Ronald Reagan challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

Escaping to the West

By then, Eastern Europeans had tired of Communism and Soviet domination. In May 1989, a new reform government in Communist Hungary opened its border to neighboring Austria. Through the spring and summer, tens of thousands of East Germans rushed to "vacation" in Hungary as an escape path to the West. A chink in the Iron Curtain soon became a gaping hole.

Emboldened, East Germans held mass rallies against the regime. On Nov. 9, 1989, East German leaders took a calculated risk that offering a little freedom would stop the human tide. At 6:50 that evening, a stressed-out government official read a statement to the press. According to a new regulation, he said, East Germans could travel to the West without restrictions.

That night an enormous crowd of ecstatic East Berliners surged through formerly closed checkpoints. Cristaudo woke up her daughter to take her to the Bornholmer Bridge, a key crossing point to the West.

"I asked my child to close her eyes," she says, "and try to remember this moment. 'We are living history.'"

On the other side, West Berliners met them with flowers, chocolate, and wine. All night, a party raged on the streets. The next day, people were taking sledgehammers to the Wall.

'A New World'

The Berlin Wall soon came tumbling down, and the ruling Communist government agreed to allow free elections, which took place in March 1990.

Later that year, West and East Germany reunited and elected a democratic government. In 1991, six years after Gorbachev instituted economic and political reforms, the bankrupt Soviet Union itself collapsed.

"We're now living in a new world," Gorbachev said in his resignation speech on Christmas Day 1991. "An end has been put to the Cold War and to the arms race."

Twenty-five years after reunification, Germany now has the largest economy in Europe and the fourth-largest in the world (after the U.S., China, and Japan).

A strong U.S. ally, Germany also finds itself a key player in a struggle between post-Communist Russia--the successor to the Soviet Union--and the United States. Russia's President Vladimir Putin has challenged the U.S. and the West, most recently by seizing Crimea from Ukraine. Germany has sided with Ukraine's government--and by extension, the U.S.--in what many are calling "a new Cold War" (see box, right).

As for Berlin and those who remember the Wall that once divided the city, the simple freedom of strolling through the Brandenburg Gate never seems to get tired.

"When we're doing this," writes historian Taylor, "and the sun is shining, sometimes we can believe that ... the Berlin Wall was just a figment of somebody's mad imagination."


1945 Yalta Conference

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin lay plans for postwar Europe.

1948-49 Berlin Airlift

After the Soviet Union blockades West Berlin in June 1948, a U.S.-led daily airlift keeps the city's residents from starving. The Soviets lift the blockade in May 1949.

1950-53 Korean War

Communist North Korea invades South Korea, and U.S.-led forces defend the South. The war kills 36,000 Americans and ends in a stalemate.

1962 Missile Crisis

U.S. spy planes discover Soviet-built nuclear sites in Cuba. After a tense 13-day standoff, the Soviets remove the missiles.

1960S-75 Vietnam War

The U.S. sends troops to aid South Vietnam in its war against Communist North Vietnam. The war, which kills 58,000 Americans, ends in a Communist victory.

1985 Soviet Reforms

Trying to save the deeply distressed Soviet economy, new leader Mikhail Gorbachev introduces tree-market and political reforms.

1991 Cold War Ends

After popular uprisings sweep away Communist regimes in much of Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union formally disbands.

1989 Fall of the Berlin Wall

Related article: Back to the Cold War?

It's been more than two decades since the Soviet Union collapsed, but tensions between the U.S. and Russia are running higher than at any time since the Cold War.

At home, Russian President Vladimir Putin has cracked down on freedom of the press and of speech, including the rights of political opponents to protest--throwbacks to the repressive Soviet order.

Putin is acting more like his Soviet predecessors when it comes to his neighbors too. He shocked the world last spring by annexing Crimea, which had belonged to Ukraine. The U.S. and its allies, including Germany, have imposed economic sanctions on Russia.

Putin has also opposed U.S. efforts to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and end Syria's civil war, which has killed more than 160,000 people. The Russian president has supplied Assad with arms and cash and has vetoed U.N. resolutions condemning Assad.

And Putin infuriated President Obama in 2013 by granting temporary political asylum to Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor who leaked secret information about U.S. surveillance programs.

When President Obama took office in 2009, he said he wanted to "reset relations" with Russia. But that goal now seems remote.

"Today, Russia is once again isolating itself from the international community," Obama says, "setting back decades of genuine progress."

--Veronica Majerol


The Fall of the Berlin Wall

A quarter century ago, the Berlin Wall--which had separated Communist East Berlin from democratic West Berlin for 28 years--came down. In Times Past, we explore the Wall's origins and fall. Pair the text with an excerpt from President Ronald Reagan's historic 1987 speech about the Wall.

Before Reading

1 List Vocabulary: Share with students the challenging general and domain-specific vocabulary for this article. Encourage them to use context to infer meanings as they read and to later verify those inferences by consulting a dictionary. Distribute or project the activity Word Watch to guide students through this process, if desired.

