The Berlin Wall separated East and West Berlin, ensuring that capitalist and democratic West Berlin remained surrounded on all sides by the communist German Democratic Republic, where a permanent state of martial law kept millions prisoner for decades. West Germany was forced to move its seat of government to Bonn, to protect against a potential hostile siege from the East German regime, strongly backed by the Soviet Union. But on 9 November 1989, a spreading movement of ground-up resistance and reform climaxed in what seemed like the sudden unraveling of an empire that covered half the continent.
The people of Berlin, on both sides of the wall, converged on the wall along the barrier between East and West Berlin —the wall had come to surround all of West Berlin— and began tearing the wall apart piece by piece. Emotional scenes of families reunited after decades of forced separation quickly spread around the world, and the bloodless revolution against totalitarian communism spread across Europe. Many who had lived in East Berlin, including foreigners who had the privilege of being able to pass through the wall to West Berlin, would later learn how closely and persistently their actions had been monitored by the Stasi, the GDR’s secret police and security forces.
Bringing the Berlin Wall down was a choice of the people and the guards along both sides of the border, but it came about as the culmination of a months-long process of mounting resistance, massive public demonstrations, and an evolving relationship between the Soviet leadership and the power structure across the eastern bloc of communist regimes. As Gorbechev instituted reforms that allowed more individual and political freedoms in Russia, populations living under more hardline regimes began to demand the same reforms.
By October 1989, the GDR had begun to lose its tight grip on the population. In August, in separate incidents, some 900 East German citizens escaped by way of Hungary, into Austria, then another 100, and by the end of the month, a total of nearly 3,000. The defections became a popular symbol of the approach of freer times, and the historical imperative that the totalitarian system of the GDR be overcome.
On 11 September 1989, a group of East German dissidents form the New Forum. Hungary officially opened its border to Austria, allowing an estimated 10,000 East Germans to escape to West Germany via Austria. In early October, as the GDR celebrates 40 years since its founding, mass demonstrations begin across East Germany, demanding new freedoms. Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbechev warns GDR leader Erich Honecker his regime must embrace the process of reform and allow new more democratic processes to take hold.
Gorbechev is believed to have said in a closed-door meeting at that time that “Life punishes those who come too late”, a phrase taken by millions in East Germany as a sign the Soviet leader would honor their demands for democracy, even if Honecker opposed them. On 18 October 1989, Honecker is forced from office, but claims he had to step aside due to the effects of gall bladder surgery. His replacement Egon Krenz, seen as a conservative loyal to the GDR system, pledges reforms, but they are not enough. The groundswell of public demands for democratic reforms accelerates rapidly.
During the final 11 days of October 1989, hundreds of thousands of East Germans mass in major city centers, demanding an end to totalitarian rule. On 7 November, the government resigns, and then the entire Politburo, an essential concession to the pro-democracy movement, and the de facto end of the GDR system. On 9 November, an announcement was made that travel restrictions would be lifted, and certain checkpoints along the border opened.
Guards did not have clear instructions as to how to police the transit through the wall, and by late that evening, the millions massing near the border, on both sides, overwhelmed the guards, who stood down, opening the border permanently. In the pre-dawn hours of 10 November 1989, border guards themselves begin dismantling sections of the wall, in order to allow freer access to those wishing to cross, both for safety reasons and due to popular pressure.
By morning, citizens on both sides of the wall actively, and jubilantly, join in tearing down the wall, with tools of every variety of technological sophistication, from hammer and chisel to cranes, backhoes, ropes and the simple force of a crowd pushing against the wall. East Germans pouring into West Berlin were welcomed with cheers, music, dancing in the streets, champagne and tears. Families, friends and old loves were reunited after decades of forced separation, and Germany’s future was forever changed. On that day, the separation of Germany ended, in spirit, and the road to reunification was opened.
By 13 November, mass rallies were an ongoing occurrence, and the new government of Prime Minister Hans Modrow is pressured to institute major democratic reforms. The rallies continue without a break for weeks, and the hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops that effectively made the GDR possible, decline to intervene.
On 3 December, the entire Socialist Unity party leadership resigns, including Egon Krenz; Erich Honecker is expelled from the party and would later face criminal prosecution for abuses under his leadership. On 22 December 1989, the Brandenburg Gate is officially opened for the first time in nearly 3 decades; it is the symbolic end of politically-enforced separation between East and West Germany. On 31 December 1989, over half a million people from all over the world gather at the Brandenburg Gate, in the heart of Berlin, to celebrate the beginning of a new era.
The 1990s would begin with the official end of communist dictatorship in East Germany, the fall of the Iron Curtain, and the democratization of half of Europe. Germany’s process of reunification has moved quickly, but is still ongoing: a massive wealth gap is among the problems the unified Germany still struggles to resolve, but Germany has since become a world leader in the cause for Democratic rights and pro-peace policy.