10 Misconceptions About the Fall of the Berlin Wall
The Berlin Wall was erected in 1961 by the German Democratic Republic. Controlled by the Soviets, the party built the wall to cut off East Germany and East Berlin from the west, and ultimately, the free world. This wall became a symbol of the Iron Curtain, which separated the Communist Bloc from the democratic half of Europe. It also symbolized the social, political and economic consequences of the Cold War. It wasn’t until almost thirty years later that East Germany gave its citizens permission to visit the West. That same night, the East Berliners jumped and climbed the wall, and joined the West Berliners in celebration. While the main demolition of the wall didn’t start until several months later, this moment was the start of a new Germany after almost 45 years of two separate entities.
Before the wall was placed, the Berliners on both sides of Berlin could move freely from East to West. They did so to shop, work, and go to the movies, essentially living a normal life. There were subways lines and trains that took people from one area of Berlin to the others, and you could easily walk from East to West and West to East. Once the wall was built, to keep the “fascists” from the west from coming to the east, it was almost impossible to travel across the border. For those who had permission, there were three checkpoints: Checkpoint Alpha, Checkpoint Bravo and Checkpoint Charlie. This expanded to 12 checkpoints over the years. Only diplomats and other officials could cross, as well as travelers, though they require special permission, which was rarely given. Here are the top 10 misconceptions about the fall of the Berlin Wall:
10The Berlin Wall Was a Continuous Wall
Most people who hear about the Berlin Wall believe that it was a long, continuous wall. This, however, is untrue. It was, however, two walls, which had an approximate 480 feet space in the middle. In this space, which was known as the “death strip,” there were guard towers, dogs, tripwires, floodlights, anti-vehicle strips and armed guards, who had orders to shoot anyone who crossed.
In total, the wall spanned the 96-mile border between East and West Berlin, and then surrounded the countryside around East German. There was another blocked off area between the two countries, which spanned a total of about 850 miles. All of this was not to keep people out, but to keep the people of East Germany in.
There were about 5,000 people who escaped from east to west over the time the wall was in place. They did so in a number of ways, such as hiding in secret compartments in cars that were allowed to cross, by flying in hot air balloons, tunneling under the wall, and swimming across rivers and canals. There were also some lucky people who made a run for it. However, thousands also lost their lives as they tried to escape across the border, and many were caught and put into jail.
9The Name of the Wall was Originally the Berlin Wall
Though the wall is known as the “Berlin Wall,” even today, the original name of the wall was far from that. The Eastern government called the wall the Antifaschistisher Schultzwall, or the Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart.
Since the East told its citizens that it was to keep the fascist regime out of their territory, this name made sense to those who were on the “bad side” of the wall. However, we know now that the wall was actually meant to keep the East Germans in. The wall was built overnight on August 13, 1961, to the surprise of most, as a dig at the capitalist government of the West. At first, those on the East did believe that they were protected, as the Soviets spread propaganda that the West held the same ideas as Nazi Germany. However, people soon learned that this was not the case, and instead, realized that the wall was meant to keep them in.
Within two weeks of building the Antifaschistisher Schultzwall, the leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, claimed to his people that they have “sealed the cracks in the fabric of our house and closed the holes through which the worst enemies of the German people could creep.” Again, with this, he was re-iterating to the people that he was doing his best to “protect” them from enemies, while in reality, he was subjecting his people to be bound within the confines of the wall.
8The Soviets Wanted to Build the Wall, Not the Germans
Most people assume that since the Soviets controlled the East that they wanted to build the wall. However, this is far from the truth. What is true, however, is that the Soviets closed the border between East Germany and West Germany in 1952. Berlin, however, was under control of France, the United States, Great Britain and the U.S.S.R. Since this was the case, the Soviets left the denizens of the city alone.
Walter Ulbricht, the leader of East Germany, however, wanted to close the border in the city because he was upset that disgruntled East Germans were making a run for it to the west through Berlin. He approached the Soviet leaders with the idea of the wall, but they were not happy with the idea. They argued that sealing up the border in Berlin would not only be a technical impossibility, but that it would make them appear brutal.
It took approximately eight years for the leaders of East German to finally get the Kremlin to agree to the wall, and Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, quietly began preparations. He gave Ulbricht the go ahead, and Ulbricht created a top-secret group and stockpiled cement posts and barbed wire. They also created a plan for closing subways, streets and railroads.
