The Berlin Wall – A Street Party With Sledgehammers – Extra History

Berlin, August 13th, 1961 At midnight, the trucks come. East German troops and workers disembark, lining up behind the white lines that separate East and West Berlin. The soldiers have orders
to fire if approached. Berlin has been divided
since World War II, the communist
German Democratic Republic surrounding an enclave of the western
Federal Republic of Germany. But that division was political. People crossed the border
to work and see family. Couples lived on either side. No more. East Germany
was suffering a brain drain, doctors, lawyers and professors fleeing to the west
via the easy crossing. The embarrassment became
too much for the Soviets. The soldiers string barbed wire, the workers tear up the streets. Four days later,
the first concrete slabs arrive. They’re building a wall. This episode is sponsored
by World of Tanks. Download the game
on PC at the link below and use the code CHECKPOINTC
to claim your $15 starter pack. 28 years later, the wall still stands. On one side, it’s filled with color,
graffiti, political slogans, art. On the other, bare concrete. It’s twelve feet high,
four feet wide, and 87 miles long. It encircles the city, an island linked only to West Germany
by rail, road, and air corridors. But the wall is only one obstacle. Behind it sits a 110 yard “death strip” covered with gravel, the buildings that stood there cleared. Flood lights glare down on it. There is no cover. Machine gun bunkers watch over it and it’s seeded with mines,
anti-vehicle moats, and dogs. By 1989, somewhere between 140
and 192 people had died trying to cross. Five thousand more made it, digging tunnels, ramming through in cars, even floating across in hot air balloons. The wall has become a fact of life. For West Berliners
it was a good place to find parking. Pubs nearby featured photos of West and East Berliners
clinking steins over the barbed wire. And rock musicians,
from Genesis, to Springsteen, to Bowie hold concerts close to it
so those over the wall can hear. The wall, people think,
will not fall anytime soon. Some in the west say it shouldn’t, reunification would be too expensive, the number of East German refugees would wreck the economy. Kennedy had declared himself a Berliner, and the wall didn’t fall. Reagan challenged
Gorbachev to tear it down, and the wall didn’t fall. As the new president
George H.W. Bush comes into office, he’s decided to focus on Asia, deeming European problems too static. Nothing will change there. In reality,
the wall is about to come down. The people who’d destroy it
are mostly unknown in the west. Mid-range communist officials and leaders of Eastern Bloc nations, some looking to sabotage
the Iron Curtain, some to maintain it. But in the end,
the wall would fall by accident. June, 1989 East Germany is in trouble. In fact, communism
is in trouble in general. Nearly bankrupt
from a multi-decade arms race and supporting proxy conflicts, battered from
its invasion of Afghanistan and its image tarnished
by the Chernobyl disaster, the Soviet Union needs change. Its new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, comes to power with two new ideas; a new economic and
social policy called perestroika, introducing market elements
and reforms to the socialist model, and also glasnost, a new openness of government. He’s hailed
as a peacemaker in Europe, especially after negotiating with Reagan to eliminate a whole class
of nuclear weapons. He talks about giving the governments
of Eastern Bloc countries a freer hand. No one believes him at first. The USSR had previously intervened
to crush opposition movements in countries like Hungary,
Poland, and Czechoslovakia, but nations of the Eastern Bloc realize he’s genuine. It starts to snowball. Poland holds its first free elections
in June 1989, kicking out the communists, and sweeping in
the Solidarity Party. In Hungary, the central committee picks a Harvard-trained economic minister, Miklós Németh, to be Prime Minister. They know he’s reform-minded, but if his reforms fail he’ll make a good scapegoat. But Németh secretly believes that a reformed communist state
will be on economic life support. He wants Hungary to join the west before the rest of the Eastern Bloc, so it gets a few years
of special treatment and development aid. To make that a reality. he has to bring down
the Iron Curtain, be seen doing it. The easiest way to do that is trigger a flood
of East German refugees. He announces, on television, that it’s become
too expensive to maintain Hungary’s border with Austria. International news watches as Hungarian officials
switch off the electric fence. In a meeting with Gorbachev, Németh has telegraphed this move, asking if the USSR would intervene. Gorbachev says no. But the flood of East German escapees didn’t arrive. So Németh pushed it further. He announces a picnic. A Pan-European Picnic, where Hungary would open a gate and allow visitors from Austria to cross and join the fun. A sign of thawing tensions. A ruse for a great escape. Németh holds it
during tourist season, when thousands of East Germans
