Berlin Wall

views updated May 21 2018

Berlin Wall


In the early hours of August 13, 1961, the border crossings between the eastern Soviet Occupied Zone of Berlin and the western American, British and French controlled sectors began to be sealed. At first barbed wire was used to separate East from West Berlin, but over time this was replaced by concrete slabs and a deadly no man's land that became known as the Berlin Wall. The Wall split a city, a people, and the world, tearing apart families and friends for decades, and becoming a powerful symbol of the Cold War, representing the deepening divide between East and West, physically, politically, and philosophically.

After the Second World War

Well before the D-Day invasion of mainland Europe, the three main Allied powers, Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union, held high-level discussions to determine how to administer Germany after it had been defeated. Eventually it was decided that Germany would be split into four administrative zones, one each for the Soviets, the American, the British, and the French. Berlin, as the German capital, was also to be divided into four administrative zones. However, Berlin was located deep within the zone allocated to the Soviets, 180 kilometres (110 miles) from the western zones, and this geographical fact was to haunt post-war Germany for many decades.

Immediately after the war, the major concerns of the administrative powers were feeding the populace, and coping with the severe winter of 1947. The major political discussions were disagreements over the amount of reparations Germany could pay while still leaving it with sufficient resources for recovery. However, the "Berlin Problem," as it came to be known, was also beginning to surface.

Post-war military rule by the four powers was intended to be a short term measure, as it was assumed a suitable German civilian government would be quickly formed, and the Allies would then sign a peace treaty with this new authority and withdraw their troops. As a result, there was little or no long-term planning in regards to the peculiar problems of Berlin. Access routes from the western zones were only tenuously agreed upon with the Soviets. The notion that both Germany and Berlin would remain divided for an extended period was just not considered. When relations between the Soviet Union and the Western powers began to deteriorate, all sides found themselves with a geographical problem that caused political problems.

The Cold War heats up. The first major crisis between East and West regarding post-war Germany began on June 24, 1948, when Western land access to Berlin was blocked by the Soviets. Berlin relied on shipments of almost every good its population used, from food and medicine to coal for heating and power generation. At first it appeared that the Western powers would be forced to either abandon their sectors of Berlin, or open a land passage to Berlin through military confrontation, risking a possible Third World War. Unexpectedly, however, it proved possible to supply Berlin with the bare essentials (and no more) through a massive airlift operation. The New York Treaty of May 4, 1949 effectively ended the Berlin blockade, and the Western counter-blockade, and supplies quickly returned to normal levels.

The blockade effectively ended the charade of four power cooperation in the administration of Germany and Berlin, with the Soviet sector eventually becoming the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and the Western sectors eventually becoming the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). In both cases, however, Berlin was considered the capital city of these new countries, but a Berlin divided between the Soviets and the West. The events of the blockade were also a fundamental impetus behind the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), and its Eastern counterpart, the Warsaw Pact, further defining the divisions of the Cold War.

Refugees. The 1950s saw both sides of Berlin turned into political and social showrooms for the competing doctrines. West Berlin developed into a capitalist Mecca, while the East of the city transformed into a model socialist city. While the border between the two areas was sealed in 1952, this did not stop half a million people

crossing the borders each day. Many East Berliners worked in the West, where they could make more money and so enjoy a higher standard of living than those working in the East, a situation that led to resentment from some. Berliners from the West enjoyed the extra spending power their currency offered in the East, crossing the border for less expensive haircuts, clothes, and other goods and services. Relatives living on opposite sides of the city could visit each other, students crossed to attend schools and universities, and many people crossed the border to attend concerts and sporting fixtures. There were some measures introduced to make crossing the border difficult and frustrating, such as police controls on many crossing points, and the barricading of some streets, but over 80 access points still remained open, and the underground railway (S-bahn) still crossed regularly.

