The Berlin Wall was the physical manifestation of the ideological divisions of the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union. What Winston Churchill had described as the Iron Curtain lasted almost half a century, until this week in 1989 when, in a blaze of television lights and with the world watching, hundreds of demonstrators began climbing up it and hacking off lumps of its 28-mile length, block by block, fragment by fragment, souvenir by souvenir.

The fall of the Wall had really begun four years earlier when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union. The country was economically stagnant. First he tried to discipline the people, then he launched perestroika, restructuring, but the communist apparat was resistant, and finally glasnost, or democratisation. He had meant to reform communism but he was the architect of its destruction.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had been a costly political and economic disaster and it was raw in his mind – and the population’s. The country was effectively bankrupt. Military spending, competition with the United States, had brought it about, and the Cold War was coming to an end with what US president Ronald Reagan called a win for the West.

But as Gorbachev eased control and Soviet Bloc citizens were given more freedom, demands for even more grew. Protests erupted and, in 1989, a series of revolutions, notably in Hungary and Poland, triggered shock waves in East Germany. First the communist government in Poland fell. In June, the Hungarian government began dismantling the electrified fence with Austria and in September, 13,000 East Germans tourists escaped through Hungary to Austria. Demonstrations spread to Czechoslovakia, then to East Germany itself. Gorbachev refused to sanction military force to quell the protests.

In October, the GDR’s longtime president, Erich Honecker, resigned and was replaced by Egon Krenz, but the wave of refugees trying to get out did not abate. Krenz decided, on November 9, to allow them to go. “The gates in the Wall stand open wide,” East German TV reported.

Crowds began to gather at the border crossing, but at 10.45 they remained closed and the huge numbers of people had become increasingly restive and threatening. It was clear that no-one in the GDR government would give the order to fire on the people, so the gates were opened and hundreds, from East and West, poured through, exchanging gifts and hugging each other. A few minutes later a crowd of West Berliners climbed on to the wall and began hacking at it, to be quickly joined by young people from the East. The Wall had fallen and the Iron Curtain had been ripped down.

Its genesis followed the defeat of Germany in the Second World War, when what was left of the country was divided into occupation zones, each one controlled by one of the four occupying powers – Britain, the US, France and the Soviet Union. Berlin, although in the Soviet zone, was similarly split into four sectors.

The three Western powers quickly agreed to combine their sectors into one for reconstruction. But political divisions began to grow between the Soviet leader Stalin and the other Western leaders who wanted to make post-war Germany self-sufficient. Stalin resisted, no doubt mindful of the more than 20 million of his citizens who had died resisting Hitler and the Nazis. He did not want a resurgent Germany at Eastern Bloc borders. He believed that he could undermine Britain’s will and that the US would tire within a year or two and give up and leave – and that nothing would then stand in the way of a united communist Germany.

In 1948, following disagreements over the reconstruction plans and a new German currency, Stalin imposed the Berlin Blockade, cutting off West Berlin from food and other supplies. The Allies, in response, mounted the Berlin Airlift to drop goods to the beleaguered citizens and, in May 1949, Stalin recanted and allowed the resumption of supplies by road and rail.

Until 1952, passage between East and West Berlin was comparatively simple, but more and more East Germans were now defecting to the West and, in 1952, Stalin ordered a barbed-wire border to be erected between the two countries which, he decreed, was to be defended by the East Germans “with their lives”.

But while that stopped the majority of escapes, the Berlin route was the loophole. The East, the German Democratic Republic, was largely dependent on supplies by rail so, until 1961, when a line circumventing the Allied sector was completed, that, and the subway between the two countries, was still open.

With the completion of the rail link the Iron Curtain finally came down. It was estimated that by then over 3.5 million GDR citizens, or 20% of the population, had fled to the West. Berlin went from the easiest place to cross into West Germany to the hardest, with troops shooting escapees, families split, and men and women cut off from their jobs.

The East German government described the wall as an “anti-fascist protective rampart”, designed as a bulwark against aggression, but in practice it was a prison, keeping East Germans behind its wire, unable to leave, while West Germans were free to travel in.

The fencing gave way to concrete four metres high, topped by razor wire, spotlights, observation towers and machine gun posts. A second barrier was built 100 metres into the East, and all houses which were in between were razed, creating what later was known as the death strip, an area which gave soldiers a clear field of fire on anyone attempting to escape.

The wall was upgraded over the years and the pieces of it that protesters broke and took away in 1989 are generally from the fourth iteration.

The number of escapees at the Wall over the years is estimated as more than 5,000, with the number killed while escaping over 140. On August 22, 1961, Ida Siekmann was the first casualty at the Berlin Wall when she died after she jumped out of her third-floor apartment. The first person to be shot and killed while trying to cross to West Berlin was Günter Litfin, a 24-year-old tailor.

Perhaps the most dramatic escape was that of 19-year-old Wolfgang Engels who stole an armoured personnel carrier and drove it into the Wall. East German guards fired, he was seriously wounded but a West German policeman fired back and managed to rescue Engels from the wreckage.

Others used a variety of methods – digging tunnels, stealing light aircraft, a hot air balloon, even through the sewers which pre-dated the division of the city.

In June 1987, David Bowie, who had lived in Berlin, played a concert close to the Wall, followed by violent protest riots in the East. When Bowie died the now united German foreign office tweeted “Goodbye David Bowie. You are now among #Heroes. Thank you for helping to bring down the #wall.”

A year later, 16 months before the Wall was to finally fall, Bruce Springsteen played a concert – Rocking The Wall – in the East, attended by more than 300,000 and later broadcast on TV. The GDR authorities clearly thought that by letting Springsteen play it would improve their support with the youth, but instead it made them even more keen on enjoying the freedoms that Springsteen enjoyed.

Now, almost exactly 30 years after the fall of the Wall, there are still traces of it remaining, from a Wall memorial in a former Stasi secret police remand centre, to the double row of cobblestones in some streets demarcating the old border, to the Berlin Wall cycle route, which traces the path of the Wall, 160km along the former GDR border encircling West Berlin.