Berlin Wall and History From its Rise, Fall and Reunification

Berlin wall

The History of Berlin Wall

The construction of the Berlin Wall began on August 12, 1961, and until its fall on November 9, 1989, it was the symbol of the Cold War in Europe. Before becoming that of reunification and heating, warming increases…

The history of the Berlin Wall is both long and complex. The city of Berlin, but also the whole country, was divided by this wall for 28 years. Its construction will be the result of several years of escalation between Westerners and Soviets. Allies to put an end to the Nazi regime and its domination over Europe, Russia and the United States will engage, from 1945, in a frantic race to be the first to liberate Berlin. It is in this context that, following the victory of 1945 and the German capitulation, Berlin went from a former German capital to a quadripartite occupation zone.

On one side the Soviets who occupy a large eastern half of the city, on the other the western zone, itself divided into three parts: an American in the south-west, an English in the west and a French in the north- west. At the time, the Berlin Wall was not yet relevant, but the city was already clearly split in two.

This western zone, of only a few square kilometers, will very quickly be transformed into a western enclave in communist territory. Berlin is indeed to the east of the iron curtain which then separates Europe in two, from northern Finland to southern Bulgaria. Stalin will first try to put an end to this situation in 1949, by blocking access to West Berlin, forcing Westerners to organize a major airlift for 11 months to supply soldiers and civilians. The Blockade of Berlin will be lifted on May 12, 1949 and has since been a first victory for Westerners in the German capital.

Why was the Berlin Wall built?

In 1958, during the Cold War, Nikita Khrushchev again tried to get rid of the “imperialist” presence by suggesting making West Berlin a neutral and free zone. The German Democratic Republic (GDR) that constitutes the Eastern bloc is in fact confronted with the major problem of the exile of its inhabitants in the direction of the German Federal Republic (GFR) via West Berlin. The regime, undermined by the failure of planning, wants to stop the haemorrhage of manpower after the flight of 3 million East Germans.

Following an unsuccessful meeting with John Fitzgerald Kennedy in May 1961, Khrushchev finally took a radical decision, pushed in particular by Walter Ubricht, head of the GDR at the time: to erect a wall separating the western zones from the Soviet area. By prohibiting free movement between the two parts of the city, the Soviets want to stop the emigration of East German citizens but also to suffocate West Berlin economically.

The construction of the Berlin Wall

On the night of August 12 to 13, 1961, 40,000 soldiers blocked the crossing points between the two Berlins. The authorities of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) begin to pour concrete and to hang barbed wire on the line which separates in Berlin the zone under Soviet occupation from the zone under American, English and French occupation. Hundreds of masons will soon be working at night, on the sly, under the protection and surveillance of soldiers. After a summary construction, the Berlin Wall is reinforced by an interior rampart and trenches. In September 1961, the border became almost impassable.

East German House Demolition - Flickr - The Central Intelligence Agency (1)
October 1961. Workers demolish East German houses in the new border area between East and West Berlin. From the booklet “A City Torn Apart: Building of the Berlin Wall.” For more information, visit CIA’s Historical Collections webpage. Photo credit: The Central Intelligence Agency, Public domain, source: via Wikimedia Commons

The Berlin Wall symbol of the Cold War

The Berlin Wall, often called “Wall of shame”, will quickly become the symbol of the division of Germany and the world. It materializes the “iron curtain”, but in Berlin, in the center of Europe, and illustrates well the climate of semi-peaceful coexistence of this period. A concrete symbol of the Cold War, it will also be the symbol of the victims of this unprecedented war. In August 1961, during the construction of the Wall, hundreds of Berliners succeeded in reaching the West, but the first victim, Günter Liftin, fell on August 24. There will be many more.

On August 17, 1962, shot in the leg while trying to cross, another fugitive, Peter Flechter, agonized for hours in what would soon be called “No man’s land”, bleeding to death. He is undoubtedly the most emblematic victim of the Wall to date. It is still difficult today to know the exact number of those who died directly or indirectly because of the Berlin Wall, which was confidential in the GDR for almost thirty years. When some sources speak of 140 dead, some associations go beyond 1000 killed. To flee, all the stratagems will be good, from the cleverly elaborated missions to the countless tunnels. Of more than 70 underground projects, only 14 will have finally seen the light of day and allowed the passage of 300 Berliners.

Peaks of tension between East and West

The Berlin Wall will also be the scene of several historic peaks of tension between East and West, yet sufficiently controlled not to capsize in an armed conflict. As soon as the Wall was built, American President Kennedy reacted by sending 1,500 military reinforcements to West Berlin. On October 27, 1961, following a checkpoint at Checkpoint Charlie, one of the last crossing points between the two sides of the Wall, dozens of American and Soviet tanks took up positions on either side of the border. Fortunately, an explosion of violence is avoided. We will also remember John Kennedy’s visit to Berlin on June 26, 1963, when he came to deliver a message of support for West Berlin on the forecourt of City Hall, at the invitation of Mayor Willy Brandt. This speech, punctuated by the famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” (I’m a Berliner), is considered one of the best of the American president.

