Two days after sealing off free passage between East and West Berlin with barbed wire, East German authorities begin building a wall—the Berlin Wall—to permanently close off access to the West. For the next 28 years, the heavily fortified Berlin Wall stood as the most tangible symbol of the Cold War—a literal “iron curtain” dividing Europe.
The end of World War II in 1945 saw Germany divided into four Allied occupation zones. Berlin, the German capital, was likewise divided into occupation sectors, even though it was located deep within the Soviet zone. The future of Germany and Berlin was a major sticking point in postwar treaty talks, and tensions grew when the United States, Britain, and France moved in 1948 to unite their occupation zones into a single autonomous entity–the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). In response, the USSR launched a land blockade of West Berlin in an effort to force the West to abandon the city. However, a massive airlift by Britain and the United States kept West Berlin supplied with food and fuel, and in May 1949 the Soviets ended the defeated blockade.
By 1961, Cold War tensions over Berlin were running high again. For East Germans dissatisfied with life under the communist system, West Berlin was a gateway to the democratic West. Between 1949 and 1961, some 2.5 million East Germans fled from East to West Germany, most via West Berlin. By August 1961, an average of 2,000 East Germans were crossing into the West every day. Many of the refugees were skilled laborers, professionals, and intellectuals, and their loss was having a devastating effect on the East German economy. To halt the exodus to the West, Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev recommended to East Germany that it close off access between East and West Berlin.
READ MORE: All the Ways People Escaped Across the Berlin Wall
On the night of August 12-13, 1961, East German soldiers laid down more than 30 miles of barbed wire barrier through the heart of Berlin. East Berlin citizens were forbidden to pass into West Berlin, and the number of checkpoints in which Westerners could cross the border was drastically reduced. The West, taken by surprise, threatened a trade embargo against East Germany as a retaliatory measure. The Soviets responded that such an embargo be answered with a new land blockade of West Berlin. When it became evident that the West was not going to take any major action to protest the closing, East German authorities became emboldened, closing off more and more checkpoints between East and West Berlin. On August 15, they began replacing barbed wire with concrete. The wall, East German authorities declared, would protect their citizens from the pernicious influence of decadent capitalist culture.
The first concrete pilings went up on the Bernauer Strasse and at the Potsdamer Platz. Sullen East German workers, a few in tears, constructed the first segments of the Berlin Wall as East German troops stood guarding them with machine guns. With the border closing permanently, escape attempts by East Germans intensified on August 15. Conrad Schumann, a 19-year-old East German soldier, provided the subject for a famous image when he was photographed leaping over the barbed-wire barrier to freedom.
During the rest of 1961, the grim and unsightly Berlin Wall continued to grow in size and scope, eventually consisting of a series of concrete walls up to 15 feet high. These walls were topped with barbed wire and guarded with watchtowers, machine gun emplacements, and mines. By the 1980s, this system of walls and electrified fences extended 28 miles through Berlin and 75 miles around West Berlin, separating it from the rest of East Germany. The East Germans also erected an extensive barrier along most of the 850-mile border between East and West Germany.
In the West, the Berlin Wall was regarded as a major symbol of communist oppression. About 5,000 East Germans managed to escape across the Berlin Wall to the West, but the frequency of successful escapes dwindled as the wall was increasingly fortified. Thousands of East Germans were captured during attempted crossings and 191 were killed.
In 1989, East Germany’s communist regime was overwhelmed by the democratization sweeping across Eastern Europe. On the evening of November 9, 1989, East Germany announced an easing of travel restrictions to the West, and thousands demanded passage though the Berlin Wall. Faced with growing demonstrations, East German border guards opened the borders. Jubilant Berliners climbed on top of the Berlin Wall, painted graffiti on it, and removed fragments as souvenirs. The next day, East German troops began dismantling the wall. In 1990, East and West Germany were formally reunited.
READ MORE: The Surprising Human Factors Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall
History of the Berlin Wall: Why the Wall Was Built Up
The Berlin Wall was a barrier constructed by the German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany) starting on 13 August 1961, that completely cut off (by land) West Berlin from surrounding East Germany and from East Berlin.
