BERLIN – Residents of Berlin, along with citizens throughout the rest of the country, celebrated on Monday a landmark date in modern German history: the wall that used to separate the eastern and western sectors of the city has officially been down for the same time as it stood.
The time that has elapsed – 10,316 days – since the Berlin Wall’s fall began on Nov. 9, 1989, is thus now equivalent to the period during which it physically and politically divided what is now the capital of a reunified German Federal Republic.
“28 years, two months and 26 days: that’s the time the wall separated Germany and exactly that time is today history,” said Interior Minister Thomas de Maizičre in a statement. “What our country has achieved since its fall must be celebrated and used to counter the forces that seek to divide our society.”
The anniversary has been celebrated by the German government and by all major political parties, which issued several statements describing how the demise of the so-called Iron Curtain heralded the end of Europe’s profound division during the Cold War era between capitalist Western countries aligned with the United States and socialist Eastern nations allied to the Soviet Union.
“Today marks a reason to realize the importance of freedom,” said the Berlin branch of the Social Democratic Party on Twitter. “We are humbled by History.”
“Nothing represents the failure of state socialism as much as the fact that it had to force its own people to remain in it,” said the leader of the progressive party The Left, Gregor Gysi. “Societies that require walls in order to exist have no future.”
“This is something we should keep in mind now that new walls are being built – this time to keep those outside from coming in,” he added.
Alliance 90/The Greens, the country’s foremost environmentalist party, said that it would push to preserve the wall’s demarcation lines to remind citizens of the separation that affected so many Berliners.
Construction of the wall began on Aug. 17, 1961, in an attempt by the German Democratic Republic to stem the “brain drain” and demographic decline caused by mass emigration to West Germany. An estimated 3.5 million people had already crossed into the west since the end of World War II, mainly through Berlin.
In the almost three decades that it stood, about 5,000 East Germans defected by circumventing the wall; some jumped over the barbed wire fencing, others dug tunnels underneath it, rammed their cars through the barriers, flew over it in hot air balloons or even crawled through the city’s old sewage system.
Between 98 and 200 defectors died in their bids to overcome the wall (the figures remain disputed to this day), as border guards had orders to shoot any “traitor” attempting to escape the GDR.
In the late 1980s, Western artists such as David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen or David Hasselhoff held massive concerts next to the wall and called for an end to the barrier.
In 1987, US President Ronald Reagan famously urged the general secretary of the USSR’s Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev, to “tear down this wall.”
Following popular uprisings against the socialist regimes in Hungary and Poland, East Germans began to stage vast peaceful demonstrations in the autumn of 1989 to protest the strict travel restrictions, which ultimately led to the resignation of the country’s leader since 1971, Erich Honecker.
At 10:45 pm on Nov. 9, faced with thousands of people clamoring to cross the border, guards opened the checkpoints and allowed the swarm of eager “Ossis” (East Germans) to pass to the other side, prompting celebratory dancing and boisterous revelry among them and “Wessis” alike.
Over the following months, demolition crews tore down most of the 184 kilometers (114 miles) of concrete that formed the wall, leaving only small sections to be preserved as a memorial.
Today, tourists visiting a united Berlin are still able to behold those few remnants of the recent past, a very different time when geopolitical rivalries and ideology divided two rival Germanies, separated brothers from sisters and split in half a country that now – despite many difficulties and economic disparities between the former blocs – finds itself made whole again.