Bundesarchiv B 145 Bild-P091010, Berlin-Machnow, Bau einer verstärkten Mauer
East Berlin East. Construction of a “modern wall” at the zone border near Kleinmachnow. The external borders towards West Berlin were also reinforced. Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-P091010 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons

Fall of the Berlin Wall

In the 1980s, the Soviet Union had to face numerous protest movements in various Eastern Bloc countries. In the GDR, the Germans demonstrate against the Unified Socialist Party (SED) which is in power with the support of the USSR. On October 7, 1989, Gorbachev, new master of the USSR and already in favor of an opening, was welcomed at Berlin airport by Erich Honecker, master of East Germany, for the 40th anniversary of the GDR. Thousands of East Germans then demanded more freedom from “Gorbi”. Faced with an irritated Honecker, the father of Glasnost rules out any repression. Two days after Gorbachev’s visit, 70,000 people gather for “Monday prayer” in Leipzig (East). Since 1982, the pastor of the Saint-Nicolas church has been hosting “prayer meetings” for peace in this Protestant parish.

On October 16, 1989, East German television dared, for the first time, to talk about the protest

The demonstrations in Leipzig will be a real prelude to the fall of the Wall. They will inspire Berliners and shake the power in place. On October 18, 1989, Erich Honecker resigned “for health reasons” and gave way to Egon Krenz. 50,000 East Germans have already managed to reach the West via Hungary, which has opened its borders since May.

On November 4, 1989, demonstrations against the Communist Party and its allies affect the whole of the East. A million people gather at Alexanderplatz in Berlin. On the 7th, the government, led by Willy Stoph since 1976, resigns.

The events of November 9 and 10, 1989

On November 9, 1989, in this crisis situation, a press conference was given by Günter Schabowski, spokesman for the Politburo. Faced with this unprecedented pressure and the general amazement, he announced in an improvised way the authorization of trips “abroad”. Question from a journalist: “When does this come into effect?” Schabowski, embarrassed: “As far as I know, immediately”. At 8 p.m. on November 9, 1989, Eastern television news reported the words of Schabowski’s lecture. In the West, radios and televisions are already chanting: “The Wall is open!” Thousands of Berliners then go there. While demonstrators arrive at crossing points and demand to pass, border troops and control officials have not been informed and remain inert. Scenes of jubilation form. Faced with guards stunned by the turn of events, the crowd begins to settle on the Wall as if to better dominate it.

The fall of Berlin wall was on November 9, 1989

In the evening, the crowd demanded the opening of the seven crossing points between East Berlin and West Berlin. Very quickly, the first barriers are raised in the face of the demands of the demonstrators. On Bornholmer Strasse, from 9:30 p.m., border guards, overwhelmed, allow 20,000 people to pass to avoid disaster. This is the first breach. After Bornholmer Strasse, several other crossing points are opening their doors. Thousands of Berliners pass on the other side of the city, for a simple visit in most cases. From midnight, between November 9 and 10, the Checkpoint Charlie border post is open in turn.

Until the early morning of November 10, 1989, thousands of Berliners celebrated the opening of the Berlin Wall. But the majority will only learn the news during the day, the day after the announcement of the event in the media. Dawn has a multiplier effect on the population wishing to cross. The Bösebrücke bridge, in the very north of Berlin, allows Trabants, the famous cars of East Germany, to pass since the day before. It is no longer just pedestrians, but large car queues that rush to all crossing points between East Berlin and West Berlin. Gigantic plugs form. Unheard of in Berlin.

Fall of the Berlin Wall 1989, people walking
Berlin. Picture taken soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. Raphaël Thiémard from Belgium., source: (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

From the fall of the Wall to reunification

On November 11, 1989, the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich moved in front of the Berlin Wall and played several compositions by Bach to celebrate the fall of the building and the period of reconciliation that was to come. His concert will move the whole world. Reunification will be quick. Documents will be needed to move to the West for months to come, but on October 3, 1990, less than a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the German Democratic Republic will indeed become part of the Federal Republic.

The destruction of the Wall will take a little longer. If several sections of the “anti-imperialist rampart” will be hastily withdrawn in 1989, the demolition of the Berlin Wall will take place for the most part between June and November 1990. And it did not stop at the 43 km intramural between both parts of the city. The western part of Berlin was indeed completely surrounded in the middle of East Germany. 155 km of Wall had to be dismantled. Of the 45,000 blocks removed, representing 120,000 tons of concrete, tens of thousands of tons will be immediately crushed and then reallocated to the renovation of East German roads. There are still vestiges of it today in a few places in the city.

