On a cold evening nearly 30 years ago today, thousands of East Berliners crowded checkpoints along the Berlin Wall. For years, they had been trapped in communism, separated from families and loved ones by the ugly concrete wall that split the city in half.
As the crowds grew, they faced armed guards blocking the gates and staring down at them from barbed-wire-covered towers. The crowds knew what might happen. At least 171 of their fellow citizens had been killed trying to escape to freedom over, under or through the wall.
Freedom by Accident
The people of East Berlin had been dreaming about this moment for almost three decades. Now there was a glimmer of hope.
A government official, in the midst of a routine briefing televised throughout the country, read aloud a statement announcing the government would be relaxing some of their travel restrictions. Reporters asked when the changes would take effect. The official, who had no information about the new policy besides what had been handed to him, said “immediately.”
Chaos ensued. The guards at the gates hadn’t been informed. No one knew what to do. Soldiers put in frantic calls to their commanding officers as throngs of East Germans demanded to be let through. Soon crowds of West Germans formed on the other side of the wall, demanding freedom for their fellow Berliners. Someone took a sledgehammer to a section of the graffitied concrete barrier.
Faced with the choice between opening the gates or opening fire on the crowd, the guards gave up. Throngs of Germans poured through the gates cheering, crying and laughing. West Berliners greeted them with flowers and beer. Separated families shared hugs. Young men and women danced on top of the wall.
Other Germans joined the assault on the wall with chisels and hammers. They would pull down whole sections over the next few days. East Berlin guards used water cannons and threats to keep them away, but it was too late. Within the next year, the wall was torn down, and Germany was officially reunified.
The Courage of Ordinary Citizens
The end of communism in East Germany would never have happened without the courage of ordinary citizens.
Anti-communist activists had been staging protests with increasing boldness in the months leading up to that fateful day. The groups had been operating in secret for years and were rapidly growing as more Germans—especially youth—became disgruntled with the communist regime.
Activists were emboldened by travel restrictions in other countries under Soviet Russia’s control, and by President Reagan’s speech in front of the Brandenburg gate where he issued a simple demand: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
On November 4, 1989, nearly half a million Germans gathered to demand their freedom. The chants had changed from demanding to be let out of East Germany to demanding reunification as protesters shouted “We are staying here!”
It was a bloodless revolution. In January of 1989, the leader of East Germany boldly predicted the Berlin Wall would stand for 50 or 100 years more. By June of 1990, the East German government was using cranes to tear down the wall.
The fall of the Berlin Wall is an example of what ordinary citizens can do if they are committed to their cause and work together. Years of courageous organizing, months of protests and thousands of Berliners demanding freedom accomplished what no outside government could have done.
We can carry on the bold legacy of the East Berlin activists today by fighting for freedom in America. Click here to learn more about how you can develop your skills as a grassroots activist.