World Freedom Day
annually on November 9th (since 2001)
President George W. Bush on November 9th, 2001
World Freedom Day commemorates the fall of the Berlin Wall as well as the end of communism's domination over Eastern and Central European countries. President George W. Bush issued the first proclamation for World Freedom Day on November 9, 2001, the twelfth anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall. In his remarks, Bush stated that the wall had separated those living under a dictatorship from those who were free and that its fall was "the turning point of the Cold War and a significant landmark in freedom's victory over tyranny." Bush said that World Freedom Day exists to "honor the spirit and perseverance of those who strived for freedom in East Germany and other repressive regimes," that it celebrates the new freedom that emerged after the wall's fall, and that it recognizes the billions of people still living under authoritarian regimes and repressive governments. In this spirit, he encouraged Americans to support those "who seek to lead their people out of oppression." He ended his proclamation by declaring, "I call upon the people of the United States to observe this day with appropriate ceremonies and activities and to reaffirm their devotion to the aspirations of all people for freedom and democracy." The day was subsequently proclaimed by President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump.
Following World War II, Germany was split into four "Allied-occupied zones." The eastern part was under the tutelage of the Soviet Union, while the western half was under the watch of the United States, Great Britain, and France. The city of Berlin was completely inside of the Soviet sector, about 100 miles from the border of West Germany (Federal Republic of Germany), and it too was split, with the Soviets controlling the eastern half, and the United States, Great Britain, and France controlling the west. West Berlin became a capitalist city inside of communist East Germany (German Democratic Republic). The Soviets wanted the rest of the countries out, and in 1948, they began a blockade in an effort to drive them out. The United States and its allies organized an airlift: the Berlin Airlift delivered food, fuel, and other goods until the Soviets backed down from the blockade in 1949.
Between 1949 and 1961, about 3 million refugees moved from the east to the west. The numbers leaving East Germany swelled in 1961, with 30,000 deflecting in July. On August 12, the most people to leave in one day took place, when 2,400 left. The following day, East Germany began building a wall of concrete and barbed wire between East Berlin and West Berlin; it was completed in two weeks. Its official purpose was to keep Western "fascists" out of East Germany so they wouldn't undermine socialism, but in practice, its purpose was to stop defections of citizens from East Germany to West Germany.
Before the building of the wall, there was free movement between both sections of Berlin, and people crossed for work, shopping, and recreation. They traveled on foot and took trains and subways. Following the wall's construction, crossing it could only take place at three checkpoints. (Eventually, twelve checkpoints were built.) A more permanent, larger wall followed the barbed wire and concrete wall. It was twelve feet in height, four feet in width, and had a large pipe across its top to help prevent people from crossing. Additionally, the east side had a "death strip," with sand that showed footprints, vicious dogs, floodlights, trip-wire machine guns, and soldiers that were instructed to shoot those crossing over. At least 171 people were killed while trying to cross the Berlin Wall during its 28 years of existence. But during this time, more than 5,000 East Germans were able to cross to West Germany in many different ways: hot air balloons, jumping out of windows next to the wall, climbing over the barbed wire, crawling through sewers, and driving through weak spots of the wall at high speeds.
On November 9, 1989, the head of East Germany's communist party announced that new rules would allow East Germans to cross the border whenever they wished. The rules went into effect at midnight, and that night crowds from East and West Germany came to the wall. Champagne and beer were drunk, and chants of "Tor auf!"—"Open the gate!"—filled the sky. As midnight struck, some East Germans crossed into West Berlin. Others used hammers and picks to chip at the wall. The rest of the wall was soon pulled down by bulldozers and cranes, and East and West Germany were officially reunited on October 3, 1990. The Soviet Union dissolved shortly thereafter, and the Cold War ended. With World Freedom Day, we celebrate a monumental moment in history, the opening of the Berlin Wall, which symbolized the ushering in of freedom for millions. We also use the day to continue to support those who are still oppressed around the world.
How to Observe World Freedom Day
The following are some ideas on how to celebrate the day:
- Visit The Wall Museum, the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, or the Berlin Wall Memorial.
- Support an organization that is fighting for human rights and freedom.
- Learn about countries fighting for freedom around the world.
- Watch a documentary about the Berlin Wall.
- Read a book about the Berlin Wall.