Visit the remains of the Berlin Wall today

It is not so easy to see the Berlin Wall and its remains today, more than 30 years after its fall. From 1989, the eagerness of Berliners to get rid of this “Wall of shame” will lead to its almost complete destruction. You can still see pieces of the building in the Mauerpark, a large park in the north of the city, which was crossed by the Wall and where a very popular market is held today. There are also a few remains along Bernauer Straße, known for the many attempts to flee by the inhabitants of East Berlin during the time of the Wall, or at the level of the imposing Potsdamer Platz, where some sections are still aligned. But it is especially at the level of the East Side Gallery that we find the longest portion of the Berlin Wall, 1.3 km of entirely painted concrete and which has become an open-air exhibition. Since 2016, visitors can learn about the history of the Berlin Wall in a multimedia exhibition in German and English nearby.

You can also relive the history of the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie, one of the most iconic crossing points between West and East Berlin. It is there where American and Soviet tanks faced each other in 1961 and where Peter Flechter was emptied of his blood on August 17, 1962, that is a Museum of the Wall (Mauermuseum – Museum Haus am Checkpoint Charlie) , which brings together since 1962 the traces of the events that took place from the construction to the fall of the building.

West and East Germans at the Brandenburg Gate in 1989
West and East Germans at the Brandenburg Gate in 1989. The Fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989. The photo shows a part of a public photo documentation wall at the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin. The photo documentation is permanently placed in the public. Lear 21 at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Historical key dates of this wall:

May 2, 1945: The red flag flies over Berlin

Ukrainian photographer Yevgeni Khaldei immortalizes the capture of Berlin by the Red Army by photographing a soldier planting the Soviet flag on the roof of the Reichstag, the German legislative chamber. The announcement of Hitler’s suicide on April 30, of his replacement as head of government by Admiral Doenitz on May 1, then of the capture of Berlin on the 2, accelerated the process of the disintegration of the Wehrmacht, the German army, and leads to the signing of the German capitulation.

June 24, 1948: Establishment of the blockade of Berlin

Stalin decides to set up a blockade around Berlin. He thus shows his disagreement with the merger of the three western zones of West Berlin. He believes that the Americans, the English and the French violate the Potsdam agreements by uniting their territory and creating the Deutschemark. The Westerners quickly set up an airlift which made it possible to supply the city. However, this episode is a breaking point between east and west that leads straight to the Cold War.

May 12, 1949: The blockade of Berlin is lifted

After almost a year of blockade and American resupply by air, the Soviets lift the blockade of West Berlin. In the Western world, the city had become the symbol of resistance to any attempt by the USSR to take control of new territories in Europe. Westerners are thus taking symbolic revenge on the Prague coup, to which they were only able to react with futile protests. Berlin will remain a real symbol for forty years, especially after the construction of the wall in 1961. Moreover, the end of this blockade allows the creation of the FRG ten days later. The USSR will create the GDR a year and a half later.

August 12, 1961: Construction of the Berlin Wall

On the decision of Nikita Khrushchev, the Berlin Wall begins to be built on the night of August 12 to 13, 1961 to prevent the Germans from the Berlin enclave from fleeing the GDR under Soviet control. The “wall of shame” will not fall until November 9, 1989, announcing the fall of communism in Europe and the collapse of the USSR.

August 27, 1961: Face-off at Checkpoint Charlie

Two weeks after the construction of the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie is the scene of a showdown between Americans and Soviets. For several hours, Soviet and American tanks, a few tens of meters apart, face each other at the crossing point between East Berlin and West Berlin. Anxious not to risk an armed conflict for simple provocations, the two armies will retreat.

November 9, 1989: The Berlin Wall falls

Cornered by the discontent of the Germans, the GDR government announced on November 9, 1989 that the inhabitants of the east could henceforth leave the country without authorisation. The “wall of shame” is falling. The Stasi, an organization of the GDR responsible for monitoring the country on behalf of the USSR, was dissolved and the first free elections were organized the following year in the GDR.

October 3, 1990: German reunification

At midnight, jubilant Germany celebrates its reunification. A union treaty, soon to be ratified by the entire international community, puts an end to the division. In Berlin, hundreds of thousands of people sang Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” while waving red, gold and black flags. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, a new Germany was born.

June 20, 1991: Berlin, capital of reunified Germany

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and reunification in 1990, German parliamentarians decided to restore Berlin’s status as capital. It is Bonn which since the partition of Germany served as the federal capital. The Reichstag Palace, burned down by the Nazis in 1933, will be renovated and will house the Bundestag (German parliament) in 1999.

Cold War from March 12, 1947 to December 26, 1991

Sources: PinterPandai, History, Britannica, Time, National Geographic, Visit Berlin

Photo credit: Pxhere (CC0 Public Domain)

Learn More →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *