National Archives News

Marking the 30th Anniversary of the Berlin Wall's Fall

People look through the broken Berlin Wall

“There are some who say that Communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin.”
          —President John F. Kennedy, Berlin, Germany, June 26, 1963

“Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate!
 Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
          —President Ronald Reagan, address at the Brandenburg Gate, June 12, 1987


Beginning with its hasty construction on August 13, 1961, and for 28 years thereafter, the Berlin Wall stood as a grim symbol of the Iron Curtain that divided Western Bloc nations from the Eastern Bloc.

refer to caption

At a newly created opening at Potsdamer Platz, an East German policeman looks at a small Christmas tree on the west side of the Berlin Wall. (National Archives Identifier 6460121)

The decision to build the heavily fortified wall emerged from the Soviet Union’s desperate attempt to stanch the flow of thousands of refugees from East Germany to West Germany, with many escaping through West Berlin. The overnight construction of the wall cut an immediate divide between neighbors, families, and friends—many of whom would not see each other again for many years.

Yet the Berlin Wall’s provenance in desperation foretold the equal, but opposite, nature of its demise.

Thirty years ago, on November 9, 1989, the government of East Germany released a press statement that was incorrectly interpreted to mean that it would finally grant exit visas from East Germany to West Germany without exception.

The ensuing flood of thousands of East Germans yearning to escape from behind the Iron Curtain overwhelmed the border guards at the Bornholmer Strasse crossing point in Berlin. The guards’ increasingly desperate pleas to their superiors for orders gave way to a bloodless decision to let them go.

After nearly 30 years, the Berlin Wall finally came down, and its destruction was followed by the dissolution of the Soviet Union on December 26, 1991.

As the nation’s recordkeeper, the National Archives holds thousands of records documenting the history of the Berlin Wall, from the crisis surrounding its construction on August 13, 1961, through the beginning of its destruction on November 9, 1989. Additional records documenting the Berlin Wall can be found in the National Archives Catalog.