However, there were a large number of people crossing from the East who simply did not return. Towards the end of the Second World War there had been a flood of refugees fleeing from the East to the West ahead of the advancing Soviet army. While the tide slowed after the end of the war, there remained a steady stream of Germans who left the East of the country and resettled in the West. It is estimated that more that two and a half million East Germans fled into the West between 1946 and 1961, yet the entire population of East Germany was only 17 million. The East German authorities attempted to restrict their citizens crossing by introducing passes and making "fleeing to the Republic" a crime with potential jail sentence of up to four years.

There were many factors driving the refugees. Some were as basic as seeking a better job, more food, or more material goods. The numbers of refugees spiked upwards during times of hardship in the East, when food and other essential resources were scarce. The social and political changes that had taken place in the Soviet zone, such as the educational reforms and the removal of many judges from their positions, resulted in many educated and wealthy persons moving to the West. The refugee problem grew and became an embarrassment for both sides. The East viewed those leaving as traitors and the West could not cope with the scale of the human tide. In the first seven months of 1961, over 150,000 East Germans left for the West. Walter Ulbricht (18931973), the leader of East Germany, repeatedly requested that he be able to take radical measures to stop the problem, but he was denied, at least for the time being.

The Berlin crisis. Aside from the refugee problem, there were political troubles that threatened not only the peace and stability of Berlin and Germany, but also the world. In 1958, the Soviet Leader, Nikita Khruschev (18941971) demanded that several thorny post-war issues be resolved within a six-month period. The Soviets wanted negotiations on European security, an end to the four-power occupation of Germany, a final peace treaty signed with a reconstituted Germany, and the creation of a nuclear-free Germany to act as a buffer zone between the two superpowers.

The Soviets threatened that if their demands were not met then they would sign a separate peace treaty with East Germany, officially splitting Germany in two (even if in practice it already was so.) Summit talks were held in Geneva (May-August 1959), Paris (May 1960), and with the newly elected President John F. Kennedy (19171963) in Vienna (June 1961), but no agreements were forthcoming.

On the night of August 12, 1961, on the Eastern side of Berlin, large numbers of army units, militiamen, and People's Police (Vopos) began to assemble near the border. Beginning shortly after one in the morning the troops were posted along the border, and the wire and posts were deployed to seal East from West Berlin. Traffic was prevented from crossing, including the underground railway trains. When Berliners awoke on the morning of August 13 their city had been split in two.

The closure of the border between the two halves of Berlin came as a surprise to Western intelligence agencies. After the fact, a number of reports and individuals surfaced claiming to have foreseen the events of August 13, but at the time there was no credible source that was believed by the West. Some historians have suggested there was an overload of information at the time, with too many spies and informers supplying information. Sorting through the sheer volume of reports was one problem, as well as sorting the useful signals from the noise of half-rumor and disinformation. Reports from civilians who noticed that something "big" was occurring before the border was sealed were dismissed, as they were considered less reliable than the professional spies and informers. Credit must also be given to the secret planning and execution of Ulbricht, Erich Honecker (19121994), and their forces, who managed to stockpile 40 kilometres of barbed wire and thousands of posts without arousing suspicion. Even as the border was being sealed, many people on both sides had no idea what the ultimate purpose was, including those laying out the barbed wire.

The initial Western lack of response was baffling to many, who expected a more aggressive approach from the Western military in Berlin. The Kennedy administration appeared to accept that the Soviets had a natural right to protect their borders, and the other Western leaders followed his lead. Despite the fact that the East German actions violated the agreements the Four Powers had made after the Second World War, the United States only protested in a feeble manner. While Kennedy has been criticized heavily by biographers and historians for doing nothing, in effect, the lack of an active Western response stabilized the situation. While tension remained high for the next two years, the walling of the Berlin border did not threaten to boil over into armed conflict in the same manner as the Berlin Blockade had done.

If there had been too much intelligence information before the Wall, after the border was sealed there was the opposite problem. Before the Wall, spies crossed as easily as anyone else did. The massive tide of refugees that moved to the West Berlin before the sealing of Berlin caused many intelligence problems, as it was simply not possible to effectively screen all potential communist agents when the numbers crossing were high. After the wall, it became much harder to send spies across the border, simply because there was no longer any civilian traffic. Potential spies were now much easier to spot, and security forces on both sides could now shadow all suspected persons in official parties who crossed the divide.

