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Civil Resistance 101: Unmasking the Berlin Wall’s Liberation


Civil resistance exists as a pivotal catalyst, effecting transformation within oppressive regimes and confronting unjust policies that impede civil liberties. Civil resistance’s impact has changed the course of cultural and historical identities throughout history. The study of civil resistance has shed light on the intricate power dynamics present in governance; moreover, it has illuminated a pathway of discourse that empowers nonviolent actions to pursue justice and equitable change. The narratives of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Nelson Mandela, among others, attest to the potential of civil resistance to dismantle the seemingly insurmountable walls of injustice. It is through these 101 series of civil resistance that the reader will unearth the subtle intricacies of power dynamics within governance structures. This series exposes how resolute people are. Civil resistance, in its essence, is a testament to the resilient human spirit, forging a pathway of discourse that transcends the realm of violence. This series focuses on the foundational principles of democracy, equity, and human rights. Moreover, civil resistance is a testament to the perseverance of humanity to shape its own destiny, fight oppression, and create a trajectory towards a more just and equitable world.

In the context of an international relations and history degree curriculum, this multifaceted study of civil resistance is vital for understanding philosophies, theories, and historical movements, enabling those to analyze, interpret, and actively pave the way for a humanistic, ethical, and peaceful future. This series of articles will embark on a journey through a comprehensive exploration of civil resistance. It will weave together threads of international relations theories, and conflict resolution approaches, and discuss historical movements to provide insightful and indispensable knowledge to the reader. The series aims to provide the reader with a thorough understanding of civil resistance’s impact on societies and how it has left an enduring mark on society today.

This series is divided into the following chapters:

6. Civil Resistance 101: Unmasking the Berlin Wall’s Liberation

7. Civil Resistance 101: Unearthing the Power of Civil Resistance for the Future

Civil Resistance 101: Unmasking the Berlin Wall’s Liberation

Exploring the Factors Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall

What led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in the Autumn of 1989? While many contingent factors played a role, the main one that should be highlighted involves “the German question” (Ammon, 2019, p. 13). This question refers to the division of East Berlin (under Communist rule), recognizing the West Berlin bloc from the East bloc, as well as coming to terms with the repercussions of the Second World War (Ammon, 2019, p. 13). All of these matters became known as “Ostpolitik”, defined by the Mayor of West Berlin, Willy Brandt, and his advisor Egon Bahr (Ammon, 2019, p. 13).


On November 9th, 1989, it would mark one of the most significant political dates in the history of the 20th century in Europe (Ammon, 2019, p. 14). The day the Berlin Wall fell would imply a happy day of reunification; however, the joy of that same day in November would also clash with the horrible days of the past in Nazi Germany (Ammon, 2019, p. 15). It is important to move beyond the dates of 1989 and any immediacies that triggered the Fall. Reflecting back on August 1961, we see the Berlin Wall raised for the first time (Ammon, 2019, p. 16).

Tracing the Berlin Wall's Emergence

Following World War II in 1949, Germany witnessed the establishment of two distinct states within its borders: the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) (Schlör, 2006, p. 85). Functioning as the communist authority, the GDR, also known as East Germany, solidified a division between the eastern and western regions of Germany in 1952 (McWilliams, 2013, p. 46). Despite this division, Berlin maintained open borders, facilitating easy movement into West Germany and vice versa. In response, the GDR took the decisive step of constructing the Berlin Wall in 1961 (McWilliams, 2013, p. 46).

Figure 1: Construction of the Berlin Wall, August 1961 (CVCE, 2024).

Since 1952, the northern, western, and southern borders of West Berlin had been sealed off (McWilliams, 2013, p. 47). The pivotal moment occurred on August 13, 1961, marking the creation of the Berlin Wall (Schlör, 2006, p. 85). This event transformed Germany into a symbol of the "Iron Curtain," symbolizing the ideological divide between communism and the West in 1961 (Schlör, 2006, p. 85). Consequently, the Berlin Wall became intricately associated with the concept of the Iron Curtain, evolving in parallel and often being regarded as synonymous (McWilliams, 2013, p. 48). The Berlin Wall endured for 28 years (Schlör, 2006, p. 87). The Berlin Wall decision was made to extend the barrier to the eastern section of the inner city of Berlin (McWilliams, 2013, p. 47). This marked the day when the city of Berlin became East Berlin and West Berlin. It became a division between the West and the East, or indicative of the Cold War parties (communist vs. the West) (Schlör, 2006, p. 85). At 2 a.m., troops were deployed to secure the eastern border and assist in construction (McWilliams, 2013, p. 47). All traffic, including overground and underground trains that surrounded the border, came to a halt (McWilliams, 2013, p. 47). Once the Berlin Wall was erected and operational, it sliced through 192 streets, limiting crossings to only 14 designated points (McWilliams, 2013, p. 47).

