History of the Berlin Wall: From Its Construction to Its Destruction

On August 13, 1961, the German communist government erected a fence between West and East Berlin. Known as the Berlin Wall, it became the symbol of the Cold War.

Feb 6, 2024By Maria-Anita Ronchini, MA History & Jewish Studies, BA History

berlin wall history


“At four o’clock in the morning, police and military forces of the SED-state began occupying the Soviet sector,” wrote a Swiss correspondent of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. “When East Berliners woke up in the morning the military occupation of the Soviet sector had already been completed,” he added, “the border between West Berlin and the Soviet zone has also been hermetically sealed off.”


Between August 12 and 13, 1961, the Communist government of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) began to erect a barrier to prevent East Berliners from migrating to the sector of the city controlled by the Western powers. The so-called Berlin Wall became the embodiment of the Iron Curtain. It divided Berlin (and Germany) until November 9, 1989.


The End of World War II & Construction of the Berlin Wall

Map of the Allied zones of occupation in postwar Germany, ca. March 1946. Source: Truman Library


On May 8, 1945, Nazi Germany’s military leaders signed an unconditional surrender, relinquishing sovereign authority to the four victorious powers. After the war, the Allies faced the difficult task of implementing a process of “denazification” in Germany and establishing the defeated country’s new borders. During the conferences of Yalta and Potsdam, the Allies agreed to divide the German territory into four sectors, or “spheres of influence.” The United States, Britain, and France would exercise their control over the western part of the country. The eastern territories went to the Soviet Union. While Berlin was in the Soviet sector, the Allies divided the city into four zones.


Over the following years, the occupation zones led to the creation of two separate German states: the Federal Republic of Germany in the West and the German Democratic Republic in the East. Each republic had a different political and economic system. West Germany was included in the Marshall Plan and the Atlantic Community. On the other hand, East Germany became a member of the Warsaw Pact. The GDR was ruled by the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (Socialist Unity Party of Germany), or SED.

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The Tension Builds: The 1948 Blockade & the 1953 Uprising

Children watching a US cargo plane during the 1948 Berlin Blockade. Source: Encyclopedia Britannica


The definition of the occupation zones in Germany was a point of contention between the United States and the Soviet Union. After the war, both “superpowers” aimed to expand their international influence. Winston Churchill, Britain’s former prime minister, denounced the Soviet Union’s intention to “export” their political and economic system to Europe in his March 1946 speech: “From Stettin in the Baltic, to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” The rivalry between the US and the USSR led to the Cold War.


In the tense postwar world order, both the United States and the Soviet Union sought to bring Germany into their spheres of influence. The underlying tension often led to economic and social unrest in the former Nazi country. In 1948, the Allies merged their occupation zones and introduced a new currency (the Deutsche Mark) in western Germany. The Soviets saw the measure as a violation of the postwar agreements. Thus, they withdrew from the Allied Control Council, the joint governing body of Germany, and began a blockade of all communication routes between Berlin and the Western occupation zones. The Allies responded by organizing “airlifts” to supply the city’s residents with vital items and imposing an embargo on all East Germany’s exports. The Soviet Union finally lifted the blockade in May 1949.


People protesting the GDR economic measures, 1953, Berlin. Source: Deutsche Welle


While the blockade was active, the German Democratic Republic was facing an even bigger issue: the mass migration of its citizens to West Germany. The Federal Republic declared that the refugees were “voting with their feet” against their Communist government. On the other hand, Walter Ulbricht, the leader of the SED, defined the phenomenon as “human trafficking.” In 1952, the borders between the two German states closed. However, the East Germans continued to leave through the still-opened Berlin border. Those who remained faced a worsening economic situation.


In 1953, the SED increased working hours and prices. The measures were met with widespread discontent. On July 17, Berlin workers organized a series of strikes to protest the new living standards. Soon, protests broke out throughout East Germany. The Soviet Union, facing a complex transition period after the death of Joseph Stalin, declared a state of emergency and sent tanks to break the revolt. The 1953 uprising was the first expression of public dissent in the GDR. According to Manfred Wilke, “the crisis was not solved by repressing the revolt, but rather shelved and stored away. It endured, however, perhaps its most visible sign the persistent emigration of the East German population.”


