A Brief Look At The Rise And Fall Of The Berlin Wall

Although the Berlin Wall was not constructed until 1961, its foundations dated as far back as October of 1949, when the Soviet Union established the German Democratic Republic in the sector of Germany which had been awarded to them following World War II. They named East Berlin the capital of the GDR.

The residents of East Berlin weren't particularly happy with their new government and after four years, in June of 1953, began to stage workers' uprising. They were crushed in nearly no time, and the only real reward they received was that one of West Berlin's major streets was renamed Straße des 17 Juni in honor of their efforts.

I think it's fair to say, judging from what happened next, that the East Berliners were not happy with that outcome! They began fleeing into West Berlin in massive numbers.

The Rise Of The Berlin Wall

In 1960, in fact, things were so bad in East Berlin that more than 200,000 of its residents made the move. The total number of people who fled the GDR before the Berlin Wall was constructed is estimated at 3,500,000 (Berlin's current population!), and many of them were the best and brightest of East Germany’s professional work base.

Because the GDR government was both embarrassed and concerned at the erosion of its population, they responded on August 13, 1961, with the nearly instantaneous construction of the Berlin Wall. The original Wall, made largely of barbed wire entanglements and fences, measured 140 km or 87 miles.

Because the original Wall could not entirely stem the tide of people leaving East Berlin, in 1962 the GDR constructed a second fence parallel to it and 100 yards (110 m) deeper into East German territory. The ground between the two walls was paved with gravel which exposed the footprints of anyone trespassing and provided no cover so that those attempting to cross were easy targets for the Berlin Wall guards.

The East Germans continued to construct a third concrete barrier along the length of the Wall between 1965 and 1975, and in 1975 began their final "improvement." The Grenzmauer (Border Wall), made from 45,000 separate sections of reinforced concrete, had 116 watchtowers and a length of smooth pipe along its entire top which made it more difficult to scale.

I think this is probably the version of the Wall most familiar to people from other countries. This area was regularly patrolled by East German guards with dogs and quickly earned the name of the "death strip" (Toddestreifen). I suspect you can understand why...

How People Used To Pass The Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall had eight checkpoints through which Westerners could pass into East Berlin and East Germany, and those from the East who had the proper permits could enter West Berlin. The best-known of them was located at the corner of Zimmerstraße and Fredrichstraße—called Checkpoint Charlie. I recommend that you take in the Haus am Checkpoint Charlie Museum to learn much more about life during the Wall years.

The lives of those on the east side of the Berlin Wall grew increasingly desperate, as their economy slowly deteriorated, their environmental pollution soared, and restrictions on their freedom continue to increase.

The Fall Of The Berlin Wall

After almost two decades of nearly intolerable conditions, and simultaneously with the remarkable changes taking place within the Soviet Union, pressure on the GDR to remove the Wall grew to unprecedented levels.

I remember the pivotal day very well (and still feel thrilled when I think about it), 9 November 1989, which was also the 51st anniversary of Kristallnacht and the 66th anniversary of Hitler's failed Beer hall Putsch (an attempted coup d’etat which led to his imprisonment and his book Mein Kampf.)

In the weeks leading up to that day, people were demonstrating all over East Berlin. On 9 November, the GDR government announced that all East German citizens would be free to visit both West Berlin and West Germany.

Within minutes of the announcement, hordes of East Germans were climbing onto and crossing the Berlin Wall into the embrace of thousands of West Germans waiting to celebrate on the other side!

It was the beginning of a celebration which continued for weeks, as both East and West Berliners started disassembling the Wall concrete by concrete chip, some of them for souvenirs but most of them so they could say they helped tear down the Wall! ;-)


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