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Wind of change which felled a wall

By Toby Neal | Features | Published:

This was not just a wall. It was a symbol of a divided world, a barrier between ideological enemies.

A wall to try to stop dangerous Western ideas polluting the minds of those enjoying the benefits of Communism.

And most particularly, a wall to stop those who were finding those benefits of Communism difficult to discern from fleeing to freedom.

The Berlin Wall was, of course, in Berlin. But Berlin was deep in East Germany, and accessible from the West only by approved air, road, and rail corridors.

The city was divided into four sectors – American, British, French, and Soviet.

The wall was built in 1961 because people in the Soviet zone were voting with their feet. East Berlin was haemorrhaging people with vital skills to the West. Eastern authorities would call the wall "the anti-fascist protection rampart."

Yet still they tried to escape, despite it being a formidable obstacle, of concrete up to 15 feet high, guarded with watchtowers, gun emplacements, and mines.

Many died in the attempt. Figures vary, with some sources putting the number of fatalities at around 140, although one modern study puts the number of fatalities between 1961 and 1989 at 327, typically being shot by guards, drowning in the attempt, or setting off anti-personnel mines.

The wall was ultimately destroyed by political climate change. The advent of the reforming Mikhail Gorbachev as the Soviet leader changed the atmosphere, and increasingly those in the occupied countries were aching to be free of their chains.

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In 1989 this wind of change blew throughout the old Eastern Bloc. As it became increasingly difficult to keep a lid on things, the East German government decided to allow visa-controlled travel from East Berlin to West Berlin, but at a news conference it was mistakenly announced that it would allow immediate unlimited travel.

East Berliners took matters into their own hands. Huge crowds gathered at the checkpoints. After initially standing firm, the border guards gave in and the border was opened.

It was November 9, 1989, and iconic images which went across the world in the days that followed showed citizens armed with pickaxes and sledgehammers bringing down this symbol of oppression and control.

Toby Neal

By Toby Neal
Feature Writer

A journalist in Shropshire for 40 years, mainly writes features and columns, especially about aspects of Shropshire history. Lives in Telford and is based at the Ketley headquarters.

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