THE BERLIN WALL On August 13, 1961, the Communist government of the German Democratic Republic (GDR, or East Germany) began to build a barbed wire and concrete wall " between East and West Berlin. It was called the "Antifascistischer Schutzwall," or "antifascist bulwark,” and its official purpose was to keep Western "fascists" from entering E. Germany and sabotaging the communist state. The wall’s real purpose was to stem the tide of defections from East to West Berlin (over 2 million people left E. Berlin from 1945 to 1961 out of a population under 4 million).
The Berlin Wall stood until November 9, 1989, when the head of the East German Communist Party announced that East Berliners would be allowed to cross the border. This decision was made during a period when the Soviet Union’s leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, had relaxed the strict repression of communism in an effort to revive a crumbling Soviet economy. Soviet satellites took their cue from Gorbachev, who was restructuring the centrally-planned economy and allowing citizens greater freedom of expression.
As soon as the E. German official said travel restrictions would be lifted, crowds swarmed the wall. Some crossed freely into West Berlin, while others, afraid the border may close again before they got through, brought hammers and picks and began to tear down the wall.
To this day, the Berlin Wall remains one of the most powerful and enduring symbols of the Cold War, during which the U.S. and Soviet Union faced off against each other for decades. The fact that “the people” hacked down the wall in a quest for freedom is also a powerful symbol of the triumph of democracy over communism.
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