are vacationing in Hungary. He even busses some in for the event and gives them maps, so they knew where the border is. For safety, you know! Because the border is right there. And the gates are very open. And the guards are so busy
checking Austrian passports you might accidentally
wander into Austria. No one wants that, right? Because Austria is so close
to West Germany. Chaos.
600 East Germans take off at a run, through the open gate. West German officials
and Red Cross volunteers wait on the other side. Hungary, claiming to be “overwhelmed”
by East German refugees lets thousands
cross the border each day. After the East Germans
bar the border with Hungary, the “great escape” spreads
to Czechoslovakia. The West German embassy in Prague gives out asylum visas, allowing East Germans
to cross the Czech-Austrian border and head to the west. By November 9th,
250 000 have fled East Germany. 30-mile traffic jams snarl the autobahn. Mass protests calling for democracy, economic reform,
and the right to free travel, explode in Leipzig and East Berlin. But the East German leader
Erich Honecker, who built the wall and who controls the Stasi, one of the most feared
secret police, refuses to make reforms. When Gorbachev visits Honecker in Berlin, a crowd gathers, chanting: “Gorby, save us!
Gorby, save us!” It’s the moment
Honecker’s subordinates have waited for. They vote him out in a coup, planning to save East Germany with reforms to keep it running
and them in power. The first thing on the agenda? A new travel law. November 9th, 1989
A Press Conference in East Berlin Günter Schabowski,
a communist party boss, reads the press briefing on live TV. He doesn’t realize that this speech, unrehearsed and unscripted, will do what no speech before has ever accomplished. It will bring down the wall. He reads off new dull regulations, saving the new travel law for last. East Germans will be able to apply
at checkpoints to go to West Berlin. They will need a visa in their passport, or a special stamp on their ID card. Next item. “Wait,” said a journalist. “Effective when?” Around Berlin, everyone stopped, staring at the TV. The press release was supposed
to be dated the next day, November 10th. The idea was that people would line up
to get their visas. If Schabowski had known that, and said so, maybe that would’ve happened. Instead,
he just shuffled the paper, found the wording, shrugged and said: “As far as I know, immediately. Without delay.” East Berliners stood, stunned. Then they went. Dropped everything and left. Closed shops,
left telephone switchboards, snatched up passports
and thronged the checkpoints. The first woman at Checkpoint Charlie, crossing to the former American sector, wore a coat thrown over her bathrobe. She had curlers in her hair. They insisted the guards let them cross. Schabowski had said they could on TV. Immediately. Without delay. Panicked border guards
went into their booths and tried to dial
officials for confirmation. There were thousands of people outside. But Schabowski had gone home, unaware of the firestorm he’d created. Most of the party leaders were at the opera. So after a few hours the border guards shrugged. “Okay, open up.” The first people
through the wall didn’t walk, the surging crowd carried them. And they were met by West Germans
holding flowers and champagne. A spontaneous party started. Boom boxes and pop music. East and West Germans kissed, climbed the wall,
chanted to tear it down. They were climbing both sides now, the colorful and the blank. Hammers and chisels came out. People took turns pecking at the wall. It was wild. It went on for days. Woodstock with sledgehammers. The Cold War ended not with nuclear annihilation, but a street party. The celebration did more to undermine the German Democratic Republic than anything else. The images of partying refugees
were hard to dismiss, and weakened East Germany so that reunification became inevitable. Not with a melding of states, but with East Germany
absorbed into the Federal Republic. And the party continued. in a month,
Czechoslovakia’s last communist leader fell to the Velvet Revolution. Bulgaria had ousted its hardline leaders
and called elections. The next year, it was Russia itself. Not everywhere was it easy or peaceful. Street fighting rocked Romania, and the breakup of Yugoslavia would roil the Balkans for over a decade. But considering that Europe
had lived 44 years, divided and fearing world war, it seemed almost unreal how quickly the barriers melted away. Though the wall’s destruction
meant great things for geopolitics, it meant even more to everyday people. Families reunited. East German children tasted oranges and bananas
for the first time. Europeans once again could travel and learn from each other without artificial divisions. They had torn down the wall and could now build a future. Thank you to World of Tanks
for Sponsoring this episode. They’ve been rolling
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of this tank action, they’re showing no signs of stopping. Literally! If that looks up your alley, download the game for free
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100 thoughts on “The Berlin Wall – A Street Party With Sledgehammers – Extra History

