The Berlin Wall was erected by communist East Germany and the Soviet Union in 1961 to keep skilled East German workers and intellectuals from fleeing to West Berlin (an urban enclave administered by the USA, Great Britain, and France). By the 1980s it had become a symbol of the tense relationship between East and West.

Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in 1985. He hoped to pull the country out of economic stagnation. By 1987 he initiated a new policy of glasnost (“openness”), which resulted in the significant expansion of freedoms of expression and information.

U.S. President Ronald Reagan was quick to seize on this moment. On June 12, 1987, he spoke near the wall in front of Berlin’s famous Brandenburg Gate. The most well-known part of his speech came roughly 12 minutes into his 26-minute speech: “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

East Germany’s hard-line communist leadership was forced from power less than two years later. On November 9, 1989, the East German government opened the country’s borders with West Germany (including West Berlin), and openings were made in the Berlin Wall through which East Germans could travel freely to the West.

Some 25 segments of the wall have been left as memorials.

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