Berlin Wall


Berlin Wall
(1989)
   When the infamous Berlin Wall was surprisingly opened and then torn down in November of 1989, what ensued was the unification of the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) with the capitalist Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), the end of the communist regime in East Germany, and the eventual unraveling of the stranglehold of the Soviet Union on Eastern and Central Europe. The event symbolized something of a death knell for MarxismLeninism throughout the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc. The wall was erected to divide the communist east of Berlin from the capitalist west on 12 August 1961, initially as an impromptu network of barbed wire and cinderblocks, and eventually as over 160 kilometers of concrete walls, guard towers and mine fields. The GDR administration ordered the erection of the partition to stem a tide of refugees that had seen some two to three and a half million people defect from East Germany to West since the conclusion of World War II. Such large-scale desertion caused ideological embarrassment for the GDR hierarchy, as citizens fled west to escape the authoritarian rule of the East German Communist Party (SED). In addition fiscal difficulties arose, as workers with highly sought-after skills joined the drain west in search of greater financial reward, placing a further dent in the depressed eastern economy. The formation of the Berlin Wall did not, however, altogether halt the defections, with approximately 5,000 easterners making it through between 1961 and 1989. Yet many met a far more unpleasant end, with up to 350 killed trying to cross the heavily guarded wall, and thousands more ending up wounded, captured or both. The Berlin Wall became an almost literal manifestation of the “iron curtain” that had sprung up between communist and capitalist states following the end of World War II, and for those in the Cold War–fixated West, stood to represent the ailments of Soviet communism.
   While continued economic relations with the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) meant that the GDR withstood economic pressures more easily than other communist states in the region, by 1989 the East German economy was nonetheless ailing. The SED rejection in 1986 of Mikhail Gorbachev’s ideas for economic reform, and a growing international distaste for the command economy countries of Eastern and Central Europe, left the GDR to cope with falling living standards and dwindling growth rates. The GDR had become increasingly reliant on aid from the Soviet Union, and so when in October of 1989 Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze announced that Moscow would now take a noninterventionist stance toward its allies in Eastern Europe, and on a visit to Berlin Gorbachev firmly stated that the Soviets would not back a repression of the campaign for reform in the GDR, Eric Honecker’s SED regime was desperately weakened. Power was undermined further in a wave of prodemocracy demonstrations in the GDR and beyond, as isolation from capitalist states and the Soviet Union, and the resultant harshening of economic conditions for communist populations prompted widespread upheaval and demands for reform.
   Revolt in the GDR had been brewing throughout 1989. During the summer, scores of East German tourists in Hungary had scattered west over the recently demilitarized border with Austria, while others besieged East German embassies in Prague and Warsaw. The result of this was ballooning popular pressure and opposition to the ruling regime in the GDR. This materialized in the re-founding of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), the establishment in September of the Neues Forum, the growth in civil rights action groups, and mass demonstrations on the streets of Berlin (where 500,000 gathered to call for an end to communist rule), Dresden, Leipzig and elsewhere. All of this prompted hasty changes in the highest echelons of the SED hierarchy. Between June and November, nearly 2 percent of the population of the GDR migrated west, and decades of solidarity between Eastern Bloc communist leaders vanished as Budapest allowed tens of thousands of East Germans to pass through Hungary, where previously regimes had maintained the grip on power of one another by compelling visitors to return to their country of origin. With such an air of change permeating the GDR, the government was forced to seek desperate measures to ensure the regime’s survival, halt the population hemorrhage, maintain order and quell unrest. Dramatically and unexpectedly, the government of the GDR saw fit on 9 November to open up the Berlin Wall under the supposition that if the people of the east were given the concession of freedom of travel, the breakup of the country could be averted. The opening of the wall was hastened along with gusto by thousands of jubilant Germans who gathered amid wild celebrations to tear down the wall and all it stood for.
   While the SED leaders hoped this concession to the clamor for reform would ensure the survival of their regime and the GDR, the collapse of communism and the reunification of East and West Germany were in fact imminent. Just weeks after the opening of the wall, the SED was compelled by overwhelming pressure to renounce its “leading role” in politics, economy and society, to enter into roundtable negotiations with opposition factions and parties, and to set up a timetable for the implementation of free elections. On 18 March 1990 the first and last free elections in the GDR took place. The victory of the Alliance For Germany coalition, with backing from FRG leader Helmut Kohl, laid down a clear mandate for reunification of East and West, and the GDR joined the FRG in October 1990 under Article 23 of the West German Basic Law. Within a year of the fall of the Berlin Wall the communist regime of the GDR had ceased to exist, and the SED party fragmented into smaller “successor” parties such as the Party of Democratic Socialism. The events of 1989 sparked a remarkable and unexpected end to the great experiment of Marxism–Leninism that had begun in Russia in 1917. As the year began, there existed a general consensus in the West that communism’s grip on the Soviet Union and Eastern and Central Europe would last into the new millennium. However, by the end of 1989, communist regimes throughout that region had collapsed or were on the verge of collapse, with partially free elections in Poland and fully free ones in Hungary, the resignation of the hardline regime in Czechoslovakia, and the deposing of Nicolae Ceaucescu in Romania.

Historical dictionary of Marxism. . 2014.

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