Today is the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I first visited Berlin in 1987, two years before the Wall came down, and it was that experience of visiting a divided city that inspired me to write my novel Oranges for Christmas.
The Berlin Wall stood for just over 28 years, from 13 August 1961 to 9 November 1989. During that time at least 136 people lost their lives trying to escape from East to West Berlin.
Initially the barrier consisted of coils of barbed wire. Then it became a solid wall, topped with barbed wire. Its final reincarnation was as a 3.6 metre high concrete barrier with a cylindrical top, making it virtually impossible to scale.
An “inner” wall was constructed on the east side and the ground between the two walls became known as the “death strip”, a 100 metre wide stretch of land incorporating watchtowers, anti-tank defences, signal fencing, dogs and trip wires. It was raked with sand to make it easy to spot the footprints of any would-be escapees. Houses that lay within the death strip were demolished, such as those on the east side of Bernauer Strasse.
A large section of the Wall has been preserved at Bernauer Strasse. Part of the former death strip has been landscaped over and there is a memorial to those who died.
The Church of Reconciliation on Bernauer Strasse was blown up by the East Germans in 1985 because it obscured the border guards’ view of the death strip. Today a new memorial church has been built in its place. You can still see the outline of the old church marked with metal strips on the ground. The bent iron cross of the old church also lies on the ground.
The former Stasi headquarters at Normannenstrasse is now a museum with detailed displays about life in the German Democratic Republic and the Stasi’s spying methods.
The Stasi remand prison at Hohenschönhausen is now a memorial site with very moving and informative tours about the Stasi and its interrogation methods.
West Berliners were not allowed to visit East Berlin until Christmas 1963 when they were allowed to apply for a visa for a short visit. It was not until 1971 that West Berliners were allowed to apply for visas in the same way as West Germans. Permission for East Berliners to travel west was almost impossible to obtain and was only granted in a few circumstances, such as to the elderly, or to those participating in cultural and sporting activities.
By 1989 political changes were taking place in many Eastern Bloc countries. In August 1989 Hungary removed its physical border with Austria. As a result, thousands of East Germans escaped to Austria via Hungary. The Hungarians tried to prevent any more East Germans from crossing the border, but many East Germans took refuge in the West German embassy in Budapest. Similar events occurred at the West German embassy in Prague. Peaceful, mass demonstrations broke out in East Germany, notably in Leipzig and Berlin.
To ease the situation, the East German Politburo decided to remove travel restrictions to West Berlin and West Germany. The new regulations were to take effect on 10th November, but at a press conference on 9th November Günter Schabowski, the spokesman for the party, who had not been fully briefed, announced that, as far as he was aware, the new regulations would come into force immediately.
The press conference was broadcast on television. Thousands of East Berliners began gathering at the checkpoints along the wall. The guards, who were not aware of the broadcast, were confused. Thankfully no one fired a shot. The guard in charge at Bornholmer Strasse took the decision to open the crossing and thousands of East Berliners swarmed into West Berlin. The Berlin Wall was over.