Over the years, the East Germans modified and added to the initial barbed wire fence between the two Berlins. As soon as it became obvious that the West was not challenging the erection of the barricades, the first concrete sections were moved into place. Within the first few months, the Wall began to take on a more permanent shape, consisting of concrete sections and square blocks. Weak points were quickly identified and sealed. In mid-1962, modifications were made to strengthen the Wall, and in 1965, a third generation of Wall building began, using concrete slabs between steel girders and concrete posts. The last major reconstruction of the Wall began in 1975, when interlocking concrete segments were used.

The border fencing off West Berlin from East Germany was 155 km. (96 mi.) in length. The actual concrete structure that became infamous was only 107 km. (66.5mi.) in length, the remainder of the border was sealed off by wire and fences. More than 300 watch towers were built along the border, as well as 105 km. (65 mi.) of anti-vehicle ditches, more than 20 concrete bunkers, and all patrolled by several hundred dogs and more than ten thousand guards.

While the Wall was a formidable barrier that did not stop many East Germans from trying to cross it. In the first few days and weeks of its construction there were many gaps in the border. Escapees jumped, burrowed, climbed, and swam their way through weak points in the fence. Some East German residents lived in apartments that had windows and doors that opened into the West. Some fled to West Berlin simply by walking through their front doors, and when they were sealed, by climbing out the windows. Over time the holes and weak points in the Wall were found and blocked. Those attempting to escape in later years faced many more hazards, and while some were successful, many were wounded or killed in the attempt.

The fall of the Wall. The collapse of the Wall was an even greater surprise than its construction, catching the East German politicians and border guards unaware. In 1989, there had been growing unrest in the GDR, with a number of mass demonstrations in East Berlin. A new refugee crisis was also causing problems for the East German authorities. The August, 1989, the opening of the Hungarian border with Austria provided a new gateway to the West. In just three days of September, 1989, over 13,000 East Germans fled to the West via Hungary. The East German authorities rushed through a number of stop-gap measures in an attempt to stem the flow of refugees, including the forced resignation of Honecker on October 18, and giving amnesty to those who had attempted to cross the border illegally. However, the unrest continued, and the refugees still fled.

Then on November 9, 1989, Politburo member Guenter Schabowski gave a television interview in which he announced that East Germans would be able to travel abroad. When a reporter asked when this would apply Schabowski seemed unsure, but then said "immediately." Within minutes, crowds gathered at the border demanding to cross, but the guards refused to let them pass without orders. The East German authorities had intended for the new travel conditions to apply the next day, but in order to avoid violent confrontations, the border was opened. Huge crowds crossed the border, and an impromptu celebration erupted in both sides of Berlin. The Wall had been breached, and would not be closed again.



Hilton, Christopher. The Wall: The People's Story. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing, 2001.

Read, Anthony and David Fisher. Berlin: The Biography of a City. London: Pimlico, 1994.

Tusa, Ann. The Last Division: A History of Berlin 19451989. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1997.


Berlin Wall Online. <> 2003.

Deutsches Historisches Museum Berlin <>.


Berlin Airlift
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Cold War (19721989): The Collapse of the Soviet Union

Berlin Wall

views updated May 23 2018



In the aftermath of the division of Germany into two states in 1949, the city of Berlin, controlled by the four Allies (France, Great Britain, and the United States on the one side and the Soviet Union on the other side), remained the only place where Germans could freely commute between the Eastern and the Western blocs of the Cold War. The inner German border zone had already been sealed off by the East German state in May 1952. By August 1961, approximately 2.2 million citizens of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) had left their country without official permission via the border separating the West Berlin sectors from the Soviet sector and the surrounding GDR territory. Reacting to the dictatorial transformation of East German society, the curtailing of basic human and civil rights, and a chronically weak economy, members of all classes and social groups, but in particular qualified workers and professionals, opted for a new start in the liberal capitalist part of their country. The impending collapse of the East German state and economy led the communist regime to close the Berlin border completely on 13 August 1961. They thus began to erect a wall, protected by barbed wire and made of concrete bricks and slabs. These barriers were later replaced by large concrete segments approximately 3.6 meters (12 feet) high and 1.2 meters (4 feet) wide (and topped by barbed wire) both inside the city (the "Berlin Wall" in the colloquial sense) and at the border between West Berlin and its rural surrounding regions.

