Berlin Wall

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Berlin Wall in 1986
Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989

The Berlin Wall was a heavily guarded police wall in Berlin, Germany that separated Communist East Berlin from democratic West Berlin. It was one of the most visible symbols of the Iron Curtain. The wall was built in 1961 by the government of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) in order to stop the tide of emigration to West Berlin. President Ronald Reagan in 1987 demanded it be torn down, to the astonishment of the world. To even greater disbelief, it was torn down in November 1989, thus ending the Cold War and bringing freedom to East Germany and (within days) to the rest of the satellites in Central Europe which now threw off Communism.

Because of dissatisfaction with the economic and political conditions (forced collectivization of agriculture, repression of private trade, supply gaps), an increasing number of people left the GDR. From January to the beginning of August 1961, about 160,000 refugees were counted.[1] An average of seven people were jailed every day for trying to get out between 1961 and 1989.

Armed guards patrolled the eastern side of the wall. In 1962, Peter Fechter was shot while attempting to cross into West Berlin and slowly bled to death in front of a large crowd,[2] which started a riot and led to Fechter becoming a symbol of resistance against the wall. Onlookers did not attempt to aid Fichte, as they feared the communist guards might fire upon them as well.

The symbolism of the wall as a representative of the divide between capitalism and communism was not lost on American President Ronald Reagan, who, in a famous 1987 speech, urged Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall!" These words proved prophetic, because on November 9, 1989, the German Democratic Republic announced that the border would be re-opened. The wall was promptly destroyed. In the following year, the parliament of the German Democratic Republic voted for reunification and became new states (Bundesländer) of the Federal Republic of Germany.


The Wall was erected overnight on 13–14 August 1961. This was a Saturday night and most Berliners slept while the East German government began to close the border and install barbed wire fences through Berlin. The first concrete sections were installed on 15 August 1961, and over the following few months, the concrete block sections were extended. In June 1962 the wall was further consolidated, and in 1965 the "third generation" of Wall replaced this earlier construction. Consisting of concrete slabs between steel girder and concrete posts with a concrete sewage pipe along the top, this was itself replaced in many areas after 1975 with newer concrete segments which were more resistant to breakthroughs.[3]

Diagrammatic layout of the elements of the Berlin Wall

Key to image:

  1. East Berlin
  2. Border area
  3. Backland Wall
  4. Signal fence
  5. Different kind of barriers
  6. Watch towers
  7. Lighting system
  8. Column track
  9. Control track
  10. Anti-vehicle trenches
  11. Last Wall, known as the "Wall"
  12. Border
  13. West Berlin


Fechter lies dying, a symbol of the price many East Germans paid for their hopes for freedom

East Germany jailed more than 75,000 people who tried to flee to the West across the Wall, and 809 died in escape attempts. Of those who died, 250 were killed at the Berlin Wall itself; 370 died on the border between East and West Germany; and 189 had been trying to get out via the Baltic Sea. Many thousands of East German border guards (Grenztruppen, known colloquially as "Grenzers") also tried to escape, and around 2,500 successfully made it to the West. However, 5,500 were captured in the attempt and received an average jail sentence of five years, compared to civilians who were imprisoned for an average of one or two years.[4]

Historians researching the files of the Stasi found that in 1961 the secret police devoted virtually all of their resources and their 50,000 staff solely to stopping people leaving the country. Anyone thought likely to flee was forcibly moved away from border areas. Other people were encouraged to spy on their friends, neighbours and colleagues and inform on them if they were considering an escape.[5]

Further reading

  • Buckley, William F. Jr. The Fall of the Berlin Wall (2009) excerpt and text search by famous conservative writer
  • Ratnesar, Romesh. Tear Down This Wall: A City, a President, and the Speech that Ended the Cold War (2009) excerpt and text search, emphasizes Reagan's role
  • Taylor, Frederick. The Berlin Wall: A World Divided, 1961-1989 (2008) excerpt and text search

After the reunification

The biggest part of wall was destroyed. On the remains of the wall is a luxury housing project planed. Many people are protesting against this plan and think that the section must be saved as a memorial.[6] A piece of the wall is used in Albania for a memorial of political prisoners.[7]


  3. Berlin Wall History: Facts Berlin Wall Online. Accessed 30 January 2008
  4. Scale of East German exodus revealed BBC News 7 August 2001. Accessed 30 January 2008
  5. Scale of East German exodus revealed op cit

External links