  1. I thought West Berlin was technically not belonging to either Germany, but ruled according to the Viermächte-Abkommen, with four sectors belonging to each of the allies? Or did this just concern the rights for military and flights? I recall that Berlin was not a member of the Bundesrat (West) and popular with students, because people living in West Berlin could not be conscripted. Also, Berlinzulage…

  2. Great video on a great day.

    4:37 and the following, though – WTF? Sorry, but that part is quite astonishing crap. Who the heck thought of this stuff?!?
    No, fleeing East Germans was not "the easiest way" to bring down the Iron Curtain. In fact, it was a ridiculously convoluted plan requiring a near-perfect hindsight with high chances of turning into a bloody disaster. Or would have been such a plan, if it were real. Which it wasn't.
    The decision to turn off border fortifications was made because they were bloody expensive, and Hungary (like the rest of the Eastern bloc) was broke. I mean, the reason was what they said it was. Un-be-lievable, right? Instead of the fortifications, the Hungarians actually increased border patrols. Those were cheaper.
    The Pan-European Picnic was not organised by Nemeth or the Hungarian government. Neither was the decision to "invite" the East Germans, and the border patrols letting them through was not really official policy, either.
    "Thousands cross the border each day" is at least exaggerated a lot.

    I'm not sure where you got that severely contorted bit of pseudo-history.

  3. Europeans would not tear down artificial barriers to travel until the creation of the Schengen area

  4. I will just leave this here:
    (Oh, and predictably, the White House actively refused the gift).

  5. “Unaware of the firestorm he’d created.” A sentence that applies to 80 percent of politicians

  6. You have to appreciate how the wall falling is basically a combination of a failed press release, all the leaders going to have fun somewhere, mass psycology leading everyone to the border, and the guards going "ah fuck it" at the same time.

  7. Lovely episode for this important and happy anniversary!
    I really like that you showed the role of Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia in the process. BTW the Polish elections in June 1989 weren't actually 100% free, but the Solidarity made the most of the compromise negotiated in the Round table Talks preceding the elections, effectively ending the one-party dictatorship. The whole thing could really be its own episode or even series.

  8. "Then one idle Tuesday, in the very definition of pent up demand, the Germans had a party."

  9. Is there even the option of doing the collapse and civil war in Yugoslavia as a series? That one sentence line about it is criminally threadbare.

  10. So basically there was a big smashing party while romania was a hellhole untill 1991 and I'm reading a book about the last communist romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu? yea cool.

  11. My mother saw the wall down, she described it as a massive block party! And that the IRA captures over a hundred British officers in the confusion

  12. I always get wet eyes when I see such content.
    But a little correction: most GDR children knew perfectly well how oranges, banana and kiwi tasted. They just were hardly available and oranges usually only around Christmas. But they were not unheard of. Only mango, papaya and fresh pineapple were unheard of apart of some very small groups in Berlin. My mother for instance thought pineapple could only be eaten cooked and canned and not fresh. She told me she almost cried when she had one fresh brought back by my great grandmother from West Germany (seniors were allowed to travel to the west) when she tried it in the late 70s.

  13. I liked to see a video about it from a different (non-german) standpoint and different narrative. As I grew up with certain pieces of the story presented to me. You now highlighted some different aspects I actually didn't hear of before. Thanks!

  14. Watch out non Germans (especially Hebrews!) the Germans are coming! Perhaps WW3?

  15. We are going to build a wall, and it'll be a big beautiful wall, and west Germany will pay for it.

  16. A note from a german:
    In my opinion the reunification was more an annexation by the west rather than, well, a reunification. The west just forced their way of life and the laws onto the east Germans. The west didn't actually look at what the east did and tried to adopt some of the things they did better. Not only that, the east Germans were also told that the things they (I mean each individual person with that) did was stupid and their companies of no value and were (and sometimes still are) seen as some kind of more stupid people (at least some act like that).
    This caused (there were some protests afterwards in the east) and still causes quite a lot of tension.

  17. I'm not a history major but I've got a hunch Mexico didn't pay for this one either.

  18. God I love history World War 1 started with a teen eating a sandwich the cold war ended with a street party with sledgehammers

  19. Unfortunately there is another part of the Wall coming down: the economic one. Once the former DDR was absorbed back into Germany, the former DDR's welfare state disappeared almost overnight. People who had secure jobs, housing and medical care suddenly had all of it taken away from them, and East Berlin experienced something it hadn't seen in decades: homeless people. Freedom is a great and precious thing, but the sad truth is that talk of freedom means little to a man starving to death on the street.

  20. Thank you for that episode. Such an incredible, crazy and wonderful time. For us young West-Berliner (I was 12) it was also a new freedom – we saw the other half of our city for the first time and discovered the surrounding countryside. It might be hard to imagine to live in a city – but there is no countryside. For us it was weird to suddenly be able to cross the boarder and visit all of these fields, forests and villages.

