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The Great Fall: How it happened

Updated Monday, 3rd November 2014

How did the fall of the Berlin Wall come about? 

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On the night of 9th November, a wall of 8,000 white balloons will be released into the skies of Berlin whilst Germans across the world recall what they did when they heard the news 25 years ago.
The fall of the wall in 1989 is the event we easily remember as the most momentous and the most unexpected in our lifetime.
Looking back now at the events unfolding in the late 1980s, there seem to have been just one or two hints that major changes to the fabric of Europe were afoot. After Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union in 1985, the iron curtain began to crumble.  Democratic reforms were eagerly observed by other Eastern European nations and Poland and Hungary were the first to follow suit in introducing new freedoms.
In East Germany, the government was trying its best to carry on as if nothing was happening, but their anti-reform stance became increasingly untenable. Faced with a major economic crisis in their own and a climate of change in neighbouring countries, dissatisfaction was rife.
Many East Germans either took to the streets or used newly available loopholes to flee the country via the Austrian-Hungarian border or from the West German embassies in Prague, Warsaw, Budapest and Berlin. In the months before the fall of the wall over 200,000 East Germans escaped to the West.
Throughout September and October the world was watching demonstrations and candle-lit parades in Leipzig and other cities; on 18th October head of state, Erich Honecker, stepped down after more than 20 years in office; on 4th November the largest demonstration ever held in East Germany took place in Berlin; on 7th November the government of the GDR resigned.
And still, the opening of the border on 9th November came as a total surprise to Germans in East and West. Perhaps we were so ensconced in our (comfortable?) separateness that we did not see what was coming. Or was it that, as insiders, we were the ones who truly understood the utter unlikelihood of what was happening?
In Berlin, much thought went into the celebratory events that will be on the news over the next few days. Even after the balloons have gone, the German capital is a good place to go in order to try and understand better. I hate to admit that I last saw the city, wall and all, in 1987. Time to go back.

Read more articles from Open University academics about their knowledge and experiences of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

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