The Fall of the Berlin Wall

East Germans recall their experiences 25 years after the DDR’s slow death.

Richard Millington | Published in 23 Oct 2014

The extent to which its existence affected individuals’ lives varied. To find out more about how East German citizens experienced the existence and demise of the Wall, I carried out oral history interviews with 40 of them in the city of Magdeburg. Some complained that they were no longer able to watch the latest Hollywood releases in West Berlin cinemas. For others, the Wall did not just divide countries, it divided families; one woman found herself cut off from her twin sister in the West. Other interviewees, though not supporters of the SED, recalled the Wall with surprising stoicism, recounting that its construction was an economic necessity. Between 1949, when East Germany was founded, and 1961 around 2.7 million people left the country. Many of those who fled were vital to the East German economy, such as engineers and farmers, and could not easily be replaced.

Those interviewees too young to remember life before the Wall did not easily come to terms with its existence. One woman felt that it was a disgrace that she learned French at school and used maps of Paris to do so, a city that she was convinced she would never see because of the Wall. Another recalled that he encountered the Wall at least once a year when visiting friends in East Berlin. The tram he took travelled directly along its route. He would gaze out of the window at the imposing grey barrier, slicing streets and lives in two, and would think: ‘This is so miserable. What have we actually done here?’

In 1989 citizens’ dissatisfaction with the SED came to a head. With the state nearing bankruptcy and living conditions steadily worsening, the SED’s refusal to change course angered many. As other Eastern Bloc countries cautiously welcomed Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika and Glasnost initiatives, the SED rejected them. In 1987 Politburo member Kurt Hager had dismissed the changes occurring in the Soviet Union with jarring flippancy: ‘If your neighbour put up new wallpaper in his home, would you feel obliged to put up new wallpaper in your own?’ Demonstrations for ‘societal renewal’ began to take place across East Germany from September 1989 onwards. The turning point came in Leipzig on October 9th, when up to 100,000 marched peacefully. The security forces did not intervene, handing the momentum to the demonstrators and paving the way for the fall of the Wall in November. 

Many of those I interviewed, who had been in their 50s and 60s in 1989, stated that their experience of the protests of 1953 deterred them from taking part in the 1989 protest. On June 17th, 1953 an uprising of almost one million people took place across East Germany in an effort to overthrow the regime. Soviet troops put an end to the uprising, resulting in the deaths of almost 100 people. One man, who had nearly been crushed by a tank in 1953, was in Leipzig on October 9th, 1989. He found himself cowering in his hotel room for the entire evening, frozen with fear.

The majority of interviewees who attended demonstrations in 1989 were in their 20s and 30s at the time. Though some admitted to being afraid, they recalled that their frustration with their lives and opportunities drove them to protest. As one woman recalled: ‘What tipped the balance was the feeling of being caged. I just thought: right, now, enough is enough.’

On November 9th, as 8,000 illuminated white balloons are released into the Berlin sky in commemoration of the fall of the Wall, it may seem inconceivable to many that a physical barrier once divided Germany, families and, ultimately, the world. Yet for 28 years it was almost impossible to imagine that the Wall would ever fall.