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A Look Back: 25 Years Since the Fall of the Berlin Wall

On November 9, 1989, after serving as the symbol of the Cold War for decades, the Berlin Wall fell. Its demise signaled the dawn of change not only in Eastern Europe, but the world.

The Berlin Wall started as a barbed wire fence built by the communist East German state (with approval from the Soviet Union) to stop the flow of refugees from East Berlin into West Berlin. For years, the CIA had predicted the East German government would take stern measures to stop border crossers but did not have tactical forewarning that a barrier would be put up starting on August 13, 1961. Stretching 96 miles long, the fence eventually evolved into the now familiar 12 foot high concrete wall, built in 45,000 separate sections, each four feet wide.

The Berlin Wall divided East Berlin and West Berlin for 28 years, from 1961 until November 1989. Typical for totalitarian states, the East German government declared the Wall to be a necessary defense against Western aggression. In reality, the Wall was intended to stop East Germans from seeking freedom in the West. In 1962, a second barrier was placed 100 yards back, creating a no-man’s land, widely known as the “death strip,” useless for defense against the West but clearly intended to prevent escape. It was booby-trapped with tripwires, offered no cover, and provided a clear field of fire to the watching guards. Even so, some 5,000 East Berliners escaped into the western half of the city. Tragically, an estimated 200 people died trying. Although the East German government always denied having a “shoot to kill” policy, the border guards were told to treat attempted defectors—even women and children—as criminals and stop them by whatever means necessary.

The Wall proved a propaganda disaster for the Soviet bloc as a whole. It became a powerful symbol of communist tyranny that Western leaders, starting with President John F. Kennedy, frequently denounced.  In 1987, Ronald Reagan gave his famous speech at the Brandenburg Gate, at which he challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.”

Two years later, during the summer of 1989, communist Hungary removed its border restrictions with Austria, and in September, more than 13,000 East German tourists in Hungary escaped to Austria. Demonstrations broke out all over East Germany. The long-time leader of East Germany, Erich Honecker, who in January had predicted that the Berlin Wall would stand for “a hundred more years,” resigned on October 18, replaced by Egon Krenz. By November 4, 1989, the protests had increased significantly, with a million people gathered that day in Alexanderplatz in East Berlin. Meanwhile, the wave of refugees leaving East Germany for the West had increased through Czechoslovakia, tolerated by the new Krenz government and the communist regime in Prague.

To ease the complications, the Krenz government decided on November 9, 1989, to allow refugees and even private travelers to exit directly through crossing points between East Germany and West Germany, including West Berlin. The new regulations were to take effect the next day, on November 10, to allow time to inform the border guards. However, no one told the East German government spokesman, who had not been briefed on the situation but simply had been handed a note to announce that East Berliners would be allowed to cross the border with proper permission. He read the note aloud at the end of the conference and, when asked when the regulations would come into effect, he replied, “As far as I know, effective immediately, without delay.” Nobody, including the East German government, knew that on November 9, 1989, the Wall would start coming down.

Tens of thousands of East Berliners heard the spokesman’s statement live on East German television and soon flooded the checkpoints in the Wall, demanding entry into West Berlin. The surprised and overwhelmed border guards tried to call their superiors, but no East German official was willing to take personal responsibility for issuing orders to use lethal force. Faced with the swelling crowd, the guards finally yielded, opening the checkpoints and allowing people through with little or no identity checking. Ecstatic East Berliners were soon greeted by West Berliners on the other side in a celebration of freedom and reunion. As a result, November 9 is considered the date the Wall fell.

In the days and weeks that followed, people came to the Wall with sledgehammers to chip off souvenir pieces. The first concrete section of the Wall was removed on the 12th. By June 13, 1990 the wall was officially dismantled, and on October 3, 1990 East and West Germany were reunified. The collapse of the Soviet Union would soon follow.

While it is often repeated by some that the CIA and the US Intelligence Community (IC) missed the fall of the Soviet Union, assessments from the time tell a different story. With the demise of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet system in crisis, the CIA in 1989 assessed the Soviet Union under Gorbachev would not survive. In 1990, the IC released a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), in which it stated, “the Soviet Union as we have known it is finished.(PDF)” (The NIE is an assessment by as many as 17 government agencies and departments regarding a national, regional or transnational issue of high importance, such as the Soviet Union, and is normally briefed to the President and other very senior officials). By the spring of 1991, the CIA warned of a future coup against Gorbachev, how it would take place, and the likelihood of the Soviet Union’s collapse—all accurate predictions of what happened soon after. On December 25, 1991, Gorbachev resigned and the Soviet Union ceased to exist; Its fifteen constituent Soviet republics became fifteen independent countries.

The fall of the Berlin Wall foreshadowed the demise of the communist governments of Eastern Europe and the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union, thus serving as the symbolic end of the Cold War.


Further Reading:

A City Torn Apart: Photos and Videos of the Berlin Wall

Flashback: 13 August 1961-Berlin Wall Divides Tyranny from Freedom

CIA's Analysis of the Soviet Union, 1947-1991

At Cold War's End – US Intelligence on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, 1989-1991

The Berlin Wall Collection 1: A City Torn Apart: Building of the Berlin Wall

Berlin Wall Collection 2: A City Divided: Life and Death in the Shadow of the Wall

Posted: Nov 07, 2014 03:11 PM
Last Updated: Nov 07, 2014 03:15 PM