Analyzing the Political Ramifications of the Berlin Wall

Between East Germany and West Germany, checkpoints were created, stemming across the Berlin Wall, that prevented those from entering on either side (Schlör, 2006, p. 85). The guards at the checkpoints prevented any sort of crossing into West Berlin and vice versa (Schlör, 2006, p. 87). Checkpoint Charlie became the famous checkpoint that divided Berlin (Schlör, 2006, p. 86). Additionally, the wall became a symbol of the “brutality” of communism (Schlör, 2006, p. 87). However, from the perspective of the communists, the wall marked a point of “antifascism walls of protection” that prevented western

influence from seeping in (Schlör, 2006, p. 87).


The SED, or Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (Socialist Unity Party of Germany), was the Communist Party operating within the German Democratic Republic (DDR or East Germany) (Koehler, 2004, p. 369). They worked in correlation with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU); the SED played a central role in the governance of East Germany, shaping its policies and ideology (Koehler, 2004, p. 369). Essentially, the SED was the leading force in the socialist system of East Germany, embodying the communist principles that guided the country during its existence (Koehler, 2004, p. 369).

East German Protests in the Shadow of the Berlin Wall

Exploring the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 involves understanding various factors related to the "German question," a term that encompasses East Berlin's Communist rule and the aftermath of World War II (Ammon, 2019, p. 13). While celebrated for reunification on November 9, 1989, the day the Berlin Wall fell also involves learning about the past, tracing the lineage of nonviolent protests that began in the 1960s in East Germany and afterward in Poland (Opp et al., 1995, pp. 9-10).

The protests targeted the dominance of the SED and communist governance under the Iron Curtain, sparking a collective awakening. This empowered individuals to independently reassess and take corrective actions in East Germany and Poland (Pietras, 2008, p. 1). This series further explores the political dynamics between East and West Germany, revealing the complex events unfolding in the shadow of the Berlin Wall.

Unveiling the 1960s Protests that Defined East Germany's Struggle

In the 1960s, Leipzig, situated in East Germany, experienced two significant protests (Opp et al., 1995, pp. 9-10). The first, in 1965, erupted due to the SED's ban on music groups deemed unsupportive of socialist values. Young citizens, rejecting mandatory FDJ terms, peacefully protested, leading to the Battle of Leuschner Platz, where police turned against their own (Opp et al., 1995, pp. 9-10).

Figure 2: SED Propaganda in East Germany (Album, n.d.).

Three years later, Leipzig experienced another protest on May 30, 1968, triggered by the destruction of the University Church (Opp et al., 1995). SED and GDR leaders justified the move, deeming the church inconsistent with Leipzig's socialist design (Opp et al., 1995). Citizens protested, resulting in arrests, police deployment, and a crackdown on dissent (Opp et al., 1995, pp. 10-11). These events stifled political opposition and civil disobedience in the GDR (Opp et al., 1995, p. 11). Leipzig's resistance, though suppressed, echoed in the ongoing struggle against political constraints. After the events of 1965 and 1968, political civil disobedience and government opposition via protests in the streets were limited in the GDR until the 1980s (Opp et al., 1995, p. 11). 

During the 1960s, German activists, such as those from Aktion Sühnezeichen, reached out to Polish intellectual Catholics from Znak and KIK in Poland (Pietras, 2008, p. 6). This connection introduced young Germans to more liberal thinking and anti-communist perspectives not commonly found in East Germany at the time (Pietras, 2008, p. 6). Ludwig Mehlhorn, one of the German activists, stressed the profound impact of these contacts on shaping the views of many young individuals in East Germany (Pietras, 2008, p. 6).


The Exile of Dissident Voices in 1970s East Germany

In 1971, the SED, in collaboration with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), veered its economic and social policies towards impractical socialist ideals (Hertle, 2001, p. 132). By 1975, this shift was branded as the "policy of main tasks," encompassing unrealistic objectives such as boosting salaries, rolling out welfare programs, and augmenting consumer goods supplies (Hertle, 2001, p. 133). Predictably, these grandiose initiatives swiftly unraveled, revealing the SED's misguided approach and contributing to the GDR's crumbling economic, social, and political stability (Hertle, 2001, p. 133). This series of ill-fated endeavors underscored not only the impracticality of their socialist aspirations but also the detrimental impact of a repressive regime making misguided decisions at the expense of its populace.

