Content Summary

Berlin Wall Kiss - Getty (April 2009)

The Berlin Wall stood for nearly 30 years, splitting the city of Berlin into communist East Berlin and democratic West Berlin. Born of the splintering of Germany by the Allies at the end of World War II, the wall was a symbol of communist authoritarianism, the most visible element of the Iron Curtain. It separated families, cut people off from their jobs and left East Germans peering into th­e vibrant west from their drab communist apartments. 

East German guards shot and killed more than 100 people who were so desperate to escape communist control that they tried to climb the wall or tunnel beneath it. More than just a physical barrier, to many the wall was proof that communist governments were so untenable they could only keep their citizens by force. Yet the Berlin Wall may have been exactly what the world needed when it was built. It offered stability at a time when the  Cold War was dangerously close to erupting into a full conflict.

The Berlin Airlift had done nothing to defuse tensions between the East and West in Germany. Berlin was an especially tender spot, because it was the only gap in the Iron Curtain. People in West Berlin could fly out of the city freely. While the border between East Germany and West Germany was closed, there was nothing to stop East Germans from entering West Berlin and fleeing (or defecting from) communist rule. Huge numbers of them did leave. By 1960, tens of thousands of people were leaving every month. In 1961, more than 200,000 East Germans had defected by summer [source: Schmemann].

West Germany wasn't happy to see this number of people leaving the East. Not only did it create an incredible economic strain, it increased tensions between East and West to an unbearable level. It seemed that an outbreak of violence was inevitable -- no one knew what to do about the situation. The solution came from the Soviet politburo (the executive committee of the USSR) and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. The orders technically were issued by German communist party leader Walter Ulbricht, but he was basically a puppet of the Soviets [source: Taylor].

On the night of Aug. 12 and 13 in 1961, the borders between East and West Berlin were closed, along with all the rail stations. Thousands of East German soldiers guarded the border while workers began constructing barbed wire fences. Construction began at about 1 a.m. -- streetlights were turned off so no one could see what was happening [source: Taylor]. The city of Berlin was being walled off, and the residents had no idea it was happening until morning. Neither did Western leaders. President John F. Kennedy was taken completely by surprise [source: Schmemann]. The Berlin Wall is commonly thought of as a wall between East and West Berlin. In fact, East Germany wanted to cut off all access that East Germans had to West Berlin. Therefore, they had to cordon off all of West Berlin. The Berlin Wall completely surrounded the democratic half of the city.

Most residents of Berlin were stunned and outraged when they realized what had happened. Those in the East had few ways to express their anger under the thumb of communist rule and the ever-watchful Stasi, the East German secret police. Since the Berlin Wall was still really just a fence that morning, and incomplete in many places, some East Germans ran through the gaps or hopped the fence, realizing it was their last chance to reach the West. Even East German soldiers defected [source: Burgan].

West Berlin was more demonstrative in its displeasure. Crowds were gathering along the border. There were demands that the U.S. step in and stop the building of the wall, which clearly and openly violated the Yalta agreements and subsequent treaties. But the fear of nuclear war prevented the U.S. and NATO from responding with military force. Strong words were pretty much the only consequences faced by the Soviets for putting up the wall, and in private, many political leaders were relieved that the wall had been built. It created stability, even at the cost of freedom, in a region that had been dangerously close to erupting into chaos [source: Grant]. Nevertheless, West Germans were angered that their NATO allies had seemingly abandoned the citizens of West Berlin. 

Due to this feeling of abandonment, in 1963 when U.S. President John F. Kennedy made his famous speech in West Berlin declaring that "all free men" were residents of Berlin, including himself, and he spoke the German phrase, "Ich Bin Ein Berliner!"  (which can mean two things in Germany: a resident of Berlin, or a pastry similar to a jelly doughnut) many West Germans, who couldn't stomach the man who they felt let it [erection of the wall] happen saying that he was one of them mocked his words by emphasizing a meaning he never intended: "I am a jelly doughnut."

