Expert Comment: 25 years since the fall of the Berlin WallThursday 6 November 2014
Twenty five years on from the fall of the Berlin Wall Christopher Williams, Professor in Modern History at Liverpool Hope, begins a two-part look at the events of November 1989.
It is estimated that between 1949 and 1961, some 2.7 million people moved from East to West Germany. The West German 'economic miracle' of the 1950s exerted a powerful 'pull' on many East Germans, especially the young and relatively mobile, and in particular skilled workers, engineers and technicians who were in great demand. So the East German government urgently needed to stop the “Brain Drain” from East to West as this was costing the German Democratic Republic (DDR) 2.5 to 3 billion DM in production losses alone and seriously threatened Ulbricht’s goal of surpassing West Germany's economic performance.
The Berlin Wall was established on the night of the 12-13 August 1961 and was geared towards stemming the flow of refugees from the then DDR to West Germany (FRG).
Although East German propaganda portrayed the Wall as supported by the people, recently declassified archives show that in fact there was popular hostility to this move with government reports highlighting angry responses such as: 'This is not democracy or freedom if one cannot even visit relatives’. We need to remember however that no major protests or co-ordinated demonstrations of any kind were possible then, but the lack of them doesn’t mean popular agreement with the Wall. Those that did protest between 13 August and 4 September 1961 faced a political crackdown, with over 6,000 people arrested by the police.
In theory the Wall deprived ordinary East Germans of the opportunity of emigrating westwards but that didn’t stop people trying to escape in tunnels, over fences, diving from windows etc. At least 136 people were shot dead, suffered fatal accidents or committed suicide after a failed escape attempt to cross the Berlin Wall. Most of these took place between 1961-75 (118 people), with a smaller number dying in the period 1976-89, only 18 victims.
Historians and political scientists have long debated why the wall was necessary and who was responsible. There are three explanations: some argue that Khrushchev and the Soviet leadership wanted to block the nuclearization of West Germany or secondly, to provoke the Crisis in order to restore his authority at home. But more recent research, which I tend to agree with, shows that Khrushchev unleashed the Crisis in response to pressures from the "hawks" (hardliners) in the Kremlin and from GDR leader Walter Ulbricht.