After World War II, Berlin was divided into four sectors, each controlled by a different Allied command: United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and (at the time) the provisional French Government. The original version of the Berlin Wall was erected by East German (German Democratic Republic, GDR) authorities on 12 – 13 August 1961, completely surrounding the US, UK and French sectors, as shown in the following map.
The Berlin Wall physically separated the city into two halves, East Berlin and West Berlin, for more than 28 years, and went through a series of “upgrades” to make the wall a more effective physical and psychological barrier.
President Ronald Reagan delivered his “Berlin Wall” speech on 12 June 1987 in West Berlin near the Brandenburg Gate. You can watch a short video with that segment of his speech here:
For the background leading up to that famous speech, I refer you to the article by Peter Robinson, entitled “’Tear Down This Wall’ – How Top Advisers Opposed Reagan’s Challenge to Gorbachev—But Lost,” on the National Archives website here:
On 9 November 1989, a press conference held by East Berlin’s communist party boss, Günter Schabowski, and other East German officials to discuss new travel regulations included an announcement that East German border controls, including controls is East Berlin, were being relaxed immediately. Statements (and mis-statements) made during that press conference led to an almost immediate flood of East Germans, including East Berliners, seeking to cross into the West. When guards at multiple border crossings relented to the overwhelming pressure from the masses of civilians, East Berliners streamed into West Berlin.
The demolition of the Berlin Wall began informally on the night of 9 November 1989, but not officially until 13 June 1990. Most of the wall was demolished by November 1991, with a few wall segments remaining in several parts of the city. German reunification took place on 3 October 1990.
On this 30th anniversary of the “fall” of the Berlin Wall, you’ll find details on this historic event in many other sources. Here are a few articles you might enjoy reading from the 25thanniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall:
- The Telegraph, “Berlin Wall: How the Wall came down, as it happened 25 years ago,” by Laurence Dodds, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/11219434/Berlin-Wall-How-the-Wall-came-down-as-it-happened-25-years-ago-live.html
- The Atlantic, “The Berlin Wall, 25 Years After the Fall,” by Alan Taylor, https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2014/11/the-berlin-wall-25-years-after-the-fall/100845/
- AP Explore, “25th Anniversary – East Germany Opens Border,” https://www.ap.org/explore/berlin-wall/
I was in Berlin a few weeks ago and offer the following photo essay on some of the remaining segments of the Berlin Wall, which stand as memorials to the time when the city was divided, and as reminders to us of the harsh, controlled life under East German communist rule. We’ll take a look at photos of the Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie, the Wall Museum at Checkpoint Charlie (Haus am Checkpoint Charlie), the DDR Museum, the East Side Gallery and the Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Strasse. The following map of Berlin shows where these important landmarks are located. I hope you’ll find time to visit these landmarks if you ever visit Berlin.
The Brandenburg Gate
Brandenburg Gate was on the East Berlin side of the Berlin Wall. In 1987, it was the backdrop for President Ronald Reagan’s Berlin Wall speech. Today, Brandenburg Gate is part of a vibrant pedestrian area at Pariser Platz.
Checkpoint Charlie, in the American sector, was the primary crossing point for foreigners and diplomats and the scene of occasional confrontations between U.S. and East German forces.
Mauer Museum (Wall Museum), Haus am Checkpoint Charlie
The Mauer Museum (Haus am Checkpoint Charlie) offers an extensive permanent exhibition on the history of the Berlin Wall and on the international fight for human rights. This isn’t a museum you can go through quickly. Large storyboards throughout the museum provide comprehensive and engaging narrative and photographic details on events and people associated with the Berlin Wall. There are many artifacts used by people in their attempts to escape from East Berlin and many period videos of news events related to the wall. There is a significant display on President Ronald Reagan’s 1987 Berlin Wall speech.
You’ll find details on this museum on their website here:
The DDR Museum is an interactive museum that seeks to provide visitors with an immersive experience of everyday life behind the Berlin Wall, in the former East Berlin. The permanent exhibition is divided into three themed areas: Public Life, State and Ideology, and Life in a Tower Block.
The museum is located near Berlin’s city center, not far from the Alexanderplatz, across the Spree River from the Berlin Cathedral and Museum Island.
Life in a tower block (a Russian-style high-rise apartment building) is portrayed in a reconstruction of a surprisingly large five-room flat. Original artifacts and other objects in the apartment convey the image that East Berliners had a modest standard of living, probably well below that of their counterparts in West Berlin. The omnipresent and oppressive surveillance by the Ministry for State Security is addressed in considerable detail.
A visit to this museum may give you a different perspective on your own life in a democratic country. For more information, visit the DDR Museum website here: https://www.ddr-museum.de/de
East Side Gallery
The longest preserved piece of the Berlin Wall, which stands between Ostbahnhof (East train station) and Oberbaumbrücke, is known worldwide as the East Side Gallery. After the Wall fell, 118 artists from 21 countries appropriated 1.3 kilometers of the former border wall and created the longest open-air art gallery in the world. The city of Berlin added the East Side Gallery to its monument register in November 1991, preventing demolition and preserving the gallery from further decay. In 2009 the entire East Side Gallery was restored, with the original artists personally repainting their own artworks. You’ll find details on the East Side Gallery at the following links:
Because of its great size and its location along a busy surface street, it’s hard to get a distant view the East Side Gallery without being interrupted by an almost constant flow of traffic along Holzmarktstrasse. It’s quite an experience to walk along the wall and consider as many of the artworks as your time permits.
Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Strasse
The Berlin Wall Memorial is Berlin’s central memorial site recalling German division. This 1.4 kilometer section of the Berlin Wall is preserved in its full depth, allowing visitors to see the various elements of the border strip, including the “no-man’s-land,” as it looked at the end of the 1980s.
You’ll find details on the Berlin War Memorial here:
U.S. Embassy near the Brandenburg Gate
In early November 2019, a bronze statue, commissioned by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, was erected on the terrace of the U.S. embassy in Berlin, overlooking the Brandenburg Gate, to memorialize President Reagan’s 1987 “Tear down this wall” speech on the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The statue was erected at the U.S. embassy after Berlin authorities refused to allow the statue to be erected on public land. It’s hard for me to understand how Berlin authorities could take that position. Perhaps they need to visit the several Berlin Wall landmarks described in this post to refresh their memories on the important roles the WW II allies (U.S., UK and France) played in ensuring the freedom and safety of West Berliners for almost 45 years prior to the fall of the Wall (1989), German reunification (1990) and the collapse of the Soviet Union (1991).