The Eastern Bloc claimed that the wall was erected to protect its population from fascist elements conspiring to prevent the “will of the people” in building a socialist state in East Germany. In practice, the Wall served to prevent the massive emigration and defection that marked East Germany and the communist Eastern Bloc during the post-World War II period.
The Berlin Wall is perhaps the most well-known wall ever. It took a lot of effort to put it together and these are the people that gave it their all to make it happen.
The life in the West was much better than in the East after 1948. West Germany including West Berlin had got financial help through the Marshallplan from the USA. In East Germany a communist system was established and many people had to suffer under repressions of the Communist party.
Berlin was an especially tender spot, because it was the only gap in the Iron Curtain. People in West Berlin could fly out of the city freely. Huge numbers of them did leave. By 1960, tens of thousands of people were leaving every month. In 1961, more than 200,000 East Germans had defected by summer. [source: Schmemann].
The barrier included guard towers placed along large concrete walls, which circumscribed a wide area (later known as the “death strip”) that contained anti-vehicle trenches, “fakir beds” and other defenses. Between 1961 and 1989, the wall prevented almost all such emigration. During this period, around 5,000 people attempted to escape over the wall, with an estimated death toll of over 100 in and around Berlin, although that claim is disputed.
In 1989, a series of radical political changes occurred in the Eastern Bloc, associated with the liberalization of the Eastern Bloc’s authoritarian systems and the erosion of political power in the pro-Soviet governments in nearby Poland and Hungary. After several weeks of civil unrest, the East German government announced on 9 November 1989 that all GDR citizens could visit West Germany and West Berlin. Crowds of East Germans crossed and climbed onto the wall, joined by West Germans on the other side in a celebratory atmosphere.
Over the next few weeks, euphoric public and souvenir hunters chipped away parts of the wall the governments later used industrial equipment to remove most of what was left. The physical wall was primarily destroyed in 1990. The fall of the Berlin Wall paved the way for German reunification, which was formally concluded on 3 October 1990. [source: wikipedia]
The Berlin Wall
The Berlin Wall was a series of walls, fences and barriers separating the East German-Soviet sections of Berlin from Western-occupied sections. It was erected in the midst of the Berlin Crisis in 1961 and stood for almost three decades as a symbol of Cold War division. With its fortifications, guards and booby traps, attempting to cross the Berlin Wall proved fatal for scores of civilians.
The Wall erected
The story of the Berlin Wall began in the early hours of August 13th 1961, when the government of East Germany ordered the closure of all borders between East and West Berlin.
As the sun rose that morning, Berliners were awoken by the sound of trucks, jackhammers and other heavy machinery. Watched by Soviet troops and East German police, workmen began breaking up roads, footpaths and other structures, before laying thousands of metres of temporary but impassable fencing, barricades and barbed wire. They worked for several days, completely surrounding the western zones of Berlin and cutting them off from the city’s eastern sectors.
Within three days, almost 200 kilometres of fenceline and barbed wire had been erected. The East German government’s official name for this new structure was Die anti-Faschistischer Schutzwall, or the ‘Anti-fascist Protective Wall’. It became known more simply as the Berlin Wall. According to East Germany, the wall’s function was to keep out Western spies and stop West German profiteers buying up state-subsidised East German goods. In reality, the wall was erected to stop the exodus of skilled labourers and technicians from East to West Berlin.
The erection of the Berlin Wall made headlines around the world. For the Western powers, the closure of East Germany’s borders was not entirely unexpected, though the erection of a permanent wall took many by surprise.
The United States and West Germany immediately went on high alert, in case the events in Berlin were a prelude to a Soviet-backed invasion of the city’s western zones. Six days later, US president John F. Kennedy ordered American reinforcements into West Berlin. More than 1,500 soldiers were transported into the city along East German autobahns (unlike in the Berlin Blockade, access to West Berlin through East German territory was not blocked).
