Berlin 30: The Fall Of The Wall

30 years since the wall was built, Forces Radio BFBS retraces history

It has been 30 years since one of the most famous nights in recent history, the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Forces Radio BFBS was there on the night in 1989, and to mark the anniversary, presenter Jamie Gordon has been retracing his steps and meeting those affected by the wall thirty years on. 

Jamie was just 17 years old when he first moved to West Berlin in 1987 and joined BFBS.

A BFBS radio documentary has been made to mark the moment that the wall came down  and will air on Saturday November 9, 2019.

Berlin Wall Graffiti. Credit BFBS

When Was The Wall Built?

The Wall started construction on August 13, 1961. The original wall was built with barbed wire and cinder blocks. This was then replaced by a series of concrete walls up to five metres high. The completed wall was topped with barbed wire, guarded with watch towers, gun emplacements and mines, and spanned 100 miles.

Why Was The Wall Built?

The Berlin Wall was built after World War Two when Berlin was split in two: the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) allied East Berlin and the US allied West Berlin. About three million people fled from the East to West hoping for a better quality of life in the years leading up to the wall being built.

Thousands of friends and families were split overnight. The wall was not erected as a defence, as Director of the Berlin Wall Foundation, Dr Axel Klausmeier said to Jamie Gordon:

“The wall was built to keep people in, and not to keep people out.”

Who Controlled East Berlin And What Was Life Like?

The USSR controlled East Berlin and it became a communist state.

Life in East Berlin was very different to the West: movies that promoted capitalist ideas were prohibited, music was heavily censored, bands were only allowed to sing in German. A secret police force was established, called the Ministry for State Security (or in German: Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, MfS) or more commonly referred to as the Stasi.

At the time General Lord David Richards was Chief of Staff of the Berlin Brigade, and remembers being followed when he visited East Berlin:

“We had almost an exclusive opportunity to go and look at Russian and East German kit, so I would go over to the Soviet sector, every time we went through Checkpoint Charlie we had to wear uniform, (and) I would be picked up by a Stasi or Russian tail and I’d be followed the whole way.”

Berlin Wall Watch Tower 2019. Credit BFBS

Who Controlled West Berlin And What Was Life Like?

West Berlin was controlled by three powers who each had a sector of the city: Britain, US and the French.

For the West Berliners life was more liberated, with no curfews to adhere to and more freedom of speech.

However, they were trapped by the Wall and the presence of the USSR, and even before the Wall was constructed, blockades were put in to drive out Britain, America and France.

In one of the most infamous historic moments, known as the Berlin Airlift, happened in June 1948 when the Soviets closed all the highways, railroads and canals between West Berlin and Western occupied Germany.

Instead of leaving West Berlin, the Allies supplied their sector of the city from the air, a plan that lasted for more than a year and carried 2.3 million tons of cargo. 

How Did The Wall Come Down?

The demolition of the Wall on the November 9, 1989 was not planned.

Five days earlier, half a million people had gathered in East Berlin as a mass protest, while East German leaders had tried to calm events by making travel easier for East Germans.

However, this wasn't meant to open the border completely. On the night, spokesman Gunter Schabowski, who hadn't had time to read the notes about the new rules, said that as far as he was aware, private travel without prerequisites was effective immediately.

On hearing the news, people flocked to the boarder in their hundreds, and thus began the fall of the wall. In the radio documentary, Dr Axel Klausmeier talked about the evening, saying:

"People gathered and the miracle happened, not a single shot fired and shortly before midnight the checkpoints were opened, and masses streamed into the West. As soon as the wall was down, the regime was down."

Two Sides Of The Berlin Wall. Credit BFBS

What Did It Represent?

The Wall was a physical manifestation of the divide between the two sides of Berlin and enhanced the control the USSR had over the East. 

For Jamie Gordon, returning to the Wall was a positive experience:

"It was a privilege to return to the city that in so many ways made me grow up. Meeting Jackie, Robin and Heidi again took me back to a very happy time and it’s great to see that Berlin is a thriving place that continues to maintain an edge that made it a unique place to live."

You can hear the full radio documentary here on Forces Radio BFBS.