The secret history of the Berlin Wall

Twenty years after it fell, Patrick Major analyses the brinkmanship, machinations and top secret manoeuvres that led to the building of the great icon of the Cold War

Children at the Berlin Wall on Sebastianstrasse, Berlin - Kreuzberg - in around 1964. (Photo by Lehnartz/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the November 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine

Twenty years ago this month, on 9 November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. This reinforced concrete edifice, the arch-symbol of the Cold War, had been toppled from within, by a mixture of people power on the streets and mistakes at the top by the East German communist party.

Although the wall’s days were probably already numbered, the speed with which it fell seemed to confirm the cock-up theory of history. Günter Schabowski, the party’s press spokesman, turned what was supposed to be an orderly queue at police stations for passports into a stampede for the border checkpoints after mistakenly declaring that all restrictions on travelling abroad were lifted with immediate effect. The party seemed to have finally fallen victim to its own mismanagement, unequal to the challenge of reform from above started by Soviet bloc leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Less than a year later the German Democratic Republic (GDR) would have disappeared within a united Germany. This incompetence was in marked contrast, however, with the story of the wall’s rise on 13 August 1961.

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