(Transcript from SBS World News Radio)
It was one of the most memorable events of the 20th century.
On the night of 9th of November 1989, huge crowds stormed the wall dividing the West and East of the German city of Berlin, after a week of protests.
The wall was constructed 28 years earlier to separate the communist-controlled East, from the capitalist West of Berlin.
Michael Kenny reports.
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Historians say it’s collapse marked a fundamental ideological shift in the history of modern Europe.
It is a moment etched in the consciousness of many Europeans.
On the 4th of November 1989, one million people rallied in East Berlin, amid growing calls for the East German communist government to resign.
It followed similar demonstrations in the former East German cities of Dresden and Leipzig.
Demonstrators began climbing over the 3.6 metre high Berlin Wall, and the border guards couldn’t stop them.
German-born historian Dr Ian Harmstorf, now living in Adelaide, was visiting Berlin just days after the wall came down.
“There was a lot of rejoicing along the wall. Everybody wanted to grab a piece of the wall. So there were people picking at the wall and taking chunks away. There was a great deal of rejoicing. Like I said, there were people in the east who had relatives in the west and hadn’t been able to visit them.”
The German government estimates more than 100-thousand East Germans tried to escape between 1961 and 1988.
It says more than 600 of them died in the process – many of them shot and killed by East German border guards.
Some historians argue that the fall of the Berlin Wall was inevitable.
Just six months earlier, work had begun on dismantling the so-called Iron Curtain – the boundary between eastern European communist countries and members of the NATO alliance.
And Poland had called its first partially-democratic elections in June that year.
A speech from United States President Ronald Reagan at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, two years before the wall came down, was also influential.
“There is one sign that the Soviets can make that would be unmistakeable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev- if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, Mr Gorbachev open this gate! Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Flinders University historian Dr Peter Monteath says former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s democratic reforms in the late 1980s played a pivotal role in dismantling communism across eastern Europe.
“Gorbachev himself played one of the key roles. He’d been in power in the Soviet Union since 1985 and he had made a series of changes which with the benefit of hindsight we can see pointing towards the collapse of the wall. So arguably there had been a building up of momentum over quite a long period and the collapse of the wall is the culmination of a lot of things happening.”
While the fall of the Berlin Wall initially brought jubilation, it left Germany with significant economic and social challenges.
Dr Harmstorf says many East Germans immediately lost their jobs.
“The West German government moved into the east and absolutely removed everything that the east had- all the faces of communism. The fact is they closed down and sacked immediately all the television reporters, the teachers were all wiped out, particularly at the higher levels. They were absolutely making a clean sweep of it. Nothing was going to be left of communism whatsoever.”
Dr Peter Monteath says many areas of the country’s east are still economically depressed.
“By and large the troubled areas tend to be in what had been the eastern states, especially in the north in the areas that traditionally relied on agricultural production. In Germany, there’s still something of an east-west divide. So although (former German Chancellor) Helmut Kohl at the time talked about flourishing landscapes in East Germany- that hope really hasn’t been delivered on.”
But Dr Ian Harmstorf says reunification has ultimately greatly strengthened Germany’s diplomatic and economic clout in Europe.
And he believes it set a benchmark for democratic protest.
“The mass demonstrations, continually putting pressure on the government- this has been used by quite a few societies around the world since then. So this is something they’ve learned to do. It’s no good going out and fighting with machine guns. But if you go out there peacefully time after time then the government has to give in eventually. I think that’s probably the lasting positive benefit of the collapse of East Germany.”