20 Years Ago: The Wall Comes Tumbling Down
It snaked through Berlin like a concrete python, the only barrier in history built to keep a nation's people locked inside.
For 28 years since 1961, the Berlin Wall — die Mauer — stood as a testament to the eternal struggle between open and closed societies. It was built because more than 3 million people fled communist East Germany after World War II. More than 200 East Germans died trying to cross it.
For all its might, the wall could not stop the flow of news into East Berlin from West German radio and television. In 1946, the United States launched Radio in the American Sector (RIAS), a popular radio station operated by Germans in West Berlin. People in East Berlin could receive the RIAS broadcasts, which became an important source of fact-based reports and fueled the quest for freedom.
The wall became a symbolic backdrop for dramatic statements by Western leaders — from President John F. Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner (I am a Berliner)," to President Ronald Reagan's "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"
In 1989, the Berlin Wall did come down, spurred on by the deep human yearning for freedom that had toppled communist regimes across Eastern Europe. On the night of Nov. 9, just as abruptly as they had built the wall in the early morning darkness of Aug. 13, 1961, East German authorities opened the border — and the door to the fall of tyranny.
Crowds flowed through the wall near the Brandenburg Gate. Champagne flowed, too. Easterners crowded onto the Kurfürstendamm, Berlin's main shopping and dining street.
Jubilant Germans literally chipped away at one of the world's largest symbols of oppression. Within a week, the Berlin Wall and the German Democratic Republic had crumbled.
The Newseum's Berlin Wall Gallery features one of the largest public displays of Berlin Wall sections outside of Germany. Each of the eight wall sections is approximately four feet wide and 12 feet tall, and weighs three tons. The 40-foot-tall watchtower that stood less than a mile from "Checkpoint Charlie," the best-known crossing between East and West Berlin, is also part of the exhibit.
Photojournalist Alexandra Avakian was in Berlin on assignment for Life magazine the night the Berlin Wall fell. Her images of the historic event are featured on the Newseum's 40-foot-by-22-foot high-definition media screen, located in The New York Times–Ochs-Sulzberger Family Great Hall of News. Additional information on Avakian and her work can be found at www.fotoweekdc.org.