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Definition: Berlin Wall from Philip's Encyclopedia

Heavily fortified and defended wall, more than 150km (100mi) long, that surrounded West Berlin. About 45km (28mi) of it ran between East and West Berlin. It was built by East Germany in 1961 to prevent refugees fleeing to West Germany. A few thousand people succeeded in crossing the wall; 193 were killed in the attempt. It was dismantled in 1989 after the collapse of East Germany's communist regime

Summary Article: The Berlin Wall, 1961–1989
from World History Encyclopedia

The Berlin Wall was erected in 1961 to prevent the exodus of escapees from East Germany (German Democratic Republic, GDR) into West Germany (Federal Republic of Germany, FGR). In the decades to follow, the wall provided a symbol of the division between the capitalist American-aligned West and the socialist Eastern Bloc under Soviet hegemony. At the end of World War II, disputes between the Soviet Union and other Allies regarding the postwar map of Europe resulted in the division of Germany into the Western-oriented West Germany and the Soviet-occupied East Germany in their respective zones of occupation. Over the course of the Cold War (1945–1991), the issue of East Germany, particularly the divided city of Berlin (also divided into West and East) within East Germany's territory, remained a thorny issue for both the capitalist West and the socialist East. Almost immediately, the East German authorities were having trouble keeping their population from defecting to the West, causing a brain drain as many skilled workers and educated elites left for West Germany in droves, approximately 2.7 million between 1949 and mid-1961. The result was the militarization of the East German border and the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961.

The Berlin Wall was constructed after the standoff between American and Soviet forces in the city of Berlin in 1958. Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev chose to force the issue of Berlin by requesting that the city be transformed into a demilitarized free zone. He gave the West an ultimatum of six months (with a deadline of May 27, 1959) to negotiate directly with the East German government regarding its presence in the region. The Dwight D. Eisenhower administration, fearful of losing face in world opinion, decided not to back down on this particular issue and used the threat of military force to maintain control of West Berlin. A fresh confrontation over the city of Berlin emerged in 1961 as Khrushchev tested the resolve of the newly instated U.S. president John F. Kennedy. Kennedy and Khrushchev engaged in brinksmanship, and soon armed American and Soviet forces faced off against each other along Berlin's divide. East German minister Walter Ulbricht urged Soviet backing in the construction of the Berlin Wall to end the continuing flow of refugees into West Germany. The Berlin Wall was first erected on August 12–13, 1961.

The militarization of the Berlin Wall and the East German border resulted in the increased usage of border guards and armed military units to prevent the passage of potential defectors and escapees to the West. Observation towers, troops, border guards, barbed wire, and weapons were placed along the concrete barriers not only to prohibit entry and exit but also to display to the West the military potential of the Eastern Bloc under Soviet ideological hegemony. Utilizing the discourse of international communism, East Germany legitimized its fortification of the borders with West Germany as a means of prohibiting the entry of subversive imperialism into the Utopian workers' state. The East German Stasi police organization, utilizing a network of spies and informers in the civilian population, offered another level of internal security to prevent contacts with the West. Potential defectors were shot or maimed in the no-man's-land between the barriers of barbed wire along the border and were immediately apprehended and subject to human rights abuses, displaying the power of the East German police state to East German citizens and Western observers. To the West, however, the Berlin Wall remained a potent symbol of the oppressive nature of communist rule. With the dissolution of Soviet authority in Eastern Europe after the policies of glasnost and perestroika in the Soviet Union, the devolution of East Germany from the Soviet sphere was imminent. In 1989, East German border guards allowed a flow of East German evacuees to enter into West Germany; this came after several weeks of problems regarding large numbers of evacuees escaping to the West through other Eastern Bloc countries. During this wave of democratization that swept through Eastern Europe, spelling the end of communism, much of the wall was dismantled amid celebrations and fanfare. Germany became a unified nation the following year, 1990, after nearly half a century of being on the front lines of the global Cold War.

A group of West Germans peer over the Berlin Wall, a barricade constructed by the East German government in 1961 that closed the border between West Germany and East Germany for 28 years. (Library of Congress)

  • Judt, Tony. Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945. New York: Penguin, 2005.
  • McMahon, Robert J. The Cold War: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Abraham O. Mendoza
Copyright 2011 by ABC-CLIO,LLC

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