November 9 marks a triumph for democracy
When the Berlin Wall — dividing a city, a nation and Europe — was taken down on November 9, 1989, celebrations erupted around the world.
The concrete barrier, topped with barbed wire, had stood for nearly three decades, and its fall was embraced as a triumph of democracy and freedom.
The Berlin Wall had its roots in the aftermath of World War II, following the Allied victory over Adolf Hitler’s Nazi forces. Because three Western powers (the U.S., the United Kingdom and France) and the Soviet Union were temporarily occupying Germany, the country was divided into a western zone — administered by the Western allies — and an eastern zone, administered by the Soviet Union.
Although Berlin was in the eastern zone, it was similarly divided between Western and Eastern (Soviet) administrators. From 1949 onward, vast numbers of East Germans fled to West Germany, weakening East Germany’s economy and its political stability. The Soviet-supported East German government erected the Berlin Wall in 1961, with watchtowers manned by soldiers trained to shoot border-crossers.
The Berlin Wall came to symbolize totalitarian tyranny and the Soviet Union’s division of Europe by force. On June 12, 1987, U.S. President Ronald Reagan stood 91 meters from the Berlin Wall and urged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall!” On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall came down. A reunified Germany was realized in October 1990. And in 1991, the Soviet Union itself collapsed.
Today, fragments of the wall are preserved in Germany and in many other countries. One is housed at the National Museum of American Diplomacy at the U.S. Department of State. The museum features a fragment signed by former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who herself grew up in East Germany. The fragments are reminders of the need to cherish and champion democracy everywhere.