“The Berlin Wall, ladies and gentlemen, is history, and it teaches us: No wall that keeps people out and restricts freedom is so high or so wide that it can’t be broken down.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared these powerful words at a memorial service near the original site of the wall. Leaders of European countries gathered together on November 9, 2019 to commemorate thirty years since the Berlin Wall fell.
In 1961, the construction of the Berlin Wall began. It was first made with barbed wire and cinder blocks and then was advanced with concrete walls, guards, and mines. Throughout the Cold War, the structure extended 28 miles through Berlin and 75 miles around democratic West Berlin, dividing it from communist East Germany. From 1949 to 1961, a total of 2.5 million Germans fled to the West for freedom, though as many as 718 people who attempted died. Finally, after 28 years, the communist leadership was removed from power in 1989 and the walls fell—marking a physical end to the Cold War.
In honor of the 30th anniversary, here are just a few of the many fascinating stories to be remembered:
Small Mistake, Massive Result
Günter Schabowski, East Germany’s spokesman, received a decision by the communist government to begin enabling people to travel to West Germany in a controlled manner. Schabowski then announced this at a press conference in the evening. One reporter asked when the decision would take place. Since the note provided no information about this question, he answered: “As far as I know — effective immediately, without delay.” News spread and 20,000 East Germans gathered at the border chanting “open the gate.” After the commander received no response from higher authorities, he ordered the checkpoints opened at 11:30 pm. The spokesman was later sentenced to three years in prison for his involvement in the state murder of those fleeing to West Germany but was pardoned after one year. For the rest of his life, Schabowski remained a strong opposer to the socialist and communist parties. He passed away in 2015.
A Homemade Balloon
Two families, the Strelzyks and the Wetzels, discovered their way of escaping to West Berlin: a homemade hot air balloon. In a recent interview for the release of the film Balloon, Günter Wetzel described his method of escape, “A cloth sack, put some hot air in it, and up we go. While I’m happy now that we took that decision, if I had the knowledge I have now I wouldn’t do it, because it was so dangerous, but I didn’t recognize that then,” he said.
The wives, Petra Wetzel and Doris Strelzyk, spent months stitching curtains, bedsheets, and shower liners to piece together a 60-foot-wide and 75-foot-high balloon. One night, the men tested out the winds and decided it was time. They constructed a metal platform surrounded by four iron pipes and sides made of rope. Using a homemade flamethrower and four tanks of propane gas, they heated the air inside the balloon. The balloon shot up quickly, and the families scrambled to get on. Among the traveling clan were children as young as two, all up in the air at a temperature of negative eight degrees centigrade. After a 28 minute flight across 15 miles, they landed in a farmer’s field. Then, they spotted an Audi automobile, the car produced in West Germany. Success!
Thirty years later, on the first week of November of 2019, around 200 events have been held in Berlin alone, and more in other parts of Germany—fireworks, concerts and public debates.
Built by the government and torn down by its people, the Berlin Wall is a story of sacrifice, freedom, and victory.