Figure 3: Individuals living in Communist East Germany, peering through the Berlin Wall, 1960s (Flight, 2019).

In the mid-1970s, a pivotal shift unfolded among thinkers in East Germany, sparking contemplation about opposing communism and the existing political authority (Pietras, 2008, p. 6). This transformative period was shaped by diverse influences, encompassing firsthand experiences in the USSR, interactions with dissidents, the realization of the destructive trajectory of the political system, and insights gleaned from Poland, all underscoring the significance of active opposition (Pietras, 2008, pp. 6-7). The years between 1976 and 1981 witnessed the forced exile of dissident artists, writers, and over 100 nonconformist intellectuals by the Socialist Unity Party (SED) in East Germany. This targeted expulsion aimed to suppress those advocating for more democratic principles (Pietras, 2008, p. 3).

Nonviolent Civil Resistance in 1980s East Germany

Nonviolent civil resistance was observed in two different instances across two different countries in the communist Eastern bloc- Poland and East Germany (Pietras, 2008, p. 1). Both examples of nonviolent resistance would greatly impact German reunification and the fall of communism in and after 1989 (Pietras, 2008, p. 1).

The role of the Solidarnośź (Solidarity) in Poland became evident in 1980 as they symbolized a civil resistance movement against communism (Malabou et al., 2021, p. 224). In March 1980, Solidarnośź encompassed 10 million individuals; in August 1980, they became a registered independent labor union party that began to demand changes related to politics and social equity (Malabou et al., 2021, p. 224). At their first strike that August, the Solidarnośź listed “21 Demands” which encompassed social-democratic principles (Malabou et al., 2021, p. 224). This strike occurred at the Shipyard of Gdansk and began as a solidarity strike in response to a crane worker being fired due to her complaints of high food prices (Malabou et al., 2021, p. 223). It is important to note that the Solidarnośź wanted not to end socialism, but instead to embrace the very socialist principles that the Polish Socialist Party was built on back in 1918 (Malabou et al., 2021, p. 224). Thus, it can be argued that the Solidarnośź resistance movement can be deemed a proletarian one (Malabou et al., 2021, p. 223). The following year, in December 1981, the Solidarnośź became completely anti-communist in response to martial law imposed by the government, which declared the labor party’s existence illegal (Malabou et al., 2021, p. 224). 

Figure 4: Solidarity Strikes at the Gdańsk Lenin Shipyard in 1988 - only a year later the Communist regime in Eastern Europe collapsed (Gliński, 2020).

Also, the rise of the "Solidarność" movement in Poland during the 1980s brought a sense of hope to people in the GDR (Pietras, 2008, p. 7). It ultimately allowed them to believe that change from the grassroots level was possible. Unlike previously isolated opposition, Poland represented a significant social movement that the GDR government couldn't ignore easily. This had a notable impact on the formation of new opposition groups in the GDR, which embraced similar principles and closely tied their ideals to human rights (Pietras, 2008, p. 7). Poland became a model for those who wanted to engage in critical discussions about communism, serving as an inspiration for those who sought a thorough examination of the system (Pietras, 2008, p. 7). The Solidarnośź role in confronting the Soviet communist regime in Poland in the early 1980s would have an impact on the fall of the Soviet Union years later (Ammon, 2019, p. 17).

The Unraveling of Communism in 1980s East Germany

Both East Germany and Poland had become reliant on the Soviet Union in the 1980s (Pietras, 2008, p. 2); however, Poland and East Germany differed in their beliefs and attitudes towards Communism during this time (Pietras, 2008, p. 3). While the Polish Communist Party had basically collapsed by the early 1980s, East Germany’s communist authority stood strong until the late 1980s (Pietras, 2008, p. 3). Thus, East German citizens felt more threatened by communist authority and political dissidence than their Polish counterparts (Pietras, 2008, p. 3). 