To prepare for another possible Soviet blockade, Kennedy also ordered a contingent of US cargo planes to be sent to West Germany. Some experts considered the Berlin Wall an act of aggression against Berliners in both zones and demanded strong action. Kennedy was more sanguine, suggesting that a wall “is a hell of a lot better than a war”.
The ‘death strip’
As weeks passed, the Berlin Wall became stronger and more sophisticated – and also more deadly. By June 1962, the East Germans had erected a second line of fencing, approximately 100 metres inside the first wall. The area between both fences came to be known as ‘no man’s land’ or the ‘death strip’.
Under East German regulations, any unauthorised person observed between the two walls could be shot without warning. Houses within the ‘death strip’ were seized by the East German government, destroyed and levelled. The area was floodlit and covered with fine gravel that revealed footprints, which prevented people from sneaking across unnoticed. Structures that overhung the ‘death strip’, like balconies or trees, were booby-trapped with nails, spikes or barbed wire.
In 1965, following several escape attempts where cars or trucks were used to punch through the fenceline, many sections of the barrier were replaced with pre-fabricated sections of concrete. This 3.4-metre high concrete barrier became the Berlin Wall’s most visible feature.
Crossing the Berlin Wall
Needless to say, crossing the border between the two Berlins became even more restrictive. Prior to the erection of the Berlin Wall, it had been comparatively easy for West Berliners to visit relatives in eastern sectors. They did so with a day pass issued by East German authorities.
Travelling in the other direction was more difficult. East Berliners wanting to cross the border had to show a government permit that was difficult to obtain. Elderly East Berliners found these permits easier to obtain because their potential defection was not detrimental to East Germany’s economy.
Those with business ties or immediate family in the West could also be granted permits – though these permits were often denied or revoked without reason. Permit-holders could cross the Berlin Wall at several points, the best known of which was ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ in Friedrichstrasse. Young East Germans, particularly those with any college education or technical training, found permits almost impossible to obtain.
There were, of course, many attempts to cross the wall illegally. Some East Germans tried climbing, scampering or abseiling over the wall – but the fortifications, barbed wire and armed Grepo (border police) made this a dangerous activity.
Ramming through barriers or checkpoints in vehicles was a common tactic in the early years of the wall. This tactic was nullified when the East Germans rebuilt all roads approaching the wall as narrow zig-zags, preventing vehicles from accelerating. Others tried tunnelling under the wall or flying over it, using makeshift hot-air balloons, with varying levels of success.
Around 230 people died attempting to cross the Berlin Wall. In 1962 Peter Fechter, an 18-year-old East German factory worker, was shot in the hip by a border patrol. Fechter bled to death in the ‘death strip’ while helpless onlookers on both sides watched impotently. Siegfried Noffke, who had been separated from his wife and daughter by the wall, dug a tunnel underneath it, only to be captured and machine-gunned by Stasi agents.
The Berlin Wall as propaganda
The Berlin Wall became a stark and foreboding symbol of the Cold War. In the West, its presence was exploited as propaganda.
The Berlin Wall, Western leaders said, was evidence that East Germany was a failing state, that thousands of its people did not want to live under communism. US secretary of state Dean Rusk called the Wall “a monument to communist failure” while West German mayor Willy Brandt called it “the wall of shame”.
In Washington, there was considerable debate about how the US should respond to the erection of the Berlin Wall. Ever the realist, President Kennedy knew that threats or shows of aggression might provoke confrontation or lead to war. He instead focused his attention on West Berlin, hailing it as a small but determined bastion of freedom, locked inside an imprisoned state.
Kennedy visited West Berlin in June 1963 and was greeted by ecstatic crowds, which cheered wildly and showered his motorcade with flowers and confetti. In the Rudolph Wilde Platz (later renamed the John F. Kennedy Platz), the US president told a rapt audience:
“There are many people in the world who really don’t understand, or say they don’t, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin. There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin. And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. ‘Lass sie nach Berlin kommen’: let them come to Berlin… Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all men are not free… All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words: ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ (I am a citizen of Berlin).”