2 Engage: Ask students what they know about the Berlin Wall and discuss what it must have been like for Berliners to have a guarded wall divide their city. Watch the video for background information on the Cold War.

Additional Resources

Print or project:

* Word Watch (also on p. 14 of this Teacher's Guide)

* "Tear Down This Wall" (also on p. 11 of this Teacher's Guide)

* Analyze the Photo (also on p. 15 of this Teacher's Guide)

* Article Quiz (also on p. 10 of this Teacher's Guide)

Video: The Cold War

Analyze the Article

3 Read and Discuss: Have students read the article. Discuss what makes this a secondary source. (It was written long after the fall of the Berlin Wall by a reporter who researched the topic via multiple sources but did not experience firsthand the events described.) Then pose the following critical-thinking questions:

* Describe the purpose of the Berlin Wall. Was it destined to fail, in your view? (After World War II, Germany--and its capital, Berlin--was divided. East Germany was controlled by the Communist Soviet Union. West Germany was a democratic nation. The Wall was erected by Communist leaders to keep East Berliners from escaping to the West. Students will have varying views on the chances of the Wall succeeding.)

* The Berlin Wall physically separated two sides of a city but symbolized much larger divisions. What were those divisions? (The Wall represented the split between East Germany and West Germany as well as the divide between Communist Eastern Europe and the West. It also came to symbolize the general division between Communism and democracy during the Cold War.)

* Use the article to compare life in East Berlin with life in West Berlin while the Wall was intact. (East Berliners lived in a police state with very few freedoms. They had little access to cars, phones, and other consumer goods. West Berliners, on the other hand, enjoyed greater political and economic freedoms.)

* Analyze the factors that you think led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. (Answers will vary. Factors may include President Reagan's public challenge to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the opening of the border between Austria and Communist Hungary, and increasing pressure from frustrated East Germans.)

4 Integrate the Primary Source: Project or distribute the PDF "Tear Down This Wall" (p. 11 of this Teacher's Guide), an excerpt from President Reagan's famous 1987 speech at the Berlin Wall's Brandenburg Gate. Discuss briefly what makes this speech a primary source. (It was delivered by Reagan in 1987.) Have students read the speech and answer the following questions (which also appear on the PDF). Discuss student responses.

* Based on the first paragraph, whom did Reagan perceive as his audience? (Reagan was speaking to the crowd gathered, to listeners in Western Europe and North America, and to listeners in East Berlin and Eastern Europe.)

* Why do you think Reagan said "There is only one Berlin"? Why might he have chosen to say it in German? (Reagan said this to make it clear that he opposed the Berlin Wall--and that in his mind, no real separation existed between the residents of East and West Berlin. By saying it in German, he emphasized their shared language and appealed for unity.)

* In the speech, what differences did Reagan describe between Communist-controlled Eastern Europe and the Western world? (He noted that the West was defined by freedom, prosperity, and well-being, while Eastern Europe was marked by restrictions on travel, technological backwardness, declining health standards, and a lack of food and supplies.)

* Based on the speech, what kinds of changes do you think Reagan wanted to see happen in East Germany and in Eastern Europe? Why? (Reagan specifically called for the destruction of the Berlin Wall. He also noted some recent Soviet reforms, like the release of political prisoners and greater economic freedoms, and made it clear that he welcomed further reforms. He argued that these changes would advance human liberty and world peace.)

* What do Reagan's remarks add to the Upfront article about the Berlin Wall and its fall in November 1989? (While the article details the factors that led to the Wall's creation and fall, Reagan's speech helps readers understand the great symbolism the Wall took on during the Cold War. It spotlights Reagan's eloquent public criticism of the Wall, which may have played a role in its fall.)

Extend & Assess

5 Writing Prompt

The Berlin Wall was a fixture of that city for 28 years. How do you think it affected the residents of East Berlin in practical, economic, and psychological terms? Support your response with evidence from the article and/or Reagan's speech.

6 Classroom Debate

Support your view: Has a new "Cold War" begun between the U.S. and Russia?

7 Quiz

Photocopy, print, or project the quiz on p. 10 of this Teacher's Guide.

8 Video & Photo

Watch the Cold War video and have students write a paragraph summarizing its central ideas. Analyze a compelling photo of the Berlin Wall on p. 15 of this Teacher's Guide.


Analyze the Photo

1. This photo was taken in November 1989, after East Germany announced that the Berlin Wall was open. What do you think is happening in the photo? Who are the people on the graffitied side of the Wall? Who are the people on top of the Wall?

2. How would you compare the emotions shown by the man with the sledgehammer and the guards?

3. Based on this image and on what you have read in the magazine, what exactly is meant by the "fair of the Berlin Wall? Is it necessarily the physical destruction of the Wall? Explain.


Who or what is the main focus of the photograph? Why do you think the photographer framed the photo in this way? Explain.
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Title Annotation:TIMES PAST 1989
Author:Brown, Bryan
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Sep 15, 2014
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