The Soviet Union’s assistance to the GDR began to decline in the 1980s and they could no longer provide the support they once could (Hertle, 2001, p. 132). Additionally, the beginning of opposition movements, pivotal to the eventual collapse of the Berlin Wall, gained momentum in the 1980s (Opp et al., 1995, p. 12).  The Stasi, or the Ministry of State Security in East Germany, had significant influence in scrutinizing the lives of individuals in East Germany, with a clear goal “to suppress any opinions deviating from party ideology" (Opp et al., 1995, p. 11). During this era, various groups emerged in opposition to the GDR. Notably, one group, The Environmental Library aimed to provide and disburse information to those against GDR governance (Opp et al., 1995, p. 11). However, the Stasi perceived them as a threat, and in 1987, they raided the group's offices, confiscating belongings, papers, and leaflets; it resulted in the arrest of seven members on charges of illegal publication of opposition to the GDR (Opp et al., 1995, p. 11).

Figure 5: Mikhail Gorbachev becomes General Secretary of the Communist Party and Leader of the Soviet Union, 1985 (, 2023).

This resistance protest group was not the only one in their efforts to enlighten others about the dangers of GDR society (Opp et al., 1995, p. 12). Additional organizations saw an increase in membership around 1985, including the Initiative for Peace and Human Rights and the New Form. These groups focused on fostering "greater solidarity" among individuals who sought an end to GDR rule (Opp et al., 1995, p. 12). In West Germany, media and television played a crucial role in amplifying the visibility and support for opposition movements (Opp et al., 1995, p. 13). Yet, the Stasi and the SED perceived these acts and movements as threats, branding any individual opposed to their communist rule as a "criminal" (Opp et al., 1995, p. 13). The contrasting perspectives between those advocating change and the authorities in power created a tense atmosphere, where the struggle for democratic reforms clashed with the resistance of the established regime.

Mikhail Gorbachev's Ascendancy and its Impact on 1980s East Germany

In 1985, a pivotal year, Mikhail Gorbachev ascended to power in the Soviet Union, bringing with him a recognition of the economic challenges that not only burdened his country but also reverberated across its satellite nations, including the German Democratic Republic (GDR) (Hertle, 2001, p. 132). In 1986, the West became involved in the crises by insisting that the economic issues the Soviet Union was facing must result in changes regarding disarmament, trade expansion, and aid (Hertle, 2001, p. 132). By 1987, the GDR became economically reliant on Western aid (Hertle, 2001, p. 132).

The advent of liberalization also took root with Gorbachev assuming power in the USSR, as his policies aimed at opening up the Eastern Bloc (Koehler, 2004, p. 379). However, the Stasi and the SED harbored disdain for his beliefs (Koehler, 2004, p. 379). In 1987, East Germany went so far as to ban the "sale of Soviet publications" delving into Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika (Koehler, 2004, p. 381). The resistance escalated in January 1988 when individuals in East Germany publicly rallied against the regime, demanding that the SED "adhere to the freedom for those who think differently" (Koehler, 2004, p. 379). The Stasi, in response, employed tactics of arrest, imprisonment, and expulsion against those with opposing views (Koehler, 2004, p. 379). Despite these repressive measures, in January 1989, the same individuals reassembled to protest again, yet the Stasi promptly quelled the demonstrations before they could gain momentum (Koehler, 2004, p. 380). The struggle for dissent and freedom of thought persisted against the backdrop of a regime determined to suppress any challenges to its authority.

The Historic Collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989

With the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, a momentous event unfolded, paving the way for the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union within two years (Hertle, 2001, p. 131). This historic moment not only symbolized the demise of the Cold War but also signified a shift in global power dynamics. The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) in January 1989, held in Vienna, played a crucial role by advocating for less stringent isolation of East Berlin (the GDR) and encouraging more unrestricted travel between countries (Hertle, 2001, p. 132). Amidst these political shifts, resistance efforts in East Germany gained momentum, subtly challenging the status quo and fostering a spirit of change. These travel opportunities inadvertently bolstered the German-German relationship while weakening the influence of the Soviet Union and its satellite states (Hertle, 2001, p. 133).

The intricate political and economic relationships among the GDR, other Eastern blocs, and the Soviet Union unfolded as unexpected outcomes, culminating in the fall of the GDR and the subsequent unraveling of the Soviet Union (Hertle, 2001, p. 131). Simultaneously, within the borders of East Germany, pockets of resistance were emerging, with individuals and groups challenging the established order and laying the groundwork for a seismic shift. The seeds of the GDR's decline were sown in the context of its faltering economy, a reality that began materializing even before the fall of the Berlin Wall (Hertle, 2001, p. 132).

