Partition wall built between East Berlin and West Berlin in 1961, with the aim of preventing citizens of communist East Germany from escaping to the West. Due to its position in the middle of a politically divided city, and, by extension, of a divided nation (East and West Germany), the Berlin Wall became one of the most significant symbols of the Cold War.
The dramatic story of “the two Berlins” and of the Wall between them began in 1945. Following the defeat of Nazi Germany, France, Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union divided Germany among themselves into four occupation zones. Although located entirely in East Germany (dominated by the Soviet Union), Berlin was also partitioned, with its western half under the control of the United States, France, and Britain.
Not surprisingly, when the relationship between the Soviet Union and its former allies began to deteriorate in the postwar period, Germany’s capital became the first “battleground” of the ensuing Cold War. Unable to compromise on crucial political and economic matters, the occupiers of Germany decided to make the division permanent. On May 12, 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) declared itself an independent state, followed a couple of weeks later by the establishment of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). The border between the two Germanies was sealed, and on August 15, 1961, soldiers in East Germany begin building a five-foot high wall separating the eastern and the western halves of the city of Berlin.
The Berlin Wall became a truly impressive structure. The Wall was, in fact, an entire complex of obstacles, including 13-feet-high concrete slabs, electric and wire-meshed fences, alarm cables, and antivehicle ditches. It even had special ramps for guard dogs. The row of obstacles extended more than 103 miles, and it was watched over by 14,000 border guards and 600 dogs.
As early as 1957, the East German government had introduced the penal offense of fleeing the Republic, punishable by up to four years in prison. Border guards received the order to shoot trespassers on sight. It is estimated that between 1961, when the Wall was erected, and 1989, when it was torn down, more than 75,000 people were arrested trying to cross the border illegally. More than 800 others died in escape attempts, out of which 250 persons were killed at the site of the Wall.
No fewer than 5,000 people, however, did manage to breach the Wall; about a tenth of these were deserting East German border guards. Amazing stories of escape have become part of contemporary German folklore. These include the tunnel under the Wall, which, in October 1964, delivered 57 East Berliners to freedom; a handful of low sports cars, which raced under the horizontal barriers at checkpoints; and four men wearing home-made Soviet-like uniforms, who simply walked by the respectful border guards. Despite its formidable complex of obstacles, the Berlin Wall was never able to completely stop the constant trickling of refugees out of East Germany.
Around the drama of individual East Berliners continuously challenging East German border guards, a wider crisis was unfolding. Alternating between suspicious appeasement and outright provocations, the two sides of the Cold War were fighting a daily battle in divided Berlin. Soviet and American intelligence agencies set up numerous million-dollar receivers and decoders on both sides of the Wall, as part of a deeply paranoid game of surveillance and espionage.
On June 26, 1963, U.S. President John F. Kennedy visited Berlin and observed the Wall from a high platform on the Western side. He then delivered a stirring speech to a crowd of 120,000 Germans, ending with the famous phrase, “Ich bin ein Berliner” (I am a Berliner). Over the next two decades, each successive U.S. president made a “pilgrimage” to West Berlin.
Nearly four decades after the Berlin Wall was built, on June 12, 1987, U.S. President Ronald Reagan also delivered a speech to the people of West Berlin and West Germany. Reagan took the extraordinary step of directly addressing, through the television cameras, the Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, asking him to “tear down this wall!” It was the German people, however, who, two years later, demolished the barrier and symbolic division between East and West.
Similar to the situation in other communist countries in the region, the living conditions of East Germans had progressively worsened throughout the 1980s. Infuriated at the lack of basic freedom—and, in no small measure, encouraged by the increasingly frequent anticommunist events in the rest of Eastern Europe—nearly 1 million East German citizens took to the streets of Berlin on November 4, 1989, demanding substantial political and economic reforms.
The East German government, afraid that the demonstration might snowball into a genuine popular revolt, decided to appease the protesters by granting them one of their main wishes: the right to travel freely. On the evening of November 4, one of the country’s high officials announced at a press conference that East Germans were free to cross into West Germany. When the incredulous journalists wanted to know when the measure was to take effect, a confused communist leader uttered “immediately.”
Within hours, a huge crowd of East Berliners had amassed at the various checkpoints along the Wall, demanding to be allowed to go through. The border guards, who were still under official orders to shoot anybody attempting to flee, did not know what to do. Finally, the officers in charge decided not to set themselves against the human tide and opened the gates wide. Exuberant East Berliners flooded through the checkpoints, greeting the thousands of Westerners who had come to the Wall to welcome them.
During the next three days, about 2 million East Berliners crossed into West Berlin to celebrate. Most of the Berlin Wall was soon torn down, piece by piece. On October 3, 1990, the people of “the two Germanies” voted to unite once more into a single nation, spelling the end of one of the most notorious symbols of oppression in modern history.
Berlin Crises; Cold War; Détente; Iron Curtain
Partition wall built between East Berlin and West Berlin in 1961, with the aim of preventing citizens of communist East Germany from escaping to...
The Berlin Wall, erected in August 1961 to stop the hemorrhage of Germans seeking to leave East Germany (the German Democratic Republic, or GDR),...
It was built to separate West Berlin from East Berlin and the surrounding German Democratic Republic (GDR). The frontier of the GDR with West...