The Berlin Wall stood in place for almost 30 years. It remained the most tangible evidence of the Cold War and Iron Curtain separating the Soviet bloc from the West. Western leaders often referred to it as a symbol of Soviet repression. US president Ronald Reagan visited West Berlin in June 1987 and urged his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, to “tear down this wall“. It was the people of Berlin themselves who tore it down, during a public demonstration in November 1989.
1. The Berlin Wall was erected by the East German government in 1961. It was constructed to halt the exodus of people, particularly skilled workers, from communist East Berlin.
2. Construction of the Berlin Wall began before dawn on August 13th 1961. Borders were initially closed with fences and barbed wire, then later fortified with large concrete walls
3. The West condemned the Berlin Wall and exploited it as anti-communist propaganda. The wall was evidence, they said, that Soviet communism was failing and East Germany was now a prison state.
4. Over time, the Berlin Wall was heavily fortified, booby-trapped and policed by armed guards. Despite this, many Berliners tried to cross it, and around 230 were killed in the process.
5. The Berlin Wall would stand for almost three decades as a tangible sign of the Iron Curtain and the divisions between the Soviet bloc and the democratic West. The political changes of the late 1980s, the weakening of the East German government and a popular uprising led to the Berlin Wall being torn down in November 1989.
Why the Berlin Wall rose—and how it fell
The ugly symbol of the Cold War was built to keep East Germans from escaping to the West. A decades-long fight to flee brought it down.
For nearly 30 years, Berlin was divided not just by ideology, but by a concrete barrier that snaked through the city, serving as an ugly symbol of the Cold War. Erected in haste and torn down in protest, the Berlin Wall was almost 27 miles long and was protected with barbed wire, attack dogs, and 55,000 landmines. But though the wall stood between 1961 and 1989, it could not survive a massive democratic movement that ended up bringing down the the socialist German Democratic Republic (GDR) and spurring on the Cold War’s end.
The wall had its origins in the end of World War II, when Germany was carved into four pieces and occupied by Allied powers. Although Berlin was located about 90 miles east from the border between the GDR and West Germany and completely surrounded by the Soviet sector, the city was also originally divided into four quarters, but by 1947 was consolidated into east and west zones.
In 1949, the two new Germanies were officially founded. Socialist East Germany was wracked by poverty and convulsed by labor strikes in response to its new political and economic systems. The brain drain and worker shortage that resulted prompted the GDR to close its border with West Germany in 1952, making it much harder for people to cross from “Communist” to “free” Europe. (Revisit National Geographic's reporting from West Berlin before the wall fell.)
East Germans began fleeing through the more permeable border between East and West Berlin instead. At one point, 1,700 people a day sought refugee status by crossing from East to West Berlin, and about 3 million GDR citizens went to West Germany through the via West Berlin between 1949 and 1961.
In the wee hours of August 13, 1961, as Berliners slept, the GDR began building fences and barriers to seal off entry points from East Berlin into the western part of the city. The overnight move stunned Germans on both sides of the new border. As GDR soldiers patrolled the demarcation line and laborers began constructing a concrete wall, diplomatic officials and the militaries of both sides engaged in a series of tense standoffs.
Why Was the Berlin Wall Built?
The East German military built the Berlin Wall after World War II to prevent the migration of civilians to the Allied West. Many Eastern Germans did not want to live under their communist leaders and attempted to cross the border into West Germany by scaling the wall.
The construction of the Berlin Wall was a result of Cold War tensions that led to the mass relocation of East German civilians, which included many skilled laborers essential to the German economy. The East Germans constructed the wall under the advice of a member of the Soviet Union leadership, Nikita Khruschev, to force the valued civilians to remain in the region. Unsuccessful Western attempts to oppose the separation of Germany served to embolden East Germany's resolve, which fortified the wall with barbed wire and machine guns under the pretense of protecting its citizens from capitalist society.
The Berlin Wall began as a line of barbed wire along the border of East and West Germany in 1961, eventually becoming a concrete wall over 28 miles long by the 1980s. East German soldiers killed many of the East Germans attempting to scale the wall into the West, until the dismantling of the East German government in 1989, leading to the eventual destruction of the wall and a reuniting of Germany's East and West regions.
