November 3, 2009
© Alexandra Avakian/Contact Press Images

© Alexandra Avakian/Contact Press Images

20 Years Ago: The Wall Comes Tumbling Down

It snaked through Berlin like a concrete python, the only barrier in history built to keep a nation's people locked inside.

For 28 years since 1961, the Berlin Wall — die Mauer — stood as a testament to the eternal struggle between open and closed societies. It was built because more than 3 million people fled communist East Germany after World War II. More than 200 East Germans died trying to cross it.

For all its might, the wall could not stop the flow of news into East Berlin from West German radio and television. In 1946, the United States launched Radio in the American Sector (RIAS), a popular radio station operated by Germans in West Berlin. People in East Berlin could receive the RIAS broadcasts, which became an important source of fact-based reports and fueled the quest for freedom.

The wall became a symbolic backdrop for dramatic statements by Western leaders — from President John F. Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner (I am a Berliner)," to President Ronald Reagan's "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

In 1989, the Berlin Wall did come down, spurred on by the deep human yearning for freedom that had toppled communist regimes across Eastern Europe. On the night of Nov. 9, just as abruptly as they had built the wall in the early morning darkness of Aug. 13, 1961, East German authorities opened the border — and the door to the fall of tyranny.

Crowds flowed through the wall near the Brandenburg Gate. Champagne flowed, too. Easterners crowded onto the Kurfürstendamm, Berlin's main shopping and dining street.

Jubilant Germans literally chipped away at one of the world's largest symbols of oppression. Within a week, the Berlin Wall and the German Democratic Republic had crumbled.

The Newseum's Berlin Wall Gallery features one of the largest public displays of Berlin Wall sections outside of Germany. Each of the eight wall sections is approximately four feet wide and 12 feet tall, and weighs three tons. The 40-foot-tall watchtower that stood less than a mile from "Checkpoint Charlie," the best-known crossing between East and West Berlin, is also part of the exhibit.

Photojournalist Alexandra Avakian was in Berlin on assignment for Life magazine the night the Berlin Wall fell. Her images of the historic event are featured on the Newseum's 40-foot-by-22-foot high-definition media screen, located in The New York Times–Ochs-Sulzberger Family Great Hall of News. Additional information on Avakian and her work can be found at www.fotoweekdc.org.

Witness to History

By Gene Mater, Freedom Forum media consultant

In the darkness of August 12 and into the day of August 13, 1961, construction of the wall began. I was a journalist working in Europe at the time, so I flew to Berlin the following day to witness this newest example of humankind's inhumanity.

At first, the wall wasn't an actual wall but barbed wire and concrete blocks that closed off what once had been through-streets between East and West Berlin. It was now guarded by well-armed East German police.

Perhaps the cruelest example of what a totalitarian regime was willing to do to imprison its people was found in the Bernauerstrasse, where people stared in disbelief as apartments on the east side of the street became a true wall. Workmen with sledge hammers knocked out casement windows and bricked up gaping holes to prevent escapes and the sight of freedom on the other side of the street.

Despite all this, dramatic escapes continued: People crawled through secret tunnels from East to West; cars small enough to go under road barriers were utilized; people swam or used boats and rafts across the river and canals that made up the east-west border. Some managed to escape and hundreds were killed by East German guards.

The wall was successful in stopping people, but it could not block out news from the West, particularly from Radio in American Sector (RIAS), the most popular radio station in East and West Berlin. RIAS was started by the U.S. Army in February 1946, and its initials became its official name. The broadcast staff was German.

On Nov. 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall came down as suddenly as it had gone up. Spontaneous celebrations took place on both sides of the wall to mark an otherwise peaceful revolution. I didn't make it to Berlin to take part in the celebration, but one of my sons who had grown up in Germany when I worked there, did. Less than a year later on October 3, 1990, Germany was officially unified as one nation once again.

Video blog: Rise and Fall of the Berlin Wall

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