For 28 years, the Wall stood as both a physical and ideological barrier, separating not just family and friends but an entire country. The west of Berlin prospered economically, fuelled by investment from the US and Western Europe, while the east of the city struggled, plagued by shortages and repressively monitored by the secret police, the Stasi. The Wall became a potent symbol of the Cold War, a physical manifestation of the divide between the Communist East and the Capitalist West.
But by the late 1980s, the whole of the Eastern bloc was coming under pressure. The Soviet Union was bogged down in an intractable war in Afghanistan and facing acute economic problems and major food shortages.
In the face of this, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader who took power in 1985, had already initiated a series of political reforms, glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), but events were spiralling beyond his control.
Strikes in the Polish shipyards had sparked mass demonstrations in Hungary and calls from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, then part of the Soviet Union, for their independence. East Germany was still firmly under the grip of the Socialist Unity Party but momentum was building and by 4 November 1989, half a million citizens had gathered in East Berlin’s public square Alexanderplatz, calling for change.