The construction of the Berlin Wall
Around 2.7 million people left the GDR and East Berlin between 1949 and 1961, causing increasing difficulties for the leadership of the East German communist party, the SED . Around half of this steady stream of refugees were young people under the age of 25. Roughly half a million people crossed the sector borders in Berlin each day in both directions, enabling them to compare living conditions on both sides. In 1960 alone, around 200,000 people made a permanent move to the West. The GDR was on the brink of social and economic collapse.
As late as 15 June 1961, GDR head of state Walter Ulbricht declared that no one had any intention of building a wall [Film 0.81 MB]. On 12 August 1961, the GDR Council of Ministers announced that “in order to put a stop to the hostile activity of West Germany’s and West Berlin’s revanchist and militaristic forces, border controls of the kind generally found in every sovereign state will be set up at the border of the German Democratic Republic, including the border to the western sectors of Greater Berlin.” What the Council did not say was that this measure was directed primarily against the GDR ’s own population, which would no longer be permitted to cross the border.
In the early morning hours of 13 August 1961 [Film 5.80 MB], temporary barriers were put up at the border separating the Soviet sector from West Berlin, and the asphalt and cobblestones on the connecting roads were ripped up. Police and transport police units, along with members of “workers’ militias,” stood guard and turned away all traffic at the sector boundaries. The SED leadership’s choice of a Sunday during the summer holiday season for its operation was probably no coincidence.
Over the next few days and weeks, the coils of barbed wire strung along the border to West Berlin were replaced by a wall of concrete slabs and hollow blocks. This was built by East Berlin construction workers under the close scrutiny of GDR border guards.Houses on, for instance, Bernauer Strasse, where the sidewalks belonged to the Wedding borough (West Berlin) and the southern row of houses to Mitte (East Berlin), were quickly integrated into the border fortifications: the GDR government had the front entrances and ground floor windows bricked up. Residents could get to their apartments only via the courtyard, which was in East Berlin. Many people were evicted from their homes already in 1961 – not only in Bernauer Strasse, but also in other border areas.
From one day to the next, the Wall separated streets, squares, and neighborhoods from each other and severed public transportation links. On the evening of August 13, Governing Mayor Willy Brandt said in a speech to the House of Representatives: “The Berlin Senate publicly condemns the illegal and inhuman measures being taken by those who are dividing Germany, oppressing East Berlin, and threatening West Berlin….”
On 25 October 1961, American and Soviet tanks faced off against each other at the Friedrichstrasse border crossing used by foreign nationals (Checkpoint Charlie), because GDR border guards had attempted to check the identification of representatives of the Western Allies as they entered the Soviet sector. In the American view, the Allied right to move freely throughout all of Berlin had been violated. For sixteen hours, the two nuclear powers confronted each other from a distance of just a few meters, and the people of that era felt the imminent threat of war. The next day, both sides withdrew. Thanks to a diplomatic initiative by America’s President Kennedy, the head of the Soviet government and communist party, Nikita Khrushchev, had confirmed the four-power status of all of Berlin, at least for now.
In the years to come, the barriers were modified, reinforced, and further expanded, and the system of controls at the border was perfected. The Wall running through the city center, which separated East and West Berlin from one another, was 43.1 kilometers long. The border fortifications separating West Berlin from the rest of the GDR were 111.9 kilometers long. Well over 100,000 citizens of the GDR tried to escape across the inner-German border or the Berlin Wall between 1961 and 1988. More than 600 of them were shot and killed by GDR border guards or died in other ways during their escape attempt. At least 140 people died at the Berlin Wall alone between 1961 and 1989.
