The Berlin Wall was a barrier that divided Berlin from 1961 to 1989. Constructed by the German Democratic Republic, starting on 13 August 1961, the Wall completely cut off West Berlin from surrounding East Germany and from East Berlin until government officials opened it in November 1989.
Find out more facts about it, here!
1. After the end of World War II in Europe, what remained of pre-war Germany west of the Oder-Neisse line was divided into four occupation zones (as per the Potsdam Agreement), each one controlled by one of the four occupying Allied powers: the United States, the United Kingdom, France and the Soviet Union.
2. The capital of Berlin, as the seat of the Allied Control Council, was similarly subdivided into four sectors despite the city’s location, which was fully within the Soviet zone.
3. Within two years, political divisions increased between the Soviets and the other occupying powers.
4. These included the Soviets’ refusal to agree to reconstruction plans making post-war Germany self-sufficient and to a detailed accounting of the industrial plants, goods and infrastructure already removed by the Soviets.
5. Britain, France, the United States and the Benelux countries later met to combine the non-Soviet zones of the country into one zone for reconstruction and to approve the extension of the Marshall Plan.
6. By the early 1950s, the Soviet approach to controlling national movement, restricting emigration, was emulated by most of the rest of the Eastern Bloc, including East Germany.
The restrictions presented a quandary for some Eastern Bloc states, which had been more economically advanced and open than the Soviet Union, such that crossing borders seemed more natural – especially where no prior border existed between East and West Germany.
7. 2.50,000 Berliners – known as Grenzgängers – crossed each day to work in the West, receiving larger salaries, while living in subsidized housing, and not contributing to the Eastern economy.
8. Due to its power to purchase a wider range of consumer goods, the Western Deutsche mark was worth four to six times as much as the Eastern Deutsche mark. But basic goods, intentionally subsidized within the Socialist economy, and the desirability of the Western currency made the difference even more noticeable. This meant that not only Grenzgängers but also ordinary West Berliners, could exchange their money on the black market, and easily shop for what seemed like ludicrously cheap Eastern goods, as long as they didn’t want to buy Adidas shoes, or Volkswagen cars.
9. Up until 1952, the demarcation lines between East Germany and the western occupied zones could be easily crossed in most places.
10. On 1 April 1952, East German leaders met the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in Moscow; during the discussions Stalin’s foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov proposed that the East Germans should “introduce a system of passes for visits of West Berlin residents to the territory of East Berlin so as to stop free movement of Western agents” in the GDR.
11. Stalin agreed, calling the situation “intolerable”. He advised the East Germans to build up their border defenses, telling them that “The demarcation line between East and West Germany should be considered a border – and not just any border, but a dangerous one … The Germans will guard the line of defence with their lives.”
12. The inner German border between the two German states was closed, and a barbed-wire fence erected. The border between the Western and Eastern sectors of Berlin, however, remained open, although traffic between the Soviet and the Western sectors was somewhat restricted.
13. This resulted in Berlin becoming a magnet for East Germans desperate to escape life in the GDR, and also a flashpoint for tension between the United States and the Soviet Union.
14. In 1955, the Soviets gave East Germany authority over civilian movement in Berlin, passing control to a regime not recognized in the West.
15. East Germany granted “visits” to allow its residents access to West Germany.
16. However, following the defection of large numbers of East Germans under this regime, the new East German state legally restricted virtually all travel to the West in 1956.
17. On Saturday, 12 August 1961, the leaders of the GDR attended a garden party at a government guesthouse in Döllnsee, in a wooded area to the north of East Berlin. There Ulbricht signed the order to close the border and erect a wall.
18. At midnight, the police and units of the East German army began to close the border and, by Sunday morning, 13 August, the border with West Berlin was closed. East German troops and workers had begun to tear up streets running alongside the border to make them impassable to most vehicles and to install barbed wire entanglements and fences along the 156 kilometres (97 mi) around the three western sectors, and the 43 kilometres (27 mi) that divided West and East Berlin.
19. The barrier was built inside East Berlin or East German territory to ensure that it did not encroach on West Berlin at any point.
20. Generally, the Wall was only slightly inside East Berlin, but in a few places it was some distance from the legal border, most notably at Potsdamer Bahnhof and the Lenné Triangle that is now much of the Potsdamer Platz development.
21. Later, the initial barrier was built up into the Wall proper, the first concrete elements and large blocks being put in place on 17 August.
22. During the construction of the Wall, National People’s Army (NVA) and Combat Groups of the Working Class (KdA) soldiers stood in front of it with orders to shoot anyone who attempted to defect.
23. Additionally, chain fences, walls, minefields and other obstacles were installed along the length of East Germany’s western border with West Germany proper.
24. A huge no man’s land was cleared to provide a clear line of fire at fleeing refugees.
25. Quick stats about the Wall, near the end of its lifetime in 1989. Total perimeter: 155km. Electric contact or signal fencing: 127.5km. Observation towers: 302. Dog runs: 259. Bunkers: 20, guarded by more than 11,000 soldiers.
26. In fact the Wall was not built as a single pre-conceived structure, but a series of four different walls, starting with two wire fences, and then with two concrete walls. The last of these, the iconic Grenzmauer 75, was made up of the graffiti-adorned (on the Western side) concrete blocks that are still commonly associated with the Berlin Wall.
27. Grenzmauer 75 was also strategically weakened in certain places, in case the Soviets needed to drive their tanks through to the Western side.
28. The Berlin Wall was erected more than 15 years into the Cold War.
29. More than 100 people died trying to cross the Berlin Wall.The Centre for Research on Contemporary History Potsdam and the Berlin Wall Memorial Site and Documentation Center report that at least 138 people were shot dead, suffered fatal accidents or committed suicide after failed escape attempts across the Berlin Wall.
30. More than 5,000 escaped by going over and under the Berlin Wall. The first defector to escape across the Berlin Wall was 19-year-old East German border guard Corporal Conrad Schumann, who was immortalized on film as he leapt over a 3-foot-high roll of barbed wire just two days after East Germany sealed the border.
31. As the Berlin Wall grew more elaborate, so did escape plans. Fugitives hid in secret compartments of cars driven by visiting West Berliners, dug secret tunnels and crawled through sewers.
32. The three Bethke brothers pulled off the most spectacular escapes. Eldest brother Ingo escaped by floating on an inflatable mattress across the Elbe River in 1975, and eight years later brother Holger soared over the wall on a steel cable he fired with a bow and arrow to a rooftop in West Berlin. In 1989 the pair flew an ultra-light plane over the wall and back to pick up youngest brother Egbert.
33. John F. Kennedy expressed relief when the Berlin Wall was erected. In June 1961, Khrushchev warned President John F. Kennedy that he would blockade West Berlin if Western forces were not removed, a belligerent act that could lead to war.
34. When Kennedy heard news that the communists had walled off East Berlin instead of cutting off West Berlin, he confided to an aide, “It’s not a very nice solution, but a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war. This is the end of the Berlin crisis. The other side panicked—not we. We’re going to do nothing now because there is no alternative except war.”
35. East Germany called the wall the “Antifascist Bulwark.” Rather than keeping its citizens in, the East German government claimed it erected the Berlin Wall to keep Western fascists, spies and ideas out.
36. Official demolition of the Berlin Wall began in the summer of 1990. More than 40,000 wall sections were recycled into building materials used for German reconstruction projects, but a few hundred segments were auctioned off and are now scattered around the globe from the Vatican gardens to the men’s room of the Main Street Station Casino in Las Vegas, where urinals are mounted on a graffiti-covered wall segment protected behind glass.