The Berlin Wall was the
concrete barrier between West Germany -- governed by democratic Western powers
-- and communist-ruled East Germany. It also separated the city of Berlin into
two parts, split families and created hardships on both sides.
To mark the occasion, current German Chancellor Angela Merkel, on a trip to the
United States, thanked Americans for helping Germany reunite after the wall fell.
"Today's generation needs to prove that it is able to meet the challenges
of the 21st century," Merkel said, "and that, in a sense, we are able to tear
down walls of today.”
Leaders and officials from around
the world will gather in Berlin for official anniversary celebrations.
War II victors divide Germany
After 1949, maps showed a divided Germany.
At the end of World War II, Germany
was divided into four zones to be owned by the Allied Powers: the Soviet Union,
United States, Great Britain and France.
The four nations
intended to reunify the city eventually, but as their relationship with the communist
Soviet Union deteriorated, the three democratic countries combined their zones
to form West Germany and the Soviet Union created East Germany in 1949.
Although the city of Berlin sat completely inside the Soviet zone, the
city itself was similarly divided into a Western democratic side and a communist
Within the first few years of separation, the two sides of
Berlin became dramatically different: West Berlin experienced a period of economic
growth, while East Berlin fell into a period of economic and social decline.
Germany erects a barrier
In 1963, Pres. John F. Kennedy declared "Ich bin ein Berliner," or "I
am a Berliner" to show support for West Berlin.
Many East Berliners, eager to
escape their declining side of the city, crossed the border into West Berlin and
flew to West Germany. By 1961, as many as 2.5 million people had left East Germany.
The Communist Party that controlled East Germany decided
that enough was enough and unexpectedly closed the border. In a few days,
East Berlin erected a concrete wall more than 100 miles long, separating families
and friends for decades to come.
"The East Germans with little
cranes were moving huge cement flower pots and positioning them across the roadways
that go under the Brandenburg Gate. And so it looked like a joke at first -- they're
sealing it off with flowers," recalled former NewsHour co-anchor Robert MacNeil,
who was a junior correspondent for NBC covering the events in Germany at the time.
But when he looked to the right and left he said he could see the East Germans
erecting barbed wire fences before filling in the barrier with cinder blocks.
"These were actually the first moments of the beginning of the Berlin
Wall. ... The tension had been building for months," MacNeil said.
The wall became symbolic of what British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called
the "Iron Curtain," a metaphorical divide between democratic and communist nations
that characterized the Cold War of the 1960s, '70s and '80s.
fall of the wall and the Iron Curtain
Broken off chunks of the Berlin Wall have become popular souvenirs for tourists.
On November 9, 1989, as communism
began to decline in many countries in Eastern Europe, a government official mistakenly
announced that visa restrictions would be eased effective immediately.
Crowds of Berliners from both sides of the city began to storm the wall and during
weeks of euphoric celebration, the wall was destroyed.
and West Germany reunited in October of 1990.
"It was one
of those moments when you know this is a turning point in history, just as the
beginning of the building of the wall in 1961 was a turning point," MacNeil said.
Watch a 1989 NewsHour roundtable conversation about what the fall of
the wall meant to Europe and the U.S. here.