On November 9, 1989, humanity was once again reminded that concrete will always break before the human spirit does.

Iron Curtain

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In 1945, with the carnage of World War II (mostly) settled, Western and Eastern leaders divvied up Germany into four “allied occupation zones.” Soviet-controlled Germany included the capital city of Berlin, which likewise was split into four zones. The American, British, and French-controlled sections became West Berlin, while Soviets controlled the eastern half.

Soviet Block

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Berlin fit awkwardly into the Soviet Bloc. Nikita Khrushchev later complained that the Western capitalist city “stuck like a bone in the Soviet throat.” Beginning in June 1948, the Soviets implemented a blockade on Berlin, attempting to choke West Berlin off from the Western-controlled parts of Germany.

Allied Airlift

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The blockade precipitated a crisis among Western leaders. Too much aggression in aiding West Berlin could turn the Cold War hot, but inaction meant acquiescence to the Soviet agenda. So the Allies began Operation VITTLES, popularly known as the Berlin Airlift. 

Colder In Siberia

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For over a year, American, British, and French forces airlifted food and supplies to West Berlin. By the time the Soviets lifted the blockade on May 12, 1949, the Allies had ferried 2.3 million tons of cargo to West Berliners.

Hooks And Some Wire

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The Berlin Blockade was a strategic failure for the Soviets. But after a decade of educated East Berliners defecting to West Germany—formally renamed the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949—the U.S.S.R. eventually saw the need to tighten their grip on their territory. In August of 1961, the Soviets created a makeshift barbed-wire barrier between East and West Berlin. They called it an “Antifascistischer Schutzwall,” or “antifascist bulwark.”

The “Death Strip”

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Over time, East German authorities built the bulwark into a formidable fortress: a 12-foot-high, 4-foot-thick concrete wall, prefaced on the Eastern side with “Death Strips” guarded by dogs, trip-wire traps, and soldiers ready to shoot on sight. The only gaps were three checkpoints—“Alpha,” “Bravo,” and “Charlie”—that only diplomats could cross through.

Escape Penalty

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Even as the Berlin Wall became more heavily fortified and guarded, East Berliners still attempted to escape to freedom on the other side of the wall. Methods varied: jumping out of windows near the wall, climbing over the barbed wire, crawling through sewers, tunneling under, or simply smashing through thin sections of the wall in trucks. 

Deaths At The Wall

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Thousands escaped Berlin, but not every attempt was successful. Guards killed 136 would-be escapees. Berlin was the East-West German divide in microcosm, and the wall was no exception: Nearly 200 people were killed and 4,000 arrested trying to cross the fortified border between East Germany and West Germany.

Reagan's Request

On June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan delivered an unflinching speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin: “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Cracks In The Facade

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But Mr. Gorbachev did not tear down the wall, and the world waited for more than two years for signs of a change. When the change did come, it was because of a mistake.

Civil Disobedience

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At a news conference on Nov. 9, 1989, Politburo officer Guenther Schabowski mistakenly said that East Germans would be able to cross into West Germany. Thousands of East Germans gathered at checkpoints, demanding to be let through. 

Rusting Curtain

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Harald Jaeger, an Eastern German lieutenant guarding the Bornholmer Street crossing, heard Schabowski’s conference. As the unruly crowd at his gate pressed forward, he tried appeasing the rowdiest people by allowing them through.

The Dam Breaks

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But once the crowd realized people had gotten through the wall, they only pushed with greater fervor. At 11:30 p.m., Jaeger defied orders and opened the gates to 20,000 Germans who crossed through to both sides.

Curtain Call

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Berliners started tearing away at the wall with picks and their bare hands. Soon the cranes arrived, precipitating the wall’s fall, or “Mauerfall.” On Nov. 10, 1989, The Wall Street Journal called the broken wall a “fallen symbol” of “immense symbolic importance” in a “28-year fight for freedom.”

Empire Falls

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In the wake of the wall’s destruction, Walt W. Rostow, who was President John F. Kennedy’s national security adviser during the 1961 Berlin crisis, said, “It’s evident Stalin’s empire is disintegrating.” The 25th anniversary of the fall is commemorated in Berlin with “Lichtgrenze,” an eight-mile installation of lights where the wall once stood.

German Reunification

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The nations of East and West Germany reunified on October 3, 1990. In some ways, it was the final conclusion of the World War that had first divided the world. But in some ways, the nation is still riven with economic disparity and generational divides.

Worlds Apart

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Although the Berlin Wall has long since been reduced to rubble, more than a few modern walls—both cultural and man-made—divide people today in places like Korea, Cyprus, Belfast, Morocco, Israel and Palestine, India, and Pakistan.