Dividing east and west
The end of World War Two signalled an unsure future for defeated Germany. At a pair of Allied Peace conferences in Yalta and Potsdam, the fate of Germany’s territories was determined. It was here that it was decided to split Germany into four ‘allied zones’, the eastern part of the country went to the Soviet Union and the western part to the United States, Britain and eventually France. Despite Berlin sitting entirely in the eastern part of the country, during the Yalta and Potsdam agreements the city was divided into similar zones. Simmering tension of the Cold War was only exacerbated by the decision to divide up Berlin. The existence of West Berlin, a consciously capitalist city deep within a communist East Germany, ‘stuck like a bone in the Soviet throat,’ according to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
How the Berlin Wall Worked
The Berlin Airlift did nothing to defuse tensions between the East and West in Germany. Berlin was an especially tender spot, because it was the only gap in the Iron Curtain. People in West Berlin could fly out of the city freely. While the border between East Germany and West Germany was closed, there was nothing to stop East Germans from entering West Berlin and fleeing (or defecting from) communist rule. Huge numbers of them did leave. By 1960, tens of thousands of people were leaving every month. In 1961, more than 200,000 East Germans had defected by summer.
West Germany wasn't happy to see this number of people leaving the East. Not only did it create an incredible economic strain, it increased tensions between East and West to an unbearable level. It seemed that an outbreak of violence was inevitable -- no one knew what to do about the situation. The solution came from the Soviet politburo (the executive committee of the USSR) and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. The orders technically were issued by German communist party leader Walter Ulbricht, but he was basically a puppet of the Soviets.
On the night of Aug. 12 and 13 in 1961, the borders between East and West Berlin were closed, along with all the rail stations. Thousands of East German soldiers guarded the border while workers began constructing barbed wire fences. Construction began at about 1 a.m. -- streetlights were turned off so no one could see what was happening. The city of Berlin was being walled off, and the residents had no idea it was happening until morning. Neither did Western leaders. President John F. Kennedy was taken completely by surprise.
The Berlin Wall is commonly thought of as a wall between East and West Berlin. In fact, East Germany wanted to cut off all access that East Germans had to West Berlin. Therefore, they had to cordon off all of West Berlin. The Berlin Wall completely surrounded the democratic half of the city.
Most residents of Berlin were stunned and outraged when they realized what had happened. Those in the East had few ways to express their anger under the thumb of communist rule and the ever-watchful Stasi, the East German secret police. Since the Berlin Wall was still really just a fence that morning, and incomplete in many places, some East Germans ran through the gaps or hopped the fence, realizing it was their last chance to reach the West. Even East German soldiers defected.
In pictures: remembering the Berlin Wall 30 years on
November 2019 marks 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, East Germany’s solution to the mass emigration of its citizens at the height of the Cold War. To mark the anniversary, we rounded up a selection of images showcasing the history of the wall – from its construction in August 1961 to its fall in 1989.
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Published: October 29, 2019 at 10:53 am
The Berlin Wall was built at the height of the Cold War, on 13 August 1961. Its purpose? To keep disaffected East German citizens from moving to the west…
The Berlin Wall: key facts
When was the Berlin Wall built?
The Berlin Wall was constructed in August 1961 after East German communists were given approval by Moscow to close the border between East and West Germany and build a physical barrier.
Why was the Berlin Wall built?
The Berlin Wall was constructed to stop people from East Germany moving to the west at the height of the Cold War. Prior to the wall’s existence, one in six people had been fleeing the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR), many in search of work and a better life.
The border installations around West Berlin zig-zagged for 163 kilometres, or just over 100 miles. “It turned the usual function of walls – to keep people out – on its head this wall was solely to keep its citizens in,” writes Professor Patrick Major for HistoryExtra.
When did the Berlin Wall fall?
The Berlin Wall fell on 9 November 1989, following a press conference in which East German politician Günter Schabowski suggested that people would be “immediately” able to apply for passports to travel to the west.
“By midnight tens of thousands of East Berliners had swamped the border checkpoints whose Stasi guards realised that the game was up,” writes Professor Patrick Major.
Rabbits Were Displaced When The Wall Fell
The fall of the Berlin Wall ended up being terrible for rabbits. The so-called no-man’s land became a thriving habitat for rabbits during the Cold War, and when the border was opened, the bunny population ran away, terrified, because of the sudden rush of human foot traffic that hadn’t existed there before. A 2009 documentary called “Rabbit a la Berlin” told the tragic story of these animals that were displaced by newfound human freedom.