East German plans to close the Berlin border dated back to the early 1950s but had lacked support by the Soviets. In a climate of rising international tension after the 1958 Berlin ultimatum proclaimed by Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier, to get the Western Allies out of their sectors, this seemed to be the only option to prevent a breakdown of the regime, in particular because U.S. president John F. Kennedy had assured the Soviet leadership that the Western powers would not take any military countermeasures as long as their own rights in West Berlin and the free use of the transit ways between West Berlin and the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) were guaranteed. The logistic and military preparation by the East German people's police had been under way for several months but successfully hidden from the public, so that the closure of the border and its immediate and effective fortification within a week came as a shock to the German population and the Western political elite. The actual work was done by civilian construction workers under the close supervision of paramilitary units of the people's police and the voluntary "fighting squads of the working class," a free-time militia recruited from state-owned enterprises. Units of the National People's Army (Nationale Volksarmee) and the Soviet Army were held in reserve in more remote areas, but did not have to intervene.

Even before the construction of the wall, attempting to leave East Germany without formal permission was persecuted under the law as a crime. A system of meticulous regulations prohibited nonresidents from staying in near-border areas. This was now complemented by a system of no-access areas with all vegetation or other objects removed, observation towers, and the continuous patrolling of guards armed with submachine guns who were trained to prevent any illegal trespassing, if necessary by "eliminating" the "violator of the border." From the whole setting it was evident that such persons were expected to come from within the GDR territory rather than, as the communist propaganda incessantly claimed, from the West. Later on the border installations at the inner German border, though not those around West Berlin, were fortified through the deployment of automatic gunfire devices, mines, and electronic detectors.


As a means to cut short the drain of GDR refugees, the Berlin Wall proved to be effective. Their numbers immediately dwindled from 47,000 in August 1961 to fewer than 30,000 per year. Crossing the Berlin Wall as well as the inner German border became a life-threatening undertaking mostly risked by young single men, while others preferred to accept the assistance of refuge assistants (Fluchthelfer) to reach the West either by being smuggled out on one of the official transit ways or by using forged documents and traveling through a third transit country. The death toll at the fortified borders of the GDR after 13 August 1961 is now estimated to number at least 169 following the conservative numbers of the Berlin state prosecutor, while the Central Agency for the Investigation of Government and Unification Crimes at the Berlin Police Department has counted a total of 262. To these numbers, one must add the 159 persons killed at the GDR border before August 1961 to arrive at the total for the period from 1949 to 1989. According to both sources a slight majority of these victims died at the inner German border between East and West Germany. There are still no reliable figures for the much smaller numbers of those drowned or shot in the attempt to leave the GDR via the Baltic Sea, nor for those who were killed while crossing the border to one of the other socialist countries (Czechoslovakia, Poland) or from one of the Soviet bloc countries to the West. The estimate of an overall toll of nearly one thousand victims of the GDR border regime published by the Working Group August 13th must be considered as an exaggeration.


During the 1980s the number of GDR citizens being allowed to visit West Germany rose to the hundreds of thousand. In this context, lifting all constraints on traveling abroad quickly became a top issue once the political U-turn came about in the fall of 1989. On the evening of 9 November 1989, Günter Schabowski, a member of the East German Politburo of the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED), acting as its spokesperson, held a live televised press conference communicating the most recent decisions taken by the SED leadership. One of these decisions he announced was a new decree regulating permission for GDR citizens to travel out of the GDR. Asked by a reporter when the new regulation would come into effect, he replied "immediately, with no delay." Because news agencies and television stations immediately repeated Schabowski's statement, and many East Berliners interpreted his announcement literally, within hours several thousand people had gathered at East Berlin border checkpoints clamoring for the gates to be opened. Because Schabowski's public communication had been coordinated neither with other members of the SED leadership nor with the Ministry of Defense and its border troops, the gatherings at the border, which had been observed and reported on by Western media, went on unhindered, leaving the border guards on-site without any instructions. In a chaotic situation of failing communication, the resignation of top leaders, and the peaceful presence of ever more persons at the checkpoints, permission was given to "flood" the checkpoint areas at 11:30 p.m. With the barriers lifted, some ten thousand East Berliners entered downtown West Berlin to be joined by their Western co-citizens in a spectacular all-night mass party covered live throughout the world.


