West Berlin citizens held a vigil atop the Berlin Wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate on November 10, 1989, the day after the East German government opened the border between East and West Berlin.
On 13 August 1961, in the middle of the night, the Berlin Wall (known in German as Berliner Mauer) was erected as a physical barrier between West Berlin and East Germany. It was intended to prevent disgruntled East Germans from migrating to the West.
On November 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall collapsed, its destruction was nearly as instantaneous as its construction. The Berlin Wall represented the Cold War and the Iron Curtain between Soviet-led Communism and Western democracies for 28 years. When it fell, the entire globe celebrated.
On August 13, 1961, East Germany closed its borders with the west. East German soldiers set up barbed wire barricades at the border separating East and West Berlin. West Berlin citizens watch the work.
After World War II, the Allies divided Germany into four zones. According to the terms of the Potsdam Conference, each territory was occupied by the United States, Great Britain, France, or the Soviet Union.
The same was done with Berlin, the capital of Germany. Relationships between the Soviet Union and the other three Allies disintegrated rapidly.
Consequently, the cooperative ambiance of the German occupation became competitive and aggressive. The Berlin Blockade in June 1948, during which the Soviet Union prevented all supplies from reaching West Berlin, is one of the most well-known incidents.
Although the eventual reunification of Germany was intended, the new relationship between the Allied powers transformed Germany into a conflict between the West and the East and between democracy and communism.
West Germany was established in 1949 when the three zones occupied by the United States, Great Britain, and France merged to form West Germany (the Federal Republic of Germany, or FRG).
The zone occupied by the Soviet Union immediately gave rise to East Germany (the German Democratic Republic, or GDR). Berlin was also divided into East and West at the same time. Due to Berlin’s complete location within the Soviet Zone of Occupation, West Berlin became an island of democracy in communist East Germany.
A young East Berliner erects a concrete wall later topped by barbed wire at a sector border in the divided city on August 18, 1961. East German police stand guard in the background as another worker mixes cement.
In a brief period after World War II, the living conditions in West Germany and East Germany diverged drastically. With the aid and support of its occupying powers, West Germany set up a capitalist society.
The economy grew rapidly and became known as an “economic miracle.” West Germans could live well, purchase electronics and appliances, and travel freely due to their diligence.
In East Germany, the inverse was nearly true. The Soviet Union regarded their zone as war booty. They stole factory equipment and other valuable assets from their zone and returned them to the Soviet Union.
When East Germany became an independent nation in 1949, it was directly influenced by the Soviet Union, and a communist society was established. East Germany’s economy stagnated, and personal liberties were severely restricted.
Tracks of the Berlin elevated railroad stop at the border of the American sector of Berlin in this aerial view on August 26, 1961. Beyond the fence, communist-ruled East Berlin side, the tracks have been removed.
In 1952, East Germany had been fortified outside of Berlin. By the end of the 1950s, many East Germans desired to leave. Incapable of enduring the oppressive living conditions, they would relocate to West Berlin. Even though some were halted along the way, hundreds of thousands managed to cross the border.
After crossing the border, these evacuees were sheltered in warehouses before being flown to West Germany. Many of those who escaped were youthful, professionally trained individuals. By the early 1960s, East Germany’s labor force and population were swiftly declining.
It is estimated that nearly 2.7 million people escaped East Germany between 1949 and 1961. The government desperately attempted to halt this widespread exodus. The apparent leak was East Germans’ easy access to West Berlin. Several attempts had been made, with the assistance of the Soviet Union, to take over West Berlin.
Even though the Soviet Union threatened to use nuclear weapons against the United States over this issue, the United States and other Western nations were committed to defending West Berlin.
East Germany was desperate to retain its citizens and realized the action was required. Two months before the construction of the Berlin Wall, Walter Ulbricht, head of the GDR’s State Council from 1960 to 1973, famously stated, “No one intends to build a wall.” These famous phrases mean, “No one intended to construct a fortification.” After this declaration, the exodus of East Germans accelerated. During the following two months of 1961, nearly 20,000 individuals escaped to the West.