By the time Ulbricht was ready to build the wall, more than 1,000 people from East Germany were leaving each day, and he was intent to stop it. On the night of August 12, and into the early morning of the 13th, East German soldiers, many in tears, built a 30-mile barbed wire wall, and on the 15th, began putting up the concrete.
7The Berlin Wall Fell on November 9, 1989
Most people refer to the fall of the Berlin Wall as one of the great events in the history of the world, but they assume that it fell on November 9, 1989…this, however, is not true. Though November 9 is the date of commemoration for the end of the wall, the wall was not totally dismantled until 1992. Even on that celebrated day in November of 1989, there was only minor destruction of the wall, with many East Germans simply climbing over the wall.
It wasn’t even until the next few days did the people begin pulling down the concrete sections, and it took weeks for the majority of the wall to come down. The entire wall was not removed until 1992, which was almost three years. However, as a way to commemorate the fall of the wall, a date was required, so the people used the day that they began climbing and destroying the wall, November 9th, as the day that the wall “fell.”
6President Reagan was the Reason the Wall Fell
Thanks to his famous Berlin speech where he said “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” Ronald Reagan is seen as the reason the wall was brought down. However, once again, this is a misconception. First, President Reagan gave the speech in June of 1987, more than two years before the fall of the wall in 1989. Second, Mikhail Gorbachev, the President of the Soviet Union, had already put a plan in motion to remove the wall…but, the actual day that it is celebrated, November 9th, was totally a mistake.
Why was Gorbachev ready to take down the wall? There were mass protests in 1989, and thousands of people in the East who were seeking refuge in West German embassies across Europe. So, the East German leaders approached Gorbachev to waive the rules of visas, which stated that the only way a person could leave East Germany was to apply for a visa, and these were rarely given. However, after the protests, the government announced that, though East Germans would have to apply for a visa to leave, they would be quickly granted and wouldn’t have any requirements to qualify.
These changes were to be announced to the people via a news conference, and Guenter Schabowski, a Communist Party official, was to make the announcement. However, he missed most of the meeting about the new changes, and was not fully prepared when going to the November 9th, 1989 news conference. After talking about the new visa requirements and applying for these visas, some communication wires got crossed, and when asked when the new law would take effect, he said “Immediately, without delay.” However, the impression he gave to the people was that they could immediately cross the border. He meant, however, that they could start applying for visas immediately.
5All Germans Were Thrilled By the Fall of the Wall
Most of us believe that the Germans were just as happy about the fall of the wall as the rest of the world was. The truth is, however, is they were not. For many Germans, especially East Germans, the process of unification was very difficult. There was massive unemployment, a lot of resentment, and the mix of two very different cultures, those from the east and the west, was a big challenge.
On top of this, November 9th also commemorates another event in German history, and it is not a happy one. It is the date, that in 1938, when the Nazis began attacking synagogues, Jewish businesses and homes on Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass. The weight of their Nazi history still weighs heavy on Germans, and they are reluctant to express any pride or celebrate something else on that day.
It wasn’t until the 2010’s did Germany really start celebrating the fall of the wall, even after well-known and well-liked politician Wolfgang Thierse asked his colleagues to “muster all of our courage and remember . . . that German history can also go well for once and did go well” in reference to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall was celebrated in 2014, and there were many festivities to commemorate the day. This included the release of more than 8,000 light-up balloons to the sounds of “Ode to Joy,” and speeches from Chancellor Angela Merkel. Mikhail Gorbachev and Lech Walesa, the former president of Poland, were also present for the commemoration.
4Berlin Was the Only Country Divided Following World War II
Most people assume that Berlin was the only city and Germany the only country to be divided following the end of World War II, but again, this is a misconception. Austria was also occupied by the Allies, though Austria was treated very differently.
The main reason that Austria was treated differently was because the Allies viewed the country as a victim of the Nazi’s aggression. However, it had a very close relationship with Germany, so the Allies watched over the country closely. There were four zones in Austria, run by France, the United States, Great Britain and the U.S.S.R. Like Berlin, Vienna was also divided, but unlike Berlin, Vienna was divided into five districts. Four of those districts were run by an ally, and the fifth district was run by the Allied Control Commission. These districts lasted from 1945 to 1955, when Austria was granted full independence.
In Berlin, however, the division lasted for more than 35 years longer than the division in Vienna. There was also a lot more tension in Germany between the Western Allies and the U.S.S.R. Vienna, however, did not have a wall like Berlin did, but again, remember, the U.S.S.R. did not want the wall in Berlin. It was East German officials who chose to put the wall up, not the other way around.