The 1961 Berlin Crisis & Construction of the Berlin Wall

US President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev during the 1961 summit in Vienna. Source: Alliierten Museum, Berlin


By the end of the 1950s, the economic crisis in East Germany worsened. The country’s population continued to migrate to the Federal Republic. The Soviet Union and the Allies still had to reach an agreement concerning the status of Berlin. In his November 10, 1958,  speech, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev issued an ultimatum to the Western powers. If they failed to relinquish their authority on their occupation zones in Berlin within six months, the Soviet Union would sign a unilateral peace treaty with East Germany. On November 27, Khrushchev proposed to turn Berlin into a “Free City.” The United States and Britain, fearing to lose access to the city, rejected the Soviets’ suggestion.


In the following years, the American and Soviet leaders met multiple times to resolve the “German Question.” However, they repeatedly failed to reach an agreement. Then, in 1961, the situation escalated. In January, Khrushchev reiterated his aim “to remove the splinter – the occupation regime in West Berlin – from the heart of Europe.”


On June 4, 1961, US President John F. Kennedy and the Soviet leader met in Vienna to discuss the Berlin crisis. During the summit, Khrushchev issued a new ultimatum, which Kennedy rejected.


Members of the GDR’s Volkspolizei near the barbed wire barrier, August 13, 1961, Berlin. Source: Chronik der Mauer


Meanwhile, Walter Ulbricht, the SED’s General Secretary, firmly advocated the Soviet Union’s policy concerning Berlin. His position raised concern among Western German politicians and observers. During a June press conference, a journalist asked the SED leader whether creating a “Free Berlin” would require a physical barrier. However, Ulbricht reassured that “nobody has any intention of building a wall.”


Despite his words, the GDR government was intent on stopping the increasing flood of refugees to West Berlin. Indeed, the mass migration threatened East Germany’s already weak economy. In an interview with the London newspaper Evening Standard, the SED chief proclaimed: “We will not stand by idly and watch this unprecedented escalation of psychological warfare, controlled human trafficking and sabotage.” However, he reiterated that the GDR did not intend to close the borders.


Soldiers of the People’s Army oversee the construction of the Berlin Wall, 1961. Source: Tagesspiegel


By August, more than a thousand East Berliners were leaving the Soviet sector daily. In the same month, the Volkspolizei (People’s Police) increased the control of the traffic between the eastern and western sectors of Berlin, arresting several refugees. Then, on August 9, the GDR government began its plan to close the borders.


On the night of August 12 and 13, the National People’s Army received the order to block all crossings between East and West Berlin. After 1 a.m. on August 13, ADN, the GDR’s national news broadcast, announced:


“[T]o stop the hostile activities of the revanchist and militaristic powers of West Germany and West Berlin, a line of control is being set up on the borders of the GDR, including the border to the western sectors of Berlin … In future, these borders may only be crossed by GDR citizens if they have special permission.”


On August 13, the Berliners were astonished to see a long line of barbed wire cutting the city in half. The asphalt of the streets had been torn up to stop traffic. On the eastern side, the Volkspolizei monitored the bystanders with gun machines.


The Standoff at Checkpoint Charlie

Soviet tanks at Checkpoint Charlie, 1961. Source: The Local.de


In the following weeks, a brick wall replaced the barbed wire. Crossing was permitted only through thirteen checkpoints heavily guarded in the eastern zone. The tension in Berlin remained high. Citizens of the GDR were still finding ways to emigrate to the West.


In October 1961, the GDR officials monitoring Checkpoint Charlie at the corner of Friedrichstraße and Zimmerstraße began to hinder US dignitaries’ right to access East Berlin. On October 22, senior diplomat E. Allan Lightner was forced to remain in the western sector after the GDR border police demanded to check his passport. In response, General Clay ordered the US military police to escort the diplomatic personnel to East Berlin.


When the eastern border police did not desist from attempting to block the crossing, on October 27, General Clay sent some tanks to Checkpoint Charlie, where they stood with their engines running. Soon, Soviet tanks also reached the scene. The standoff lasted sixteen hours. In the end, the Kremlin implicitly agreed to grant US dignitaries unhindered entry to East Berlin.


The Mauerjahre (1961-1989): Between Fortifications & Escapes

The “death strip” near Bernauer Straße, 1980s. Source: Chronik der Mauer


Despite the new barbed wire barrier, the migration of East Berliners continued. On August 13, 1961, eight hundred refugees arrived in the western sector. The border soldiers initially attempted to prevent the escape of GDR citizens by adding more obstacles in front of the eastern side of the Berlin Wall. Then, in the following years, the SED radically transformed the wall by gradually adding fortifications, electrified fences, watchtowers, and mines. Thus, the Berlin Wall became a complex installation of two concrete walls. By the 1980s, the wall between East and West Berlin was 28 miles long. It also surrounded the western sector, separating it from the GDR territory. The Berlin Wall was just one section of the “inner German wall” that ran along the border between the two German states.