Formidable concrete walls took shape at the seven crossing points between East and West Berlin on December 4, 1961. The new walls were seven feet high and five feet thick. Only small passages for traffic were left open. In the center of the Bornholmer Bridge (French/Russian sector border), behind steel tank traps, a big sign showing the East German emblem hammer and compass.
There were rumors that something could occur to reinforce the border between East and West Berlin. No one anticipated the Berlin Wall’s swiftness or its absoluteness. On the night of August 12–13, 1961, just after midnight, trucks carrying soldiers and construction laborers rumbled through East Berlin.
While most Berliners slept, these laborers began demolishing streets leading into West Berlin. They dug trenches to install concrete posts and strung barbed wire along the East-West Berlin border. In addition to cutting telephone connections between East and West Berlin, railroad lines were also blocked.
Berliners were stunned upon awakening that morning. What had once been a frontier with great fluidity was now rigid. East Berliners could no longer cross the border to attend operas, plays, soccer tournaments, or any other event.
Approximately 60,000 commuters could no longer travel to West Berlin for well-paying employment. Families, friends, and lovers could no longer traverse the border to visit one another. Whichever side of the border a person slept on the night of August 12 was the side they were trapped on for decades.
East German VOPO, a quasi-military border policeman using binoculars, stood guard on one of the bridges linking East and West Berlin in 1961.
The Berlin Wall’s complete length was 91 miles (155 kilometers). It traversed the heart of Berlin and encircled West Berlin, completely isolating it from the rest of East Germany. During its 28-year existence, the wall underwent four significant transformations. It began as a barbed-wire fence supported by concrete supports.
On August 15, just a few days later, a stronger, more permanent structure supplanted it. This one was constructed with concrete slabs and barbed wire.
1965 saw the replacement of the first two wall variants with the third version. Steel girders sustained a concrete wall. The fourth iteration of the Berlin Wall, erected between 1975 and 1980, was the most complex and comprehensive. It consisted of roughly 12-foot-tall (3.6 meters) and 4-foot-wide concrete slabs (1.2 meters). A smooth pipe ran across the structure’s summit to prevent people from scaling it.
By the time the Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989, a 300-foot No Man’s Land and an additional inner wall had been constructed. Soldiers with canines conducted a patrol, and the raked ground revealed footprints. In addition to anti-vehicle trenches, electric fences, enormous light systems, 302 watchtowers, 20 bunkers, and even minefields, the East Germans constructed minefields.
Over time, East German government propaganda claimed that the people of East Germany embraced the Wall. In reality, the oppression they endured and the potential repercussions they confronted prevented many from speaking out.
Under the eye of a communist “people’s policeman,” East Berlin workers with a power shovel destroyed one of several cottages and one-family houses along a sparsely settled stretch of the east-west Berlin boundary in October 1961.
Although most of the frontier between East and West consisted of preventative measures, the Berlin Wall contained only a handful of official openings. These border crossing checkpoints were reserved for officials and those with special permission to traverse the border.
Checkpoint Charlie, located at the Friedrichstraße frontier between East and West Berlin, was the most well-known. Checkpoint Charlie was the primary border crossing site for Allied troops and Westerners.
Soon after the construction of the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie became a symbol of the Cold War. It has appeared frequently in films and novels set during this period.
A young girl in the Eastern Sector looks through barbed wire into Steinstucken, Berlin, in October of 1961.
Although the Berlin Wall prevented the preponderance of East Germans from emigrating to the West, it did not prevent everyone. Approximately 5,000 individuals successfully traversed the Berlin Wall during its existence. Some early effective attempts were straightforward, such as throwing a rope over the Berlin Wall and climbing it.
Others were reckless, such as driving a vehicle or bus into the Berlin Wall and fleeing. Still, others were suicidal, as evidenced by the fact that some people jumped from the upper-story windows of apartment structures bordering the Berlin Wall.
