The View East

Central and Eastern Europe, Past and Present.

Building the Berlin Wall

48  years ago today, the world witnessed the birth of one of the most iconic and enduring symbols of the Cold War.


13th August 1961: On this morning 48 years ago,  residents of the German capital Berlin awoke to find barricades had been erected across their city overnight, dividing East from West. These hastily constructed barbed wire barriers later assumed more permanency when they were rebuilt as a solid concrete structure that came to be known as the Berlin Wall.


In essence, Berlin had already been divided for 16 years,since the post-War Potsdam Conference (July-August 1945), where the respective leaders of the victorious Allied powers (the USA, USSR and UK) formally agreed on the division of occupied Germany, and the German capital Berlin (which lay deep within the Soviet area of control), into four separate ‘zones of influence’.  As their wartime camaraderie quickly faded and the Cold War took hold, tensions soon became evident, as had been demonstrated by the Berlin Blockade (1948) and the Soviet crackdown on workers revolts in East Germany in 1953. The Berlin Wall, however, was something new. On the 12th August SED leader Walter Ulbricht signed an official order closing the border, and as a result, on the morning of 13th August 1961, residents of East Berlin awoke to find barriers cutting across streets and through neighbourhoods,  dividing them from their friends and family in the Western sector. Police and soldiers were on the streets patrolling the barricades, while most people reacted with confusion and after 15 years of communism, resigned acceptance, as some rather bemusedly waved to their former neighbours, people they could still see, but no longer reach. Berlin was now divided, not just ideologically and politically, but physically. On 15th August the first concrete blocks were laid, and construction of the famous wall began.


The Building of the Berlin Wall:



The border dividing Berlin soon developed from the rather rudimentary barbed wire rolls hurridly unfurled, to its more common recognisable form: comprising a 27 mile long concrete structure, marked by periodic watchtowers and staffed by armed guards who had orders to shoot anyone attempting to breach the wall on sight, while other guards undertook foot patrols along its perimiter, accompanied by trained guard dogs. Travel between East and West was only possible through official checkpoints, with a special travel permit issued by the SED required. The reality meant that most East Berliners would remain ‘walled in’ for the next 28 years, as the SED publically proclaimed that leaving the GDR was ‘an act of political and moral backwardness and depravity’, although this didn’t stop the SED sometimes forcibly shipping dissidents off into exile to West Berlin, essentially using it as a dumping ground for ‘troublesome elements’ within the GDR.


1963: US President Kennedy makes his famous ‘Ich Bin Ein Berliner’ speech in West Berlin:



The official East German justification for the Berlin Wall was that it was an ‘anti-fascist protection mechanism’ built to protect East Berliners from evil outside forces that threatened to undermine the stability of their ‘socialist people’s paradise’. In truth however, the wall was clearly erected to keep people in, rather than to keep people out. Between 1949-1961 almost 2.5 million East Germans had left for the West, and in July 1961 alone, shortly before the border was closed, 30,000 citizens of the GDR had crossed Berlin to enter the Western zone. Figures such as this meant the GDR risked ‘collapse by emigration’. This mass-exodus of Germans from East to West is the most popularly cited reason for the building of the Wall, and while it is clearly a valid argument, a recent book throws some new light on Ulbricht’s decision to close the border. In Driving the Soviets Up The Wall: Soviet-East German Relations 1953-1961 (2005, Princetom University Press) Professor Hope Harrison uses evidence from recently declassified Soviet and GDR documentation to argue that part of Ulbricht’s rationale behind building the Berlin Wall was to increase tensions with the West and thus ensure the Soviets were obligated to continue supporting the GDR. Overnight, the division of Berlin became a fait accompli and while the Western powers issued verbal condemnation of Ulbricht’s actions, they were unwilling to take any firm action that may risk a confrontation with the USSR (Kennedy was said to have remarked that ‘a wall is better than a war’ when told about developments in Berlin).


June 1987 – US President Ronald Reagan makes his famous speech demanding ‘Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!’ at the Brandenburg Gate:



For the next 28 years, the Berlin Wall would act as the principal symbol of the Cold War division of Europe. Between its initial erection in August 1961 and the fall of the Wall in November 1989, many East Germans attempted to breach the Wall and cross into the West despite the obvious dangers:  using forged documentation, concealed in vehicles or even simply trying to climb over the wall and run across the border. Some were successful, but many others were not: official estimates state that around 136 people lost their lives in attempts to breach the wall, however earlier this week an activist  group estimated that the total number of people killed trying to flee from East to West Germany between 1945 and 1989 could total up to 1,347 (see here and here for further details about  these figures).


With so much attention focused on commemorating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall in November this year, itcould be easy to overlook the anniversary of  it’s initial construction, but earlier this week the 48th anniversary of the building of the Wall was commemorated in Berlin. On 12th August a service was held at the Chapel of Reconcilliation, part of the Berlin Wall Memorial Centre on Bernauer Streeet (the scene of some of the most dramatic attempts to escape ‘over the wall’), while in a separate ceremony a plaque was unveiled in memorium of some of the Wall’s victims, people who died trying to escape into West Berlin. Speaking at this memorial service, German Pastor Manfred Fischer perhaps summed up the legacy of the Wall most poignantly, when he stated that the Berlin Wall ‘divided our city right through its heart. It divided Germany. It divided Europe‘.



August 14, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. […] This weekend marks fifty years since construction of the Berlin Wall began. Sunday August 13th 1961 became known as ‘Stacheldrahtsonntag’ (‘barbed wire Sunday’) as soldiers hastily constructed makeshift barriers across the city, but what began as little more than an impromptu barbed wire fence soon evolved into an increasingly impenetrable system of metal and concrete walls, which cut across neighbourhoods, dividing families and essentially trapping nearly 17 million people inside the GDR. For further information about the events surrounding the construction of the wall, including video footage from August 1961, please see my previous blog post Building the Berlin Wall). […]

    Pingback by 50 Years On – Commemorating the Construction of the Berlin Wall « The View East | August 11, 2011 | Reply

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