The Berlin Wall wasn't built all at once. It evolved from a barbed wire fence to a pair of 12- to 15-foot (3.7- to 4.6-m) concrete walls studded by guard towers and gun emplacements. The walls were topped by a round tubelike structure that made it difficult to get a handhold. Some areas were strewn with land mines. Angular chunks of steel known as tank traps were placed in key areas to prevent vehicles from driving through the wall or any gates in the wall. Before people ever reached the wall, they first had to contend with rows of coiled barbed wire. Powerful search lights swept over the entire area, even lighting up the west side of the wall. The gap between the two walls, which was 30 to 100 yards (27 to 91 m) wide, created a no-man's land that was patrolled by tanks and soldiers. Guards marched and military vehicles drove up and down a concrete road in the "death strip," which allowed them to respond quickly to any escape attempts. To improve visibility for the guards, sand or gravel was kept neatly raked to show footprints and the wall was painted white. On the western si­de, West Germans could walk right up to the wall itself, and they decorated it with graffiti.  The Berlin Wall completely surrounded West Berlin, running for a total of 96 miles (154.5 km). The portion that split East Berlin from West Berlin ran for 29 miles (46.7 km). The wall was made in sections of concrete reinforced with steel mesh. There were 116 watchtowers on the wall, and they were manned 24 hours a day by armed guards. It took a force of 10,000 guards to maintain the watch.

Despite the elaborate security measures, the Berlin Wall wasn't a seamless blockade. There were eight gates in the wall that allowed passage between East and West Berlin. For the most part, Westerners could travel in and out of East Berlin freely. East Germans needed special permits to travel into West Berlin, and these were relatively rare. Several train lines ran across the wall -- in fact, a few Western train lines passed through sections of East Berlin on their routes. They were required to pass by the closed East German train stations without stopping. There were also gates in the wall between West Berlin and the rest of East Germany. In the 1980s, advances in technology allowed for automated security systems at the wall. Some areas were trapped with trip wires. Anyone who walked into such a wire would trigger a spray of bullets from an automatic gun emplacement, or the detonation of a nearby land mine. If escapees themselves were armed, the guards could fire on them from the protection of concrete pillbox fortifications.

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev took control of the Soviet Union. He realized that the old Soviet ways were choking the economy of the USSR and all the other Eastern Bloc countries. He instituted several policies meant to stimulate economic reform. One such policy, glasnost, allowed Soviet citizens greater opportunity to voice discontent with their government. Whatever his goals, Gorbachev had opened the crack that would eventually bring down the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union itself.

The first hammer blow to the Berlin Wall was the Sinatra Doctrine. Formerly, the Soviets had ruled over their Eastern Bloc allies closely, forcing them into lockstep with Soviet communist policy. The Sinatra Doctrine (named after singer Frank Sinatra's famous song "My Way") allowed the Eastern Bloc governments to make their own decisions to a far greater extent. This led directly to the second hammer blow: the opening of the Hungarian border.

Hungary, like all other Eastern Bloc nations, had maintained a closed border with its western neighbor, Austria, as part of the Iron Curtain.  In 1989, Hungary began to allow people free passage to Austria. East Germans quickly realized that they could freely travel to Hungary, since it was an Eastern Bloc nation, and from there they could escape to the West. Trainloads of them crossed the border, thousands every day [source: Schmemann]. East German efforts to put a stop to it were futile. Meanwhile, opposition to Soviet rule was growing in other places, such as Poland and Czechoslovakia.

The third hammer blow fell inside the churches of East Germany. In most East German cities (especially Leipzig), small groups gathered to discuss opposition to the Soviets and to hold small protests. The small protests grew. Soon, every city in East Germany was thronged with peaceful protesters in the tens of thousands. In East Berlin, a group of intellectuals and students formed a group called Neues Forum (New Forum) that pressed for reforms within East Germany. Yet East Germany's leader at the time, Erich Honecker, was a hard-line communist who refused to consider reform as an option. Honecker was eventually replaced by party leaders with a more liberal communist. The marches in East Berlin were 500,000 strong by then [source: Burgan]. It was clear to all observers that a momentous event was going to occur: Freedom was going to win the Cold War.

In 1987, U.S. President Ronald Reagan gave a famous speech near the Brandenburg Gate in which he demanded that the Soviets remove the Berlin Wall:­

"We welcome change and openness, for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace.

General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall! "

When the wall came down in 1989, it was equally symbolic, a sign that the iron grip of communist control was crumbling at last. The Eastern Bloc nations that lived under Soviet-installed dictators for decades threw off their shackles one by one. It wasn't long before the Soviet Union itself collapsed and marked the end of the Cold War. Yet even today, almost 20 years later, a reunified Germany feels the effects of the Berlin Wall and the split between East and West.

All text from: (2009). How the Berlin Wall Worked.  Retrieved November 17, 2009, from