Editor’s Pick

01 December 2017
patrick hertzog / afp / getty images

ON 22 DECEMBER 1989, thousands of people gathered on the streets of Berlin to watch a ceremony where Helmut Kohl, the chancellor of West Germany, and Hans Modrow, the East German prime minister, shook hands and announced the official reopening of the Brandenburg Gate.

An eighteenth-century monument and iconic landmark in Berlin, the gate was part of the Berlin Wall dividing Germany between 1961 and 1989. After the country’s defeat in the Second World War, West Germany, also known as the Federal Republic of Germany, was occupied by Allied forces. East Germany, or the German Democratic Republic, was ruled by Soviet Russia.

Around 2.5 million people fled East Germany between 1949 and 1961. The Berlin Wall was built in August 1961 after Walter Ulbricht, the leader of the East German Communist Party, ordered the construction of a barricade to prevent mass migrations. In a covert operation called “Operation Rose,” a barbed-wire fence, which was later replaced by a concrete wall, was put up overnight, cutting apart families and neighbourhoods.

Beginning in 1960, several restrictions, including special permits and visa requirements, were imposed on travel between the two parts of Germany. Although there were nine border crossings between East and West Berlin, French, American and British people could enter East Berlin only with a permit, and through a single Allied guardhouse in West Berlin’s American zone called Checkpoint Charlie. The Brandenburg Gate was one of the border crossings between East and West Berlin before it was closed in August 1961.

The East German Communist Party lifted the restrictions on border crossings on 9 November 1989—an event remembered as the “fall of the Berlin Wall.” East Germans were granted the right to a passport, and allowed to travel out of the country. West Germans no longer required a visa to travel to East Germany.