3All Western Leaders Were Happy About the Fall of the Wall
Looking back, it seems logical that all of the leaders of the West would be thrilled that the wall fell. After all, leaders such as Ronald Reagan were begging for the wall to fall. However, this was definitely not true. Both Francois Mitterrand, the President of France, and Margaret Thatcher, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, were both against reunifying Germany after the events of November 9th, 1989.
Thatcher was so angry about the fall of the wall, in fact, that she told Mikhail Gorbachev that Great Britain did “not want a united Germany” and that the reunification of the country would “undermine the stability” of international relationships and endanger security, worldwide.
Mitterrand was upset about the Berlin Wall falling because he feared that there would be an expansion of Nazi-like ideals across Europe. Though this might seem a bit far-fetched to us, it’s important to remember that France and Great Britain were in very close proximity to Germany, and over the previous century, France, alone had been attacked by the Germans three times.
Both leaders knew that if Germany became united, it could, in theory, rise from the ashes, so to speak, and once again chase domination in Europe. The Chancellor of Germany, Helmut Kohl, tried to reassure the leaders of the world that uniting Germany would not play to their fears, but the continent was still in recovery mode after World War II. Plus, Germany had the largest economy in Europe, the biggest population and a rather recent history of dictatorship.
2All Western Leaders Hated the Building of the Berlin Wall
If you would ask most people about the building of the Berlin Wall, the vast majority would likely claim that they believe that all of the leaders in the West hated that it was being built. Once again, however, this is a misconception.
Though it is difficult to believe, the division of Berlin actually created problems for both the Soviets and the Western leaders. In fact, there are historians who fully believe that a U.S. president, John F. Kennedy, may have paved the way for the wall to be built. In 1961, no Western leader had ever referred to East Berlin or West Berlin…until JFK announced to the world that the U.S would “stand by our commitments to the people of West Berlin.”
After saying this, many believe that Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, took this as a direct implication that the U.S. was only interested in the parts of Berlin that belonged to the Allies, which was West Berlin, and not the part controlled by the Soviets.
On top of this, Kennedy also was clear that as long as the countries of the West could enter into Berlin without restriction, which they could in the West, he didn’t technically care what the Soviets were doing in the East…including building a wall. Furthermore, in the days following the building of the wall, Kennedy, who was vacationing in Hyannis Port, was silent about the wall, unlike other Western leaders who immediately called for the removal of the wall. Instead, when he returned to Washington, he explained his stance by saying the U.S. didn’t really have a choice. Yes, he could send tanks to knock the wall down, but the Soviets could just build a new wall and it would do nothing to allow the East Germans to walk free.
1The Berlin Wall Was Completed Overnight
Most people who talk about the Berlin Wall also say that the wall was completed overnight…it was even mentioned in this list. However, this is a bit of a stretch. Though it is true that a “wall” was built overnight, but the wall was actually a wire fence that stretched for 87 miles.
The actual construction of the wall was a more gradual process. The first wire fence was made in 1961, and a second was erected in 1962, which was parallel to the first, though built about 100 meters further into the East. This created the “Death Strip,” which was filled with sand and other obstacles. Over the next three years, the first wire fence was removed, and the second was fortified. It was not until 1965 that the wall became a physical wall made of concrete. Part of the reason for this was because the Soviets were still very reluctant to create a walled border.
In 1975, the Berlin Wall as we know it was finally created. This border wall, or Grenzmauer 75, as the Germans called it, was the fourth-generation wall and was constructed from 1975 to 1980. This new wall was almost 12 feet high and 4 feet wide, and was virtually impenetrable.
So, what does all of this mean? It means that the Berlin Wall that we speak of today was not the original. In fact, there were three other versions of the wall that were created before the one that fell.
The Berlin Wall is not just part of German history, it is a major part in the history of the world. It is directly related to the second World War, which the German’s themselves had a huge part in starting, and it took more than 28 years from the time the wall was built until the day the East Germans were able to cross the border into the West. Though the Berlin Wall is now gone, there are still shadows of it that still stand in Berlin. Seeing the wall reminds us of the time when Germany was unlike the Germany we know of today, and it’s generally difficult for us to think of our modern German friends as offspring of the people who not only started and fought in the war to take over Europe, but also who were willing to shoot to kill their countrymen who were simply seeking a better life in the West.