In September 1961, these structures’ windows were boarded up, and the East and West sewers were shut down. Other structures were demolished to make room for the Todeslinie, also known as the “Death Line” or “Death Strip.”
This open area provided a direct line of sight for East German soldiers to execute Shiessbefehl, a 1960 order to murder anyone attempting to flee. In the first year, twenty-nine individuals were slain. As the Berlin Wall grew in size and strength, escape attempts became more meticulously organized.
Some individuals dug tunnels from the basements of East Berlin structures beneath the Berlin Wall and into West Berlin. Another group constructed a hot air balloon from cloth remnants and flew over the Wall.
Sadly, not all attempts to flee were successful. Because East German guards were permitted to fire anyone approaching the eastern side without warning, all escape attempts carried the risk of death. It is estimated that between 192 and 239 individuals perished at the Berlin Wall.
Blocking the church – Two East Germans work on a huge 15-foot wall, placing pieces of broken glass on the top to prevent East Berliners from escaping.
On August 17, 1962, one of the most infamous instances of an unsuccessful attempt occurred. Two 18-year-old males ran toward the Wall in the early afternoon to scale it. The young man who was the first to reach it was successful. Peter Fechter, the second, was not.
As he approached the Wall, a border patrol agent opened fire. Fechter continued to ascend but ran out of vitality shortly before reaching the summit. He then fell back into East German territory. To the surprise of the world, Fechter was abandoned there. The East German guards did not kill him a second time, nor did they assist him.
Fechter screamed in anguish for approximately one hour. Once he had bled to death, soldiers from East Germany removed his body. He became the fifty-first person to perish at the Berlin Wall and a permanent symbol of the fight for freedom.
A refugee runs during an attempt to escape from the East German part of Berlin to West Berlin by climbing over the Berlin Wall on October 16, 1961.
The collapse of the Berlin Wall occurred almost as abruptly as its construction. There were indications that the Communist coalition was weakening, but the East German Communist leaders insisted that East Germany did not require a radical revolution but rather a moderate change. East German citizens were opposed.
To save his country, Mikhail Gorbachev (1985–1991) separated Russia from many of its satellites. In 1988 and 1989, as Communism began to falter in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, new exit points were opened for East Germans seeking to escape to the West.
Erich Honecker, the leader of East Germany, responded to anti-government demonstrations with threats of violence. Honecker was compelled to resign in October 1989 after losing the support of Gorbachev.
He was succeeded by Egon Krenz, who determined that violence would not alleviate the nation’s problems. Krenz also eased restrictions on travel from East Germany.
The picture was taken in June 1968 of the Berlin Wall and East Berlin (Soviet sector).
Unexpectedly, on the evening of November 9, 1989, East German government official Günter Schabowski made a blunder by announcing that permanent relocations were permissible through all border checkpoints between the GDR and the FRG or West Berlin.
The populace was in disbelief. Were the borders truly unlocked? East Germans cautiously approached the border and discovered that border guards were allowing individuals to cross.
The Berlin Wall was soon flooded with people from both sides. Some began whittling away with hammers and chisels at the Berlin Wall. Along the Berlin Wall was a spontaneous and massive celebration, with people hugging, kissing, singing, cheering, and weeping.
The Berlin Wall was ultimately reduced to smaller fragments (some the size of a coin and others in big slabs). The pieces have become collectibles and are kept in private residences and public institutions.
In addition, there is now a Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Strasse. On October 3, 1990, East and West Germany reunified into a singular German state following the fall of the Berlin Wall.
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Typical of East Berlin measures to halt the escape of refugees to the west are these bricked-up windows in an apartment house along the city’s dividing line October 6, 1961. The house, on the South side of Bernauerstrasse, is in East Berlin.
Aerial view of the Berlin border wall, seen in this 1978 picture.
East German border guards carry away a refugee wounded by East German machine gun fire as he dashed through communist border installations toward the Berlin Wall in 1971.