  21. I can see why the big rush didn't happen at first: One thing people from the east often get asked: Weren't you angry you couldn't travel? Would never see the pyramids? The answer is… it's like asking somebody today: aren't you sad that you will never travel to the moon? We were brainwashed to not even have this on the map. it was just outside of the realm of possibility. And the secret service was everywhere – if somebody told you: hey, the border is open… yeah sure, is that a test, how loyal i am…

    You really have to understand how dangerous it was to just… walk up to the wall. I was 5 when this happened. I remember a party where we had "south fruit" like Kiwi and did not know how to eat it at first. It was unbelievable to go into a super market and have CHOICE. For weeks on end the super markets close to the (now open) border were sold out of EVERYTHING. One big company comparable to sears send around their catalogue together with flower seeds and told us: as soon as those bloom, we could order from this huge, unbelievable catalogue – it had everything! But as fun as all of that was – the east was hungry for capitalism and the people gullible and exploited (business savvy people comming in and buying up what they knew was valuable for a fraction of the actual value). There is discussion now about how the opening of the border benefited some private entities. 30 years later and the east is lagging behind and voting very far right.

  22. “Why do we build the wall, my children, my children? Why do we build the wall?”

  23. Bismark: Germany will not be unified with speeches and treaties but by iron and blood.

    Germans (1989): how about some guys with sledgehammers and a big party?

  24. A story, possibly apocryphal:

    When people began tearing down the wall, the MI6 station in Vienna asked their sister station in Germany if it was true. They said yes. Austria asked who or what organization was pulling it down. The answer came back "Berlin".

  25. Springsteen actually held his concert in East Berlin. You also forgot to mention that West German was still full of nazis.

  26. Can someone explain me the doughnut joke? I do not speak German so I do not get the mispronounciation.

  27. At the time the border between East and West Germany fell, I was about one year old. A few days after the fall of the Berlin Wall, my parents drove with me into “The West” – more specifically to Hof, a town in Bavaria. I have no memory on this, but they say it was awesome. Everywhere people were cheering when they saw someone from the “other” side. Families were handing out presents to visiting children. And some child (just a random stranger basically) gave me a plush toy – a little pink bunny. That was my favorite toy and until I was approximately a first grader wherever I went, my “Häschen” (German for bunny) would go to…
    Sadly I don’t have that toy anymore. But those sure were wild times 🙂

  28. Been there during my final year in high school, it's super cool to see the remains of that wall

  29. I can remember when this happened, some company got the idea to pay for chunks of the wall and bust them up into small pieces and sell them in fancy packaging as historical collectibles. The only problem was a bunch of scammers got into the same business selling busted concrete bits in little velvet bags with fake certificates of authenticity for ridiculous money, so very few people know if their "Genuine Berlin Wall pieces" are actually from the wall or from the construction site down the street from the local scammer, unless they were actually there and picked it up themselves.

  30. In my family we talked about the wall, and how many people we missed. Once it was officially torn down my grandmother cried. I remember hearing stories of oranges being like the most exotic and delicious thing my father tasted (as a refugee fleeing to South America). How did it take until the 80’s/almost 90’s to have children in the east side try an orange??? That’s just mind blowing. ?

    I love watching Extra Credits. You guys are the best.

  31. Ahhhhh history such as this gives such political slapstick it is always a joy to watch :3

  32. Ive always loved this channel and you provide us with a whole lot of amazing content! thanks!

  33. 'Immediately. Without delay.', is a huge meme within the history community. The Cold War ended with a mistake, as all good things do.

  34. "Democracy is not perfect, but we've never had to build a wall to keep our people in."

    -JFK, shortly after the wall was built

  35. In Italy we love this story in a special way because the journalist who made the fateful question is Italian.

  36. And then, labor rights, health care, social security also crossed the wall to never come back to Germany

  37. Soviets: No Western Music! You will have no access to-
    Rock bands performing in Berlin: Hey, check this out.

  38. Hiw did you call Czech-Austrian border? We are not a fucking chechnia, those guys are terrorists we are often mistaken for 😀

  39. So, the Cold War ended with a party?
    That is honestly one of the coolest things I've heard all week.

  40. I've never cried the way I just did through one of your videos before. Great work, simply beautiful.

  41. One day extra history probably have to make a video about how people from both sides demolished a wall made by a certain president of USA.

  42. Yougslavia wasn't in the Eastern Bloc for some time at this point in time.. They were one of the leaders of the Nonaligned Movement

  43. By the way some soldiers at the wall were ready to fire if the command chain said so…

  44. "Babe come over"
    "I can't i'm in East Germany"
    "My parent's arent home"

  45. Man, I would have liked to start by saying Walter Ulbricht (predecessor of Honecker), where he said only a few weeks before in a press conference: „Wir haben doch nicht vor eine Mauer zu bauen“-„We do not intend to build a wall"

  46. Is there anyone else who finds weird the fact that this particular episode was sponsored by a war-game?

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