The fall of the Berlin Wall marked the point of no return in the breakdown of the Soviet bloc, opening the window of opportunity for Helmut Kohl's policy of immediate German reunification. In the days that followed, a spontaneous reappropriation of the wall by the people set in. Thousands of "wall peckers" dismantled the concrete segments, which, because they had been embellished and decorated by myriads of unknown graffiti and mural artists on their Western side, made nice colorful collector items that could also be sold in Berlin and elsewhere at good prices. Under the continuing pressure of mass demonstrations, additional checkpoints were now opened for free passage. By the end of the year the GDR created additional crossing points by tearing down the wall where old street connections between East and West Berlin had been blocked for twenty-eight years. When both city halves were also united politically, in conjunction with the joining of the two German states in October 1990, one of the first projects of the new city government was to do away with all the remaining sections of the wall. By December, most former border areas had been cleared and were made available again for urban planning and construction. In the meantime, with the construction boom following reunification, it has become rather difficult to identify the last traces of the former borderline in the downtown cityscape. There are only two large stretches of concrete wall segments left: one at Bernauer Straße, where a documentation center on the Berlin Wall run by the Federal Republic is situated, and one south of the city center, where East German artists had used its eastern side to create the East Side Gallery during the democratic revolution.

The criminal dimension of killings at the GDR borders have been dealt with in several trials both against rank-and-file members of the border troops and against their superiors and finally the top party functionaries. Whereas most of the lower ranks came away with short prisons sentences or probation, some of the top leaders such as Schabowski and the last SED leader, Egon Krenz, had to serve several years in prison. By the early twenty-first century, a sometimes heated debate had set in regarding how to memorialize properly the Berlin Wall as part of the city's history, and several research projects on the victims and the details of the GDR border regime were under way.

See alsoCold War; 1989.


Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, Deutschlandradio, and Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung Potsdam. "Chronik der Mauer, January 1961–1989/90." Available at

Burkhardt, Heiko. "Berlin Wall Online." Available at

Hertle, Hans-Hermann. "The Fall of the Wall: The Unintended Dissolution of East Germany's Ruling Regime." Cold War International History Project Bulletin, no. 12/13 (2001): 131–164.

Klausmeier, Axel, and Leo Schmidt. Wall Remnants, Wall Traces: The Comprehensive Guide to the Berlin Wall. Berlin, 2004.

When the Wall Came Tumbling Down: 50 Hours That Changed the World. VHS. Directed by Hans-Hermann Hertle and Günther Scholz. Northampton, Mass.: Icestorm International, 1999. Originally made for German television.

Thomas Lindenberger

Berlin Wall

views updated Jun 11 2018

Berlin Wall


On the night of August 13, 1961, police officers strung barbed wire along the border of East Berlin to keep East German citizens from fleeing to West Germany. During the previous half year about 160,000 refugees had escaped from the German Democratic Republic (GDR), bringing the total to over three million who had sought a better life and more freedom in West Germany. Because the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had failed to neutralize the western sectors of the former capital of Germany in the Berlin crisis of 1958, he allowed the East German leader, Walter Ulbricht, to seal the border under the guise of protection against capitalist subversion to stop the outflow.