East Berlin laborers worked on the “Death Strip,” which communist authorities created on their side of the border in the divided city on October 1, 1961. A double barbed wire fence marks the border, with West Berlin at right. In this view of the area, laborers level rubble of houses which, just days before, stood on the site close to the border. Buildings along the 25-mile dividing line were evacuated and razed by Berlin reds to eliminate one means of escape used by East Berliners to jump to the west.
Dying Peter Fechter is carried away by East German border guards who shot him down when he tried to flee to the west in this August 17, 1962 photo. Fechter was lying 50 minutes in no man’s land before he was taken to a hospital, where he died shortly after arrival.
View from the top of the old Reichstag building of the Brandenburg Gate, which marks the border in this divided city. East German Vopos erected the semi-circled wall around the Brandenburg Gate on November 19, 1961.
The Brandenburg Gate is shrouded in fog as a man looked from a watchtower over the Wall to the Eastern part of the divided city on November 25, 1961. The tower was erected by the West German police to observe the Inner-German border.
East German border guard Conrad Schumann leaped into the French Sector of West Berlin over barbed wire on August 15, 1961.
West German construction workers chat in West Berlin, April 18, 1967, beside the wall separating the city.
East German border guards carry away a 50-year-old refugee, who was shot three times by East German border police on September 4, 1962, as he dashed through communist border installations and tried to climb the Berlin wall in the cemetery of the Sophien Church.
A woman and child walk beside a section of the Berlin Wall.
Reverend Martin Luther King, American civil rights leader, invited to Berlin by West Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt, visited the wall on September 13, 1964, at the border Potsdamer Platz in West Berlin.
A mass escape of 57 people in October 1964 from East Berlin through a tunnel to the cellar of a former bakery in “Bernauer Street”, West Berlin. Picture of the tunnel exit.
A graffiti-covered section of the wall close to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in 1988. The sign reads: “Attention! You are now leaving West Berlin.”
(1 of 3) Two East Berliners jumped across border barriers on the Eastern side of the border checkpoint at Chaussee Street in Berlin in April of 1989. They were stopped by gun-wielding East German border guards and arrested while trying to escape into West Berlin. People in the foreground, still in East Berlin, wait for permits to visit the West.
(2 of 3) Two East Berlin refugees are taken away by border guards after a thwarted escape attempt at Berlin border crossing Chausseestreet, in this April 1989 picture.
(3 of 3) An East Berlin border guard, cigarette in mouth, points his pistol to the scene where two East Germans have led away after failing to escape to the west at the Berlin border crossing Chausseestrasse. Eyewitnesses reported the guard also fired shots.
A general view of the overcrowded East Berlin Gethsemane Church on October 12, 1989. About 1,000 East Germans participated in a prayer service here for imprisoned pro-democracy protesters. The church was the focus of protests in the final days of the wall.
An unidentified East German border guard gestures toward some demonstrators who threw bottles on the eastern side of newly-erected barriers at the Checkpoint Charlie crossing point on October 7, 1989.
East and West Berliners mingle as they celebrate in front of a control station on East Berlin territory, on November 10, 1989, during the opening of the borders to the West following the announcement by the East German government that the border to the West would be open.
East Berliners get helping hands from West Berliners as they climb the Berlin Wall, which divided the city for decades, near the Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate) on November 10, 1989.
A man hammered away at the Berlin Wall on November 12, 1989, as the border barrier between East and West Germany was torn down.
West Berliners crowd in front of the Berlin Wall early November 11, 1989, as they watch East German border guards demolishing a section of the wall to open a new crossing point between East and West Berlin, near the Potsdamer Square.
East and West German Police tried to contain the crowd of East Berliners flowing through the recent opening in the Berlin wall at Potsdamer Square on November 12, 1989.
Decades later, the Berlin Wall is a memory, pieces of it scattered around the world. Here, some original pieces of the wall are displayed for sale at the city of Teltow near Berlin, on November 8, 2013
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