Thirty-three years ago this week saw the official fall of Germany’s Berlin Wall. The infamous barrier grew to represent the Cold War — a tense rivalry between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Today, we’re on the scene in Berlin for an historic look at the iconic symbol.
Axel Klausmeier: This is the real wall.
Axel Klausmeier is today’s tour guide, showing us where remnants of the Berlin Wall remain.
Klausmeier: When the wall came down in '89, it was here that people stood up and said, "We have to keep something of this wall,” because so much happened here.
At the end of World War II, defeated Germany and the capital of Berlin were divided among the winners: the U.S., the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France.
Klausmeier: So we have eastern part of the city in the Soviet bloc, and we have the three western allies in the western sectors.
Construction of the 96-mile-long wall in Berlin began quietly in 1961. East Germany claimed it was an “anti-fascist bulwark” to keep out what they called right-wing “fascists” of the free west.
Klausmeier: So the real reason for the wall going up in August 1961 was simply that a great number of people were fleeing East Germany, communist East Germany. So, the last answer to this movement of people escaping is that the communist regime has: "We build a wall, so we keep people in, so that they cannot get out anymore." And this has all taken place here in this very street. And we have an icon of the Cold War: this is the defecting soldier, Konrad Schumann, again, in this very street. On August 15th, 1961, he's jumping over the barbed wire in front of western cameras, in the middle of the Cold War.
Berlin’s wall stood for two decades, impervious to challenge, until a new-thinking politician took over as Soviet leader.
Klausmeier: In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became the highest sort of communist leader in the Soviet Union. And with him, changes started.
Gorbachev pursued policies of greater openness, freedoms of speech and press, and democratization. He conferred with President Reagan on ways to end the Cold War.
President Ronald Reagan (June 12, 1987): Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate.
In 1987, in West Berlin, President Reagan made his famous call for the Berlin Wall to come down.
Reagan (June 12, 1987): Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.
The border officially crumbled on November 9, 1989, after demonstrators asked an East German official when the boundary was going to loosen.
Klausmeier: He said, "Oh, well, I don't know, well, I think, to my opinion, it's right now. Immediately." So everyone rushed to the border checkpoints and were producing so much force really so that the border guards, who were not informed about that, stood there and simply let people go. And that was the end. Because the wall itself was, sort of, the basis for the existence of the East German state. And as soon as the wall was down, the state was gone. We go to this memorial over there in the center.
Klausmeier (at memorial): We know of at least 140 people that died at the Berlin Wall between '61 and '89. And you can see it: the majority is young and male. Peter Fechter, he just wanted to have a better life and tried to escape, was shot down from the wall. He was wounded, and he was bleeding to death in front of the cameras.
Sharyl: 18 years old.
Klausmeier: Yeah. 18 years old. This is Gunter Litfin. He was the first person shot at the wall in 24th of August, '61. You can see some children here. Cengaver Katranci, a young Turkish boy. Giuseppe Sovoca, an Italian boy. And Cetin Mert, a young Turkish boy. They were all brought up in the west, no intention to escape. They all fell into the river. The river was already eastern territory. And as soon as you would have entered the river to rescue these poor creatures, you would have committed a border violence, as it was interpreted. And then the border guards would have had the right to shoot. That's why they all drowned to death. No one there to rescue these poor children. And that is their stories.
Sharyl (on-camera): The Berlin wall was patrolled by at least 12,000 border guards at any given time, or about 120 guards for every mile of wall.