The barrier gradually was turned into an insurmountable concrete wall that averaged 12 feet high and 96 miles long, dividing neighborhoods, streets, and even houses. An elaborate system of fortifications with a back wall, a minefield, a jeep road, guard dogs, watchtowers, and searchlights made the wall impenetrable, and those who wanted to get out had to build tunnels, break through with trucks, fly across in balloons, or forge passports. More than 125 people died in the attempt because the border guards had orders to shoot all escapees. Because the GDR had built the wall on its side, angry Western governments could only insist on their right to cross at Checkpoint Charlie and reassure the residents of their sectors that they would not abandon them. In 1963 President John F. Kennedy expressed his solidarity with the words I am a Berliner.

The political effect of the wall was ambivalent. In the short run it increased cold war tensions, culminating in the Cuban missile crisis. In the medium term it stabilized the Communist regime by closing off the exit option and forcing East Germans to come to terms with the dictatorship of the SED (Socialist Unity Party). The wall also compelled West German leaders to accept the existence of a second German state and sign agreements with it to permit some travel through a handful of crossing points such as Friedrichstrasse. In the long run, however, the ugly edifice demonstrated symbolically that the GDR was forced to imprison its people because it remained rather unpopular. Anti-Communist leaders never tired of demanding, like President Reagan in 1987, Mister Gorbachev, tear down this wall.

The inhumanity of the wall eventually prompted its fall. Many East Germans continued to try to leave, supported by a West German policy that recognized them as citizens and paid ransom for their release. When the Hungarian government opened its Austrian border in the summer of 1989, tens of thousands fled, sparking mass demonstrations among those left behind in the GDR. Because that democratic awakening overthrew Erich Honecker, his successor, Egon Krenz, attempted to initiate a more liberal travel policy. Its premature announcement on November 9 inspired citizens to mass at the crossing points and force them to open, thus toppling the wall. Not only East and West Berliners but many people around the world celebrated its fall, which signified the collapse of communism and allowed Germans to reunify and Europeans to reunite.

SEE ALSO Communism


Hertle, Hans-Hermann, Konrad H. Jarausch, and Christoph Klessmann, eds. 2002. Mauerbau und Mauerfall: Ursachen, Verlauf, Auswirkungen. Berlin: Ch. Links.

Hilton, Christopher. 2001. The Wall: The Peoples Story. Stroud, U.K.: Sutton Publishing.

Konrad H. Jarausch

Berlin Wall

views updated Jun 08 2018


BERLIN WALL. A product of the prolonged Berlin crisis period from 1958 to 1962, the Berlin Wall came to symbolize the Cold War division of Germany and the world between the communist and noncommunist blocs.

Having repeatedly threatened since November 1958 to end Western rights in West Berlin, the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev and the East German leader Walter Ulbricht sought a way to stabilize the East German economy, which was being undermined by a growing flow of refugees leaving through West Berlin. Just after midnight on 13 August 1961 Soviet and East German troops sealed the border between East and West Berlin. Within weeks, the initial barbed wire was replaced with a concrete wall. In response, President John F. Kennedy judged that so long as Western rights in West Berlin were not being directly challenged the United States could not interfere, a decision that led to widespread criticism of American inaction.

The wall itself—constructed of concrete, seven and a half miles long, and twelve feet high—was part of a 102-mile system of fortifications encircling West Berlin. The fortifications were built in stages and included military watchtowers, tripwires, and minefields. A constant stream of escape attempts highlighted the repression of the Communist regime. When West German protesters breached the wall on 9 November 1989, it provided the Cold War's symbolic end. Few remnants remain of this once sinister symbol of the Cold War.


Gelb, Norman. The Berlin Wall. London: M. Joseph, 1986.

Wyden, Peter. Wall: The Inside Story of Divided Berlin. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.

David G.Coleman

See alsoCold War ; Germany, Relations with .

Berlin Wall

views updated Jun 11 2018

Berlin Wall Heavily fortified and defended wall, 49km (30mi) long, that divided East from West Berlin. It was built by East Germany in 1961, in order to prevent refugees fleeing to West Germany. Some individuals succeeded in crossing it, others were killed in the attempt. It was dismantled in 1989, after the collapse of East Germany's communist regime

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