The Berlin Wall

BERLIN – The Berlin Wall has gone down in history as a symbol of the Cold War and the division of Germany. It was built in the early 1960s to stop the flow of refugees from the east to the west.

On November 9, 1989, the most hated building in Germany fell. The GDR is on the verge of collapse, economically and politically bankrupt. The state border is opened, the unification of the two German states is in sight after more than 40 years of separation.

Since 1952, the leadership of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) had sealed off the Soviet occupation zone from the West. The inner-German border had a restricted zone several kilometers wide and stretched almost 1400 kilometers from Bavaria to the Baltic Sea. It divided settlements and landscapes, cut roads and railroads, it shaped the lives of millions of people.

Only six railroad crossings and five road or highway crossings remained open for traffic between the Federal Republic and the GDR and Berlin. In and around Berlin, 200 roads were closed, 77 remained, and telephone connections to the western part of the city were cut.
The inhabitants were forcibly resettled from the immediate vicinity of the inner-German border. Nevertheless, Berlin was still a loophole for daring refugees. With the construction of the wall it was plugged.

In June 1961, Walter Ulbricht publicly declared, “No one intends to build a wall!” However, the head of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) was already planning to seal off East Berlin from the west of the city. However, the approval from Moscow came only at the beginning of August. In the night of 12. to the On August 13, the Volkspolizei (People’s Police), the Betriebskampfgruppen (Combat Groups) and the Nationale Volksarmee (NVA) blocked the sector border running through Berlin with barbed wire and stone walls.

In the days and months that followed, a 46-kilometer-long wall was built between East and West Berlin, and eventually fortified border fortifications were erected around the whole of West Berlin along a stretch totaling a good 155 kilometers. The population could now no longer move from one part of the city to the other.

Berliners were stunned; international reactions were rather restrained. General Lucius D. Clay, as the American special envoy to the city, had tanks brought in to test whether they were dealing only with the Ulbricht regime or with Moscow. When Soviet tanks rolled up on the other side, the matter was clear.

The political leadership of the GDR celebrated the construction of the Wall – in the language of SED propaganda “anti-fascist protective wall” – as a “victory of the socialist camp” over Western imperialism. Essentially, the GDR leadership was concerned with stopping the flow of refugees, because until the Wall was built, the GDR had lost hundreds of thousands of its citizens to the West every year.

The concrete walls, ditches, running facilities for trained guard dogs, watchtowers and gun emplacements made the “state border” almost impassable. At least 235 people were killed trying to cross into the West. Many still tried their luck, sometimes in spectacular wall escapes.

The political and economic stability that the GDR leadership had hoped to achieve by sealing off the borders collapsed at the end of the 1980s.In Moscow, Mikhail Gorbachev had come to power and was trying to modernize the state and the government apparatus. He reformed the Soviet Union and thus the entire Warsaw Pact under the slogans “glasnost” (openness, transparency) and “perestroika” (restructuring, transformation).

The GDR leadership lost the backing of the Soviet Union. In all major cities, people protested for their freedom. A wave of escapes via Hungary and Czechoslovakia brought the situation to a head.

On October 18, 1989, the SED Central Committee deposed Erich Honecker, Chairman of the Council of State. Nevertheless, the opening of the border on the evening of November 9, 1989 came as a surprise to everyone. The wall fell. The “turning point” could no longer be stopped. That evening, thousands stormed the border crossings and celebrated the “Miracle of Berlin.”

Today, traces of the Wall have largely disappeared from the landscape and the Berlin cityscape. In Berlin, only 1.5 kilometers of the Wall can still be found at the East Side Gallery and Oberbaumbrücke, the rest has been sold or disposed of all over the world. Paving stones at the Brandenburg Gate recall the former course of the Wall.



Around 3.6 million people left the Soviet sector of Germany and Berlin between 1945 and 1961. As a result, the communist regime in East Germany faced increasing difficulties. Half of the constant stream of refugees used West Berlin as a springboard to the West. There, about half a million people passed the sector border in both directions every day. This allowed them to directly compare living conditions.
In 1960 alone, around 360,000 people moved to the West. The GDR was on the verge of social and economic collapse.
On August 13, 1961, the rulers in East Berlin and Moscow decided to build a wall in Berlin. The last gap in the Iron Curtain, which divided all of Europe, was closed. The communist regime had failed and was not willing to stand by while the people voted with their feet.
Nevertheless, in the years that followed, well over 100,000 people fled the GDR. Ingenuity was needed to overcome the inner-German border fortifications and the Berlin Wall. Some dug tunnels, others flew over them. Hundreds perished on their way to freedom. They were shot by GDR border guards or died in other ways during their escape attempts.
The communist power structures and system were increasingly reaching their limits. Both great powers, the USA and the USSR, became more and more entangled in an arms race in the course of the Cold War, which turned the whole of Europe into a single powder keg. Moreover, this arms race swallowed up huge sums of money, which became a problem for the Eastern bloc in particular.
At the Gdansk shipyard in Poland, workers led by Lech Walesa went on strike. Pope John Paul II mediated. In Moscow, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev stood for a softening of policy. Tough disarmament negotiations showed success. US President Ronald Reagan called on Gorbachev at the Brandenburg Gate to tear down the Wall. Hungary opened its borders and allowed GDR citizens to pass unhindered. Thousands of others occupied the German Embassy in Prague and forced their departure there.
The GDR regime was weakened, human rights groups strengthened in their peaceful protest. Their courageous appearance on the one hand, and not least the commitment of the USA on the other, gave the Germans a second chance: on November 9, 1989, Berliners from East and West fell into each other’s arms, weeping with joy. Thousands and thousands celebrated the fall of the Wall at the border crossings and on the Wall itself. The pictures of that night went around the world.
Less than a year later, on October 3, 1990, the reunification of Germany became a reality. The desire for freedom and self-determination had won. Berlin, for decades the focus of confrontation, of the Cold War, became the symbol of German unity and the future of Europe. (Text:Bundeswehr)