4 things you probably didn't know about the Berlin Wall


BERLIN, Germany — As hundreds of thousands of Germans gather at the iconic Brandenburg Gate to celebrate the spontaneous destruction of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago, the world is taking stock of the success or failure of just about everything that's happened since.

More from GlobalPost: This video captures what it was like for Germans when the Berlin Wall fell

But amid all the talk, some vital facts have dangerously slipped under the radar. Here are four of the most important ones, in our opinion:

1) The wall really fell in Budapest

A young girl places flowers in between slats of the former Berlin Wall on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the wall on Nov. 9, 2014 in Berlin, Germany. (AFP/Getty Images)

Sure, the protesters that made up East Germany's Peaceful Revolution deserve some credit. But the first crack in the Berlin Wall appeared in Budapest. In May 1989, six months before the first Berliners got out their hammers, Hungary opened its border with Austria — a response to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of Perestroika — prompting tens of thousands of East Germans to pack their bags for then-Czechoslovakia. Many of them, of course, hoped for a permanent vacation in loophole land.

Budapest officially announced in September that it would allow thousands of East Germans waiting for permission to leave the Soviet bloc cross into Austria. With the flight of 15,000 people over the next three days — the sort of exodus that had prompted the building of the wall in the first place — East German leader Erich Honecker sought to stop people from getting to Hungary by shutting the Czech border. The genie though, had already left the bottle.

2) David Hasselhoff did (not) bring down the wall

Let's face it: nobody can really explain Germany's love for Baywatch star David Hasselhoff. You could say it's because he helped bring down the Berlin Wall. But that would ignore the glaringly obvious fact that the Hoff was big in Germany before anything went down (we're talking the dark, post-Knight Rider, pre-Baywatch years).

Hitting Germany's pop charts in March 1989, his so-bad-it's-good-no-it-really-is-bad “Looking for Freedom” somehow became the unofficial anthem of the Peace Movement, making his New Year's Eve performance amid the rubble of the wall an indelible camp counterpoint to East German kitsch.

There are a couple ways of looking at this. The first way is to watch the video above of “Looking for Freedom." But you can't unsee it afterwards.

Another way is by analogy. Imagine if instead of La Marseillaise — which sounds awesome even if it is all about slaughtering your enemies and bathing in their blood — the French had commemorated their revolution with Britney Spears doing “Oops, I did it again.” Then imagine something so much worse that you shouldn't even watch it on Youtube.

A third way of looking at it is, well, intellectually. It's tempting to believe that the benighted East Germans were so starved for western rock and roll that they confused “Looking for Freedom” with “Free Bird.” But Bruce Springsteen played East Berlin in 1988, and long before that East Germans were able to get compilation records with music from bands like the Rolling Stones — albeit with a bunch of parental advisory type warnings on the album covers. Blaming rock-and-roll starvation would also be overlooking the disturbing fact that the Hoff's stunningly bad song topped the charts in West Germany.

3) The wall did not divide Berlin

Picture taken on Oct. 13, 1976 of a checkpoint along the Berlin Wall between East (Soviet sector) and West Berlin (American sector). (AFP/Getty Images)

If you can remember Knight Rider, you probably imagined the Berlin Wall as a big brick barrier that cut across the center of the city, like the world's ugliest suburban privacy fence. In reality, the wall wasn't straight, it didn't divide Berlin in half, and it didn't fence in East Germans. It actually zig-zagged all the way around West Berlin, creating a weird sort of island quasi-nation behind the Iron Curtain.

Russia's grim push to take the city in the 1945 Battle of Berlin gave the Soviet's the upper hand in negotiations when it came time to divide territory at the Potsdam Conference a few months later. Citing heavier casualties, Stalin held out for the lion's share of the city, forcing the British and Americans to give up some of their sectors to make room for France. The actual division was done by administrative district, not an arbitrary line on a map, so when East Germany eventually built the wall in 1961 it was as jagged as any gerrymandered political border.

It had to surround West Berlin because the entire city lies in what was then East Germany, so in some ways it created problems for West Germans too. Free or not, for example, you couldn't hop in the car and drive to Munich. There were only a handful of places to cross the border, and you needed a visa, so funny alternatives to the weekend getaway arose — including semi-urban campgrounds and special farms where kids could be taken to observe exotic animals. Like cows.

West Germany had to essentially pay people to live on the weird island, and pockets within the wall's zigs and zags never really developed — creating the grungy artist haven now being overrun by German hipsters.

4) The East didn't give up. They messed up.

Watching the old footage of mullet-haired Germans in acid-washed jeans scrambling over the wall, it's easy to think that the Peaceful Revolution defeated the Stasi.

But another video is more revealing. The one above shows spokesman Günter Schabowski announcing to journalists that the politburo has decided to allow “every citizen to travel out of East Germany by way of the border checkpoints.” When a journalist asked him when the new rules come into affect, he flips through the press release, seeming to look for something written on the backs of the pages, and says, “As far as I'm aware, immediately.”

Hours later, tens of thousands of people overwhelmed the checkpoint at Bornholmer Strasse — eventually leading to the spontaneous destruction of the wall.

As it turns out, however, the government's actual plan hadn't been to allow free travel, but to defuse the protest movement by granting so-called malcontents a one-way ticket out. But Schabowski had apparently missed the meeting when that scheme was hashed out.

Yep. The end of history was really just a bureaucratic screw-up.

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