Reflections on Fall of the Berlin Wall: 25 Years Later

photo: Hope Harrison and students at the Wall of Lights in Berlin
December 11, 2014

On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall — which had separated East Berlin from West Berlin for almost 30 years — went from serving as a grim reminder of the divide between East and West to serving as a beacon of hope to those living under Communist rule. Less than two years later, the Soviet Union dissolved and the Cold War ended.

“The Berlin Wall was the quintessential symbol of the Cold War, and its collapse in that surprising and spectacular way, really marked a major turning point in world history,” said Mary Beth Stein, associate professor of German and international affairs, in an interview with GW Today.

“Few people really know what, in fact, happened on November 9, 1989,” said Hope Harrison, an associate professor of history and international affairs at GW and an expert on the Berlin Wall, in an interview with the Elliott School’s Web Video Initiative (WVI). “The wall wasn’t supposed to open. It was a mistake. A poorly-prepared senior Communist party official went in front of an international press conference and hadn’t been at the key meeting talking about some reforms East Germany was making in the context of Gorbachev’s reforms of Communism, reforms next door in Poland, and also in Hungary. People in East Germany were frustrated with Communism and wanted some changes, and one of those was they wanted freedom of travel, which they hadn’t had since 1961, with the building of the Berlin Wall.”

That party official, says Dr. Harrison, mistakenly announced that the wall was open immediately to anyone who wanted to pass through. Rather than slowly introducing a policy to allow East Germans to apply for visas for travel to West Berlin and West Germany  which had been agreed upon by the East German Communists  the floodgates were opened and East Germans poured into the West.

“On November 9 [1989], I thought friends had played a practical joke on me when I heard the announcement of the opening of the wall on my car radio,” said Dr. Stein in a Q&A with GW Today. “My first reaction was complete and utter disbelief at the unexpected and dramatic fall of the wall.”

Added Dr. Harrison, “I was on a plane to Berlin on the afternoon of November 9, before anything had happened. I arrived early on November 10 and was in Berlin for 10 amazing days of watching new border crossing points open; seeing people laughing, crying, and hugging each other; and champagne being sold on every street corner.”

This November, Dr. Harrison spent the weeks around the 25th anniversary in Berlin, giving lectures, talking with the media, and attending celebrations commemorating the fall of the wall  which, she says, went from the “shame” of Germany to the country’s “pride.” One celebration involved the installation of 8,000 balloons along a nine-mile stretch where the wall used to stand. Dr. Harrison arranged to have GW-affiliated groups and individuals sponsor 11 balloons, each of which carried a short message. These balloons were all released into the air at the same time on the evening of November 9  exactly 25 years after the wall fell  and will be landing all over Berlin in the weeks following the anniversary. GW students who were in Berlin at the time of the anniversary joined her to celebrate the symbolic anniversary.

Dr. Harrison and her colleagues at the Elliott School’s Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies (IERES) also hosted a number of events discussing the Berlin Wall and its legacy. On November 17, a panel of eyewitnesses to the Berlin Wall’s demise discussed the topic, “Who Tore Down the Iron Curtain and Why?” These panelists were from countries including Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland.

Though the wall preceded the vast majority of Elliott School undergraduates, many understand its legacy and significance. This is in large part due to courses that they have taken at GW, including a class entitled “The Two Germanys and the Cold War,” taught by Dr. Harrison. 

Throughout the semester, Dr. Harrison’s class toured Washington, DC, and visited numerous locations that housed pieces of the Berlin Wall, including the Newseum.

“The funny thing is that there are now more pieces of the Berlin Wall outside of Germany on display than there are in Germany  including in the U.S.,” said Dr. Harrison  who has her own pieces of the wall.

The visits supplemented what students learned in class, and provided a more complete picture of the wall and its impact on Germany and on the world. It also provided an important lesson in history – that change may always be just around the corner.

“I think that what the wall teaches us is that anything can happen in the blink of an eye,” said GW undergraduate Lauren Sander in a video produced for and by Dr. Harrison’s class. “No one thought East and West Germany would ever be divided. No one thought that the wall would ever come up, and no one thought it would ever come down.”