The Berlin Wall, a symbol of division between Eastern and Western Europe for three decades, fell on Nov. 9, 1989. The winds of change in Eastern Europe shook the foundations of the wall. Images of Germans, relieved as they stood on the finally crumbling structure, capture the era. The wall’s collapse rippled back across Eastern Europe, and largely peaceful revolutions ended communist rule in one country after another. The Soviet Union fell just over two years later. Two decades on, we revisit the wall’s collapse and shed light on its significance.
Below is a timeline of the events.
1945 MAY 8—Germany surrenders and WWII ends in Europe. Four “occupation zones” are formed by the major powers, including France, the United States, and the United Kingdom, forming West Germany; on the other side was the Soviet Union, forming East Germany.
1946 OCT. 29—An “Interzonenpass,” valid for 30 days, is required to travel between the East and West sectors of Germany.
1948 JUNE 24—After the Western allies refuse to accept the currency introduced in the Soviet-occupied zone in Berlin, the Soviets begin a blockade of West Berlin.
1948 JUNE 25—Allied forces start using planes to supply the 2.2 million citizens in the occupied, West part of Berlin, who had been cut of power and supplies; the initiative is called the “Berlin Airbridge.”
1949 APRIL 4—The Northern Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is founded.
1949 MAY 23—The Federal Republic of Germany is founded in West Germany.
1949 OCT. 7—Under the supervision of the Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic is founded.
1952 MAY 26—The border between East and West Germany is closed.
1953 JUNE 16—Construction workers in East Berlin go on strike, leading to massive protests in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). The protesters are met with violent repression and at least 55 are killed.
1955 MAY 14—The Warsaw Pact, a military alliance between communist countries in Eastern Europe, is signed as counterforce against NATO.
1956 JUNE 28—Factory workers in Poznan, Poland, protest against the communist regime. They are met with violence and at least 74 are reported killed.
1956 OCT. 23—The student-led Hungarian Revolution begins. Hungary was close to withdrawing from the Warsaw Pact and embracing democracy, but on Nov. 4 a large Soviet force invaded the country and crushed the revolution, killing at least 3,200.
1961 AUG. 13—Construction of the Berlin Wall begins.
1963 JUNE 26—President J. F. Kennedy visits Berlin and says: “Ich bin ein Berliner.” (“I am a Berliner.”) Stating that a “Berliner” is a free man and something to be proud of.
1963 DEC. 17—After much negotiation, an agreement is reached allowing West Berliners to visit relatives in East Berlin on a limited basis.
1968 JAN. 5—The Prague Spring, a period in which the moderate party leader Alexander Dubcek was in power, ends with the invasion of Soviet tanks and troops into Czechoslovakia.
1981 DEC. 13—Martial Law is declared in Poland, and the Solidarity Movement, an independent labor union established a year earlier after weeks of mass strikes of workers, is declared illegal.
1985 MARCH 11—Gorbachev becomes General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. He introduced the concepts of “perestoika” (“reconstruction”) and “glasnost” (“openness”).
1987 JUNE 12—U.S. President Ronald Reagan urges Soviet leader Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall.
1989 MAY 2—Hungary begins dismantling the “Iron Curtain,” pulling down the barbed wire fences and disabling the electric alarm system on its border with Austria.
1989 JUNE 4—The first semi-free elections are held in Poland. Unable to stop the Solidarity Movement, communist leaders allow elections, and the Solidarity Movement finds widespread support.
1989 AUG. 19—During a peace demonstration in the Hungarian town of Sopron, the border with Austria is symbolically opened for three hours, called the “Pan-European Picnic.” Up to 600 East Germans fled as border guards disobeyed instructions and failed to intervene.
1989 AUG. 23—Two million people hold hands to form the 372-mile “Baltic Chain” through the Baltic States. The Soviet Union did not repress this nonviolent protest.
1989 AUG. 24—Tadeusz Mazowiecki is appointed Polish Prime minister, becoming the first noncommunist head of state in Eastern Europe in more than 40 years.
1989 SEPT. 10—Hungary reopens its border with East Germany, allowing 13,000 East Germans to escape through this weakest link in the Iron Curtain to Austria.
1989 OCT. 7—East German leaders celebrate the 40th anniversary of the founding of the communist GDR. Two days later, 70,000 protesters take to the streets and demand an end to the regime.
1989 OCT. 18—East German Head of State Erich Honnecker, with Gorbachev’s assent, steps down.
1989 NOV. 4—One million people rally in East Berlin during weeks of mounting demonstrations.
1989 NOV. 9—As the new German government prepares a law to lift travel restrictions, Günter Schabowski, a high-ranking GDR party leader, makes a mistake during a press conference and says that from the current moment (instead of the next day), every GDR citizen could cross the border. Confused soldiers in East Berlin open some of the Berlin Wall gates to let the throngs of people through. Crowds respond by tearing down the wall.
1989 NOV. 10—Bulgaria begins the process of democratization, eventually holding free elections in June 1990.
1989 NOV. 17—The Czechoslovakian communist regime is overthrown in the Velvet Revolution.
1989 DEC. 3—After a series of discussions between then-U.S. President George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev, the cold war begins winding down. Soviet spokesman Gennady Gerasimov declares, “From Yalta to Malta, the Cold War ended at 12:45 p.m. today.”
1989 DEC. 22—Romanian dictator Ceaucescu is overthrown in a short, violent coup that killed more than 1,100 people and ended 44 years of communist rule.
1990 OCT. 3—Germany unifies.
1991 JULY 1—The Warsaw Pact is dissolved.
1991 DEC. 25 & 26—Mikhail Gorbachev resigns as leader of the Soviet Union. The next day the Soviet Union dissolves, after 73 years.