UAB Professor Reflects on the 20th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - As the world observes the 20th anniversary of the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Professor of History and University Scholar James F. Tent, Ph.D., is available to discuss the history and legacy of the wall that once separated East and West Germany and became a symbol of the Cold War.

Tent is a professor of modern German history. His research focuses on the evolution of German culture and politics since 1945. He is the author of several books, including The Free University of Berlin: A Political History, In the Shadow of the Holocaust and Mission on the Rhine: Reeducation and Denazification in American-Occupied Germany.

The History of the Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall was built to separate the Communist East Germany from the Democratic West Germany and to keep people in the East from leaving to pursue greater economic opportunities in the West. In 1989, almost 40 years after the wall was constructed, protests led to the dismantling of the wall and marked the first step toward Germany's reunification.

"The wall was not a product of the East German people," says Tent. "In that Communist-controlled society, it was built by a decision made by then-German Democratic Republic (GDR) People's Party Chief Walter Ulbricht, a bureaucrat who had been [Josef] Stalin's pick to build a new GDR after WWII because he was an absolutely faithful Communist supporter of Stalin.

"Ulbricht ran the country with an iron hand," says Tent. "Dissent was crushed. But starting in the late 1950s, East Germans began leaving East Germany to the West to build better lives now that West Germany was booming. The exodus threatened to turn into a stampede as the 1960s dawned.

"Finally, in the summer of 1961, Ulbricht got the backing of Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev to erect a wall, a barrier right through the center of Berlin. This they did suddenly and without warning on Aug. 13, 1961. The suddenness and brutality of it caught virtually all Western leaders and peoples by surprise, but it stopped the flow of young East Germans into the West."

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Ultimately, says Tent, the Wall fell because the East German people grew so disillusioned that they launched massive street protests, and finally their Communist leaders lost their nerve. "On Nov. 9, 1989, one of their spokesmen stated almost casually that 'of course our German citizens can travel to the West . . .' Radio listeners pricked up their ears in East Berlin and ran to the wall. The guards were completely bewildered. With the world watching, the East German people breached the wall on that fateful day, Nov. 9. Their dissatisfaction with Communism was mirrored by the Hungarians, Baltic Peoples, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Rumanians, Bulgarians and Yugoslavs who also rebelled against the Communist system, and like the East Germans, they swept it away."

The Legacy of the Wall

"One of the sad legacies of the fall of the wall was that the East Germans - who had for 40 years had been protected from the less attractive aspects of capitalism such as the lack of job security, limited social welfare benefits and premium placed upon efficiency in work - found their entry into Western-style society to be traumatic," Trent says.

"Resentments between Eastern 'Ossies' who lacked current job skills and Western 'Wessies' who sometimes gloated over and took advantage of their 'Ossie' landsmen rose to sometimes explosive levels. Casual violence and sometimes full riots exploded in the new Germany's eastern states over high unemployment and the lack of a future.

"The old exodus of young people in the GDR of the 1950s continued in unofficial form after 1989. Many went to western Germany. Many others, now members of the European Union, sought jobs anywhere but especially elsewhere in the large EU. For their part, the Wessies grumbled about 10 percent tax levies since 1990 to help pay for East-West reunification and for the expensive demands in upgrading the entire eastern German infrastructure to Western standards. This has meant expensive upgrades of roads, bridges, harbors, airports, streets, public utilities, telecommunications and every other aspect of modern industrial life.

"Twenty years after the fall of the wall, Eastern Germans continue to bear a social burden. High unemployment rates persist in the eastern states of the united Germany. 'Ossies' and 'Wessies' still exhibit tensions although not as great as in the 1990s."

About the UAB Department of History and Anthropology

The UAB Department of History and Anthropology offers undergraduate and graduate degree programs that prepare students for careers in law, public service, historical research, international affairs, journalism, business and anthropology.