In June 1963, the GDR Council of Ministers decreed the establishment of a Grenzanlage (Border Zone) on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall. The new “protective strip” could not be accessed without permission and was under constant surveillance. Over the years, it became known as the “death strip.” Along the wall, 350 watchtowers allowed Eastern border guards to monitor the strip. According to internal directives from the GDR government, the armed guards had the order to use their weapons to shoot those who tried to flee if there was no other way to prevent the escape. Known as Schießbefehl (order to shoot), the command remained in effect until April 1989. In March 1982, the GDR Volkskammer passed the Grenzgesetz (Border Law), thus legalizing the use of firearms along the Berlin Wall.


Members of the GDR’s border police carry the body of Peter Fechter, 1962. Source: Chronik der Mauer


On August 24, 1961, 24-year-old Günter Litfin was the first East German to be killed by the border police during an escape attempt. Between 1961 and 1989, a total of 140 people died trying to flee to West Germany. In August 1962, the death of 18-year-old Peter Fechter, who bled to death in the border zone in front of the world’s media, provoked the outrage of West Berliners and international observers.


The SED referred to the Berlin Wall as an antifaschistischer Schutzwall (antifascist bulwark). On the contrary, citizens of the Federal Republic of Germany considered the barrier an embodiment of the GDR’s oppressive regime and of the Cold War. Between 1961 and 1989, many West Germans helped refugees escape.


In June 1963, President John F. Kennedy, during his visit to West Berlin, also expressed his support for the eastern Germans’ plight: “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words Ich bin ein Berliner.”


In 1975, at the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) in Helsinki, the GDR signed the Final Act that included the right to free travel and movement. The previous year, Erich Honecker, the SED General Secretary, had reiterated the order to kill to stop people from escaping: “As previously, firearms must be used ruthlessly in the case of attempts to break through the border, and the comrades who have used firearms successfully are to be commended.”


By the 1980s, GDR citizens referred to the Final Act to support their call for freedom of travel across borders. Over the years, East Berliners tried to flee by various means, including underground tunnels and hot-air balloons.


November 9, 1989: Destruction of the Berlin Wall

GDR citizens during a demonstration, November 1989. Source: Deutsche Welle


In January 1989, Erich Honecker announced his belief that the Berlin Wall “will still exist in 50 and even in 100 years’ time, if the reasons for its existence have not been removed.” At the time of Honecker’s speech, the GDR’s economy was in deep crisis. Its production levels were low. Due to the high increase in its debts, the state faced insolvency. However, Honecker firmly opposed the reforms implemented by Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union. “Neither ox nor mule can stay socialism’s rule,” stated the SED leader in August 1989.


People celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. Source: Deutschlandfunk


At the beginning of May, the flow of people from East Germany had reached a record high. Many reception centers in the western state struggled to process the refugees. Meanwhile, thousands of GDR citizens started to organize demonstrations throughout the country. They demanded freedom to travel, freedom of the press and expression, economic reforms, and a pluralist party system. At the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig, opponents of the regime met every Monday to pray for peace and affirm their right to travel. “We want out!” chanted the demonstrators. The SED responded by sending the Volkspolizei to suppress the protests and make mass arrests.


Chipping away the Berlin Wall, November 9, 1989. Source: SZ-Photo


In September, tens of thousands of East Germans reached West Germany through the newly opened border between Hungary and Austria. The following month, Honecker, still firmly intent to “nip in the bud” the protests, was forced to resign. His successor, Egon Krenz, promised to introduce reforms. On November 9, Krenz handed the press release about the new travel regulations to Günter Schabowski, the spokesman of the SED. During the evening press conference, Schabowski mistakenly declared that the regulations would be immediately active.


Soon, news agencies started reporting that the border between East and West Berlin had reopened. As the news spread in the city, thousands of East Berliners gathered at the crossing points. The border guards, overwhelmed and fearing for their lives, let them go through. Thus, on the night between November 9 and 10, thousands of East and West Berliners chipped away at the Berlin Wall amid jubilations.


While the construction of the Berlin Wall had been the symbol of the Cold War, its destruction heralded the collapse of the Soviet Union and the beginning of a new era.

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By Maria-Anita RonchiniMA History & Jewish Studies, BA HistoryMaria Anita currently works as a writer in Italy. She holds a BA in History from the University of Bologna and a MA in History & Jewish studies from LMU-Munich. Her primary interest is the relationship between memory and history. Maria Anita is passionate about analyzing the construction of historical narratives and collective memories. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, watching tv, and writing fiction.