Figure 6: People celebrating the Fall of the Berlin Wall, November 9, 1989 (CNN, 2019).

In contrast to Poland's unified front, the divided state of Germany posed a distinctive challenge. The major difference, as highlighted by Pietras (2008, p. 4), lay in the division of Germany, whereas Poland remained undivided, contributing to a more cohesive national stance. Despite this division, acts of resistance within East Germany were crucial catalysts, setting the stage for broader change.

Embarking on the Path Toward Freedom After the Fall of the Berlin Wall

In 1980s Poland, the emergence of the independent trade union, Solidarity, sets in motion a trajectory toward freedom and independence under the Iron Curtain (Roberts, 2012, pp. 16-17). The Solidarity movement, with its emphasis on "organized opposition," presented a novel concept in communist countries, resonating beyond borders. In February 1989, Solidarity leaders expressing external opinions and calling for free elections gained traction. The historic victory in June 1989 transformed Poland into a Solidarity-led nation, exemplifying that "change was possible" under the Iron Curtain (Roberts, 2012, pp. 16-17). This triumph had a profound ripple effect, significantly contributing to the narrative that led to the eventual toppling of the Berlin Wall.

The breach of the Berlin Wall on August 23, 1989, marked a decisive moment, sparking widespread protests across East Germany, where resistance efforts intensified, including the monumental gatherings in Leipzig on September 4 (Roberts, 2012, p. 17). The unprecedented "free movement" across the Berlin Wall on November 9 opened a new chapter, culminating in free elections in March 1990. The subsequent unification in May 1990 forged a singular German nation, bringing East and West Germany together. The collapse of the Soviet Union on December 26, 1991, marked the final chapter in the unraveling of the communist bloc, solidifying the newfound independence of the satellite states (Roberts, 2012, p. 18).

Drawing Conclusions: Reflecting on the Impact of the Berlin Wall's Rise and Fall

The historic fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 stands as a turning point, reshaping the course of German history and paving the way for reunification. Originating from the post-World War II aftermath, the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 served as a potent symbol of the Cold War's ideological division. Amidst discontent in East Germany, fueled by the misguided socialist policies of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) in the 1970s, the regime resorted to repressive measures, including the exile of dissidents (Hertle, 2001, p. 132). The mid-1980s arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, along with his policies of glasnost and perestroika, had ripple effects, but the SED resisted embracing change (Hertle, 2001, p. 132).

The Solidarnośź movement in Poland during the 1980s served as a powerful inspiration for the opposition in East Germany  (Roberts, 2012, pp. 16-17). The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, influenced by shifting Soviet dynamics, economic challenges in the GDR, and the resilience of nonviolent resistance, culminated in reunification in 1990. This monumental event not only brought down physical barriers but also marked the end of the Cold War, echoing the collective yearning for freedom and unity in the face of oppressive ideologies.

Bibliographical References

Ammon, H. (2019). The Fall of the Berlin Wall. Its Causes and Consequences. Brolly. Journal of Social Sciences, 2(3), 13-41.

Hertle, H.H. (2001). The Fall of the Wall: The Unintended Self-Dissolution of East Germany’s Ruling Regime. Cold War International History Project Bulletin, 12(13), 131-164.

Koehler, J. (2004). East Germany: The Stasi and De-Stasification. Demokratizatsiya, pp. 369-395.

Malabou, C., Urban, P., & Swain, D. (2021). Unchaining Solidarity. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

McWilliams, A. (2013). An Archaeology of the Iron Curtain: Material and Metaphor. Södertörns högskola press.

Pietras, K. (2008). East German and Polish opposition during the last decade of the Cold War. Working Paper Series of the Research Network 1989, 3, pp. 1-14.

Opp, K.D., Voss, P., & Gern, C. (1995). ‪Origins of a Spontaneous Revolution: ‪East Germany, 1989. University of Michigan Press.

Roberts, K. (2012). 1989: so hard to remember and so easy to forget. In Carmen Leccardi, Carles Feixa, Siyka Kovacheva, Herwig Reiter, Tatjana Sekulić (Eds.), 1989 – Young people and social change after the fall of the Berlin Wall (pp. 15-29). Council of Europe Publishing.

Schlör, J. (2006). 'It has to go away, but at the same time it has to be kept': the Berlin Wall and the making of an urban icon. Urban History, 33(1), 85-105.

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Alexandra Gimpel

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