Germany

The Berlin Wall: Then And Now

Thirty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Forces News take a look at how the German capital has changed.

On 9 November 1989, the Berlin Wall came down - helping to end the decades of the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union.

Built by the communist East in August 1961, the Berlin Wall was the physical barrier separating the two sides of Germany.

The powers that had once defeated Nazi Germany were at a crisis point.

Twelve years earlier, in 1949, an American, British and French airlift had overcome a Soviet blockade of West Berlin.

East Germans and East Berliners were fleeing a Moscow-imposed communist regime in the part of the country controlled by the USSR.

West Germany was a place where the free market economy, fostered by the Allies, was booming.

A crowd in front of the Berlin Wall, with the East German border guards standing on the wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate in 1989 (Picture: PA).

The prospect of a better economic condition and the lack of political oppression in the West led to many people living in the East to flee.

Historian Axel Klausmeier was one of them.

"A sixth of the entire population had left, had fled the country by the end, or by mid-1961, so this was nearly three million people," said Axel Klausmeier, Director of the Berlin Wall Foundation.

"The regime, the Communist Party, saw only one exit strategy: to build the wall, to keep people in."

At the time, the city of Berlin was deep inside Soviet-dominated East Germany.

A British garrison had occupied one of the city's three Western sectors since the Second World War.

They were Britain's only soldiers behind the Iron Curtain and patrolling the Wall was part of their routine.

Barry Davies first went to Berlin in the 1960s with the Royal Military Police - patrolling the Wall was one of his tasks.

East German border force personnel standing on the Wall in November 1989 (Picture: PA).

"There was a patch of sand, that actually was raked over so that they could ensure that no footprints had crossed it," he said.

"Secondly, there was an area of what they called trench warfare for tanks where they put crosses in the ground of metal and then you had the other area which had tripwires before you even got as far as the Wall.

"Just before the Wall itself, there was an extra Zaun – a fence which was of a barbed wire variety and so you had to get through that as well. This was formidable."

Any attempts to cross the barrier risked certain death.

"There were 140 people that died, only here in Berlin," said Mr Klausmeier.

"The border guards had an order to shoot to kill, so anyone who would try to cross the Wall would be in danger to be shot."

West Berlin's citizens try to pull down the Berlin Wall in 1989 (Picture: PA).

Despite the clear risk of crossing the Wall from East to West, many people attempted and often succeeded in their escape.

It effectively created two incredibly different cities.

West Berlin was brightly lit, modern and bustling.

On the other hand, East Berlin was drab, colourless and decaying.

A better life, many believed, would only be possible on the other side of the Wall.

"There were tunnels dug here in this street," said Mr Klausmeier, speaking to Forces News in Berlin.

"Others escaped with a hot air balloon, others hijacked a whole train and made it into the West. There are a great number of stories."

The Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989 (Picture: PA).

Perhaps the greatest escape was on 9 November 1989, the day the Berlin Wall officially came down.

A hapless, poorly briefed East German official had mistakenly told reporters that citizens could apply to travel West immediately. 

Thousands of people rushed to the Berlin Wall and for the first time in 28 years, the concrete wall opened.

"It was just milling with people, people in tears, tears of happiness," said Robin Merrill, a presenter for Deutsche Welle TV who used to be a reporter for British Forces Radio, BFBS, during those years.

"This city with a wall running down the middle of it and suddenly, without any blood being shed, it was open again and it was never going to come back."

Mr Merrill was at the Wall on the day it fell. 

"It was getting dark and I noticed a very old lady standing at the Wall and sort of bowing her head with tears in her eyes and just touching the Wall," he recalled.

This was happening on the East side of the Wall, where people were not even allowed to touch the barrier that separated them from the West.

A huge bucket digger pulls down the Berlin Wall at Bernauer Strasse in West Berlin in 1990 (Picture: PA).

Mr Merrill stayed in Berlin after the Wall fell and 30 years on, he says it is a completely different place.

"Before the Wall came down, West Berlin was possibly one of the safest places in the world to be," he said.

"For instance, my wife never locked her car. You couldn't steal it. There was nowhere to take it because you were surrounded by the Wall.

“Now it's much more cosmopolitan. You hear every language in the world. It's much like any other cities.

“Now the trendy part of Berlin is actually in the East!”

Nowadays, 50,000 people are moving to Berlin every year.

Since the wall fell in 1989, the population has grown by 500,000 to 4 million.

"The more people come, the more hope we have that they learn lessons from the past that we can really convince them that democracy is not perfect but still the best system possible," Mr Klausmeier said.