Europe divided: 30 years on from the fall of the Berlin Wall


Berlin Wall Memorial, Berlin, Germany (Luis Diego Hernández, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Katharine Rooney, Senior Writer, Formative Content

The Berlin Wall separated a city and its people. It was also a seemingly permanent symbol of the partition of the world along Cold War ideological lines.

Its fall 30 years ago took Berliners – and the world – by surprise. There were scenes of jubilation as citizens with hammers and chisels, and later bulldozers, pulled down the concrete barrier.

Here’s a look at some of the sweeping changes that have taken place in Europe since that momentous event – and also new divisions that have arisen.


1989: The wall comes down

After Germany lost the Second World War, Allied forces parcelled the country into four zones of occupation under the control of the United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union.

Germany became two separate countries: Soviet-influenced East and Allied-influenced West, with the city of Berlin straddling both.

The wall was erected in 1961 to stop East Germans from crossing to the West at the last open part of the border between the two countries. It extended 155km and had over 300 watchtowers, with guards under orders to shoot anyone attempting to escape to West Berlin. More than 100 people died trying to get past the wall.

Opposition to Soviet control grew throughout the 1980s. In June 1987, then-US President Ronald Reagan stood at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate and issued a plea to his Soviet counterpart. “Mr Gorbachev,” he said, “tear down this wall!”

Over two years later, on the night of 9 November 1989, huge crowds gathered on both sides of the barrier. Berliners celebrated through the night as the blocks that had separated them toppled.

1990: Reunification of Germany

Germany was formally reunited on 3 October 1990 (celebrated annually as a public holiday known as the Day of German Unity). The Reichstag – the German Parliament – was reopened in Berlin three years later.

And yet, a 2019 study from the Halle Institute for Economic Research suggests that gaps between the east and west of the country remain, with the vast majority of Germany’s top 500 companies headquartered in western states and productivity levels in the former East Germany around 20% lower than the West German average.

When it comes to German views on reunification, those who witnessed the fall of the wall are much more sceptical than the younger generation. Just 40% of Germans aged 60 and over believe that Germany has truly become one nation, compared to 65% of those between the ages of 14 and 21.

Bar chart showing how many Germans consider their country is reunited.
Younger Germans are much more likely to see their country as united.
Image: Statista

1993: The EU is formed

The European Union came into being with the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, but its origins date all the way back to 1946, when UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill called for “a United States of Europe.”

European communities began to gather around the European Coal and Steel Community in 1950, and in 1957, the Treaty of Rome created the European Economic Community.

The EU has grown, most recently in 2004, when 10 new countries joined.

2010: The European Debt Crisis

The global financial crash of 2008 plunged several EU economies into freefall. Between 2010-2018, Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Cyprus received billions of euros in bailout funds from the European Union.

The EU was criticized by many people for the conditions it attached to the bailouts, with debt-related austerity measures leading to unemployment levels of over 25% (and 50% among young people) in Greece and Spain.

2015 and 2016: Migration and Brexit

In 2015, Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in East Germany, announced that she was opening her country’s borders to refugees fleeing conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. One million refugees crossed Europe to enter Germany.

Since then, Europe has seen a rise in far-right parties, such as the Alternative for Germany (AfD), the Five Star Movement in Italy, the Freedom Party in Austria and Golden Dawn in Greece.

In 2016, the EU faced the departure of one of its members, as the UK voted to leave the union.

2019 and beyond

As the European Union prepares for Britain’s exit from the bloc, the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Europe has issued an open letter to Europe’s leaders, calling for an EU that is more sustainable, competitive and inclusive.

The letter outlines a New Manifesto for Europe, urging leaders to deliver on the “original promises” of Europe – to guarantee security and stability, facilitate economic prosperity and safeguard the rights and freedoms of its citizens.

“The fact that many citizens feel left out of the European project has demonstrated the need for a truly people-centric agenda that seriously, clearly, coherently and boldly addresses the gap in public trust,” the council’s co-chairs, Miroslav Lajčák and Beatrice Weder di Mauro, write.

“People still look to Europe as a place where their human, social and economic rights are protected and where they can live in freedom,” the letter says.

The night of 9 November 1989 was a pivotal moment for freedom and democracy in Europe. And today, Europe finds itself at another turning point.

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