This unusually chipper piece of concrete once stood in the center of Berlin. Molded in a hurry in August 1961, the Berlin Wall is probably the single most enduring symbol of Communism in history–which is a reason why pieces of the Wall like this one have found their way into museums all over the world. But unlike other famous walls in history (Hadrian’s, the Theodosian Walls of Constantinople, the Great Wall of China) the Berlin Wall’s place in history is dependent not so much on its construction, but its dramatic destruction on November 9, 1989.
After Berlin was divided during the Allied occupation of Germany following the Second World War, many thousands of Germans who found themselves, after 1949, living in the Deutsche Democratik Republik–East Germany–sought to find a way to get to East Berlin. The simple reason was that it was much easier to defect to the West from there than it was from elsewhere in Germany. Distressed that most of the defectors were well-educated young men and fearing “brain drain,” the Communist authorities, and Nikita Khrushchev in particular, ordered that the Berlin border be closed and the Wall erected, sparking a major crisis with U.S. President John F. Kennedy. The Wall worked. The flood of defections slowed to a trickle, but people still tried to get across–and at least 100 died trying between 1961 and 1989. Then, after Gorbachev came to power in the USSR and began to liberalize the Communist world, the Eastern Bloc authorities started to lose their grip. The Soviets wouldn’t back them. Suddenly thousands of East Germans started going on “vacations” to the West, especially, in late summer 1989, to Hungary, where borders were first opened up. In mid-October, as a result of protests over border restrictions, the old guard DDR government fell. The new government of Egon Krenz promised to open the border checkpoints. On November 9, when this announcement was made, Germans stormed the wall with sledgehammers and guards did nothing to stop them. It was all over.
I remember watching these events on TV at my home in Oregon. I was 17 and this was one of the most amazing things I’d ever seen in my life. It still is. Watching happy Germans smash this concrete monstrosity with pickaxes and sledgehammers, while singing songs and toasting with beer and champagne, is a memory that will stay in my head until the day I die.
This section of the Wall stands outside the Imperial War Museum in London. It’s evidently a popular place for visitors to take “selfies.”