On this day in 1989 Germans began to tear down the Berlin Wall. The 155 km (96 mile) wall had split East and West Germany in two through Berlin since 1961. Prior to the wall’s construction, upwards of 3 million Germans crossed into West Germany to escape communist East Berlin; after the wall’s construction, emigration was nearly impossible (although roughly 100,000 people risked their lives to cross the border at various points). The Wall was an important part of life for Berliners – at some points, it crossed through homes and gardens. But at 7:17 PM on November 9th, a Socialist party official made a blundering announcement that the border had been opened. The following morning, Berliners began gathering at the wall demanding passage to the West or, in many cases, smashing it down with sledgehammers. The German Democratic Republic (GDR) had not yet collapsed, but everyday Germans were tired of waiting for institutional change.
The Berlin Wall came to represent the larger separation of East and West during the Cold War. The “Iron Curtain” – a term attributed to Winston Churchill, but coined earlier by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels – is typically used to describe the division between East and West Germany, NATO and the Warsaw Pact, the “Free World” and the Communist Bloc. The wall symbolized this division perfectly, and as joyful Germans (citizens and soldiers alike) began to chip away at the wall on this day in 1989, it provided a symbolic end to the Cold War (although the USSR officially disbanded in 1991).