2020 - 2021 Modern Volume 15

The Collapse of the Iron Curtain in Photographs: Celebrating the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of communism.

By Bea O’Keefe

The fall of the Berlin Wall, which divided East from West, on the 9th of November 1989 is one of the most impactful and moving events of the last 35 years in European history; five million people gathered in Berlin to celebrate this moment. The border was accidentally opened due to a confusion during Schabowski’s speech stating that East Germans could now apply for travel visas to West Germany; thousands of East Germans rushed to the wall to travel across the border, to the point that East German guards could no longer control them.

Yet this moment was nonetheless spectacular and emotional, as guards shouted, “Open the barrier!”. The fall of this barrier signified the end of 28 years of physical oppression and ideological isolation across East Germany and the Soviet Union. 

1989 does not merely represent the fall of the wall but the end to communist regimes across Europe; in Prague the Velvet Revolution overthrew Czechoslovakian communism and in Romania violent demonstrations brought an end to the reign of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Two million people in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joined the ‘Singing Revolution’ joining hands in a 600km human chain in protest for independence from the Soviet Union, while Hungary opened its borders to Austria allowing life changing access to the West for East Germans. All of these extraordinary events ignited the power of Europeans against their oppression and separation from the West, culminating in the collapse of the 46 year old Iron Curtain and the end to European communism as the Soviet Union fell two years later in 1991. 

The tearing down of the Berlin Wall demonstrated the physical expression of this collapse and led to mass celebrations, emotions and movement of people across Germany and the East; symbolising the end to the Cold War and the birth of a long sought after truly international community. This emotion and celebration is best expressed through photographs taken in Berlin November 1989; through smiles, anger and shock here are the pictures that capture the freedom of a generation. 

Photographer Mark Power was there the night that the wall fell and captured the carnage that ensued, encapsulated in his book ‘Die Mauer ist Weg!’ or ‘The Wall is Gone!’: images of people celebrating, revelling in the new found freedom and young people drinking the weekend after the wall was opened. 

As Andreas Ramos writes in his personal memoir of his experience of being in Berlin at the fall of the wall, “Over 20,000 East and West Germans gathered for a party…Germans were drunk with joy”. This was a celebration not to be missed, and missed it was certainly not; people gathered from all over Europe. Travellers from Belgium, Hungary, Austria, Denmark, France, Sweden and Spain gathered to witness the start of a new Europe; one without restrictions and limits. 

Five million people gathered in Berlin: Many people from East and West sat on top of the wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate:

People chipped away and tore at the wall, through anger, frustration and desire for a piece of this iconic symbol of oppression:

Cars piled up at the border with people hoping to freely cross into the West for the first time in 28 years; as Ramos describes, “The traffic jam was spectacular. The cloud of light turned out to be the headlights of tens of thousands of cars in a huge cloud of Trabi exhaust fumes”.

And people were reunited; families, friends and lovers were reconciled after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was a feeling of hope in the air that freedom could exist.

These photographs encapsulate what a daring and sensational celebration the collapse of the Berlin Wall was; personifying the big sigh of relief of an oppressed generation of Germans finally free to move, love and get drunk across the Iron Curtain.