How the Berlin Wall Worked


Nov. 10, 1989: East German border guards try to prevent a crowd climbing onto the Berlin Wall on the morning that the first section was pulled down.
Nov. 10, 1989: East German border guards try to prevent a crowd climbing onto the Berlin Wall on the morning that the first section was pulled down.
Tom Stoddart/Getty Images

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.

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.

We're going to step back in time, first to the end of World War II, then to the Berlin Crisis and the building of the wall. We'll walk along both sides of the wall and examine life in divided Berlin. Then we'll experience the outburst of joy when the wall came down and examine the difficulties of German unification. Through it all, we'll try to untangle the geopolitical web that led both to the Berlin Wall's creation and its collapse.

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What Came Before: Berlin Wall History

West Berliners in the shadow of the wall
West Berliners in the shadow of the wall
Paul Schutzer/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

The events that would lead to the building of the Berlin Wall began in World War II. Nazi Germany was originally allied with communist Russia against the Allied nations of France, Britain and the United States. But Hitler violated his treaty with Russian ruler Josef Stalin and invaded Russia, pushing the Soviets into an uneasy alliance with the other Allies. Although they were fighting on the same side in the war, the Soviets and the other Allies had very different ideologies. The Soviet Union was a communist nation, a system in which individual rights are subverted for the benefit of the nation. It was also a totalitarian system, which meant that the government controlled everything and there were no elections.

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On May 7, 1945, Germany surrendered the war, Hitler having killed himself days earlier. The division of Germany had been decided at a conference in Yalta in February 1945. Stalin, Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, the leaders of the three main Allied nations, decided that Germany would be divided into four zones, one each for the Soviets, Americans, British and French. Berlin, Germany's capital, was entirely within the Soviet zone. The city itself would also be divided into four zones. France, the U.S. and Britain were guaranteed access to their zones in Berlin, even though they had to pass through the Soviet zone to get there.

The differing ideologies of the Soviets and their former allies became apparent almost immediately. Soviet troops occupied much of Eastern Europe and began installing communist governments in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and other nations. The Soviet-controlled portion of Germany, known as East Germany, was also the recipient of a Soviet puppet government. Many well-educated people, such as doctors, intellectuals and engineers, became the first to flee the harsh authoritarian rule of these countries. The Soviets didn't want to lose these valuable citizens, so they began closing the borders of these "Eastern Bloc" (also known as Soviet Bloc) nations. This enforced isolation from the west became known as the Iron Curtain.

The Western nations weren't happy. After fighting a war to free the people of Europe from the Nazis, half of them were once again living under dictatorships. However, both the Soviets and the U.S. had atomic weapons. For one side to challenge the other side openly could lead to a military conflict and nuclear destruction on a massive scale.

Nevertheless, tensions kept rising. Both sides spied on each other, made speeches condemning each other, built up massive weapon stockpiles and sent troops to areas near contested borders. France, Britain and the U.S. had merged their zones in Germany into a single zone, a democratic republic known as West Germany. As a result, West Berlin became an island of freedom and democracy in the midst of communist East Germany.

The Soviets used harassment tactics to try to drive the Allies out of West Berlin, including kidnappings, delays, bureaucratic tie-ups and misinformation campaigns [source: Jackson]. Finally, in June 1948, the USSR cordoned off West Berlin. No rail or road traffic was allowed in or out. They hoped to starve the city.

The effort failed. Britain and the U.S. flew cargo planes through narrow flight corridors over East Germany, landing in West Berlin with supplies. It required a nearly miraculous feat of logistics, with planes taking off from supply depots every 30 seconds, 24 hours a day. The Berlin Airlift was maintained for almost 12 months, keeping West Berlin supplied enough to survive. At its peak, the airlift delivered more than 200,000 tons of cargo per month [source: Jackson]. The Soviets finally gave up, allowing truck and rail traffic to enter West Berlin once again.

Next, we'll find out why they built a wall through the middle of a city.

The Reason for the Berlin Wall

West German police arrest a young man, one of the angry crowd throwing stones at a bus full of Soviet guards making their way to the Soviet War Memorial, Aug. 20, 1962.
West German police arrest a young man, one of the angry crowd throwing stones at a bus full of Soviet guards making their way to the Soviet War Memorial, Aug. 20, 1962.
Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Berlin Airlift did 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.

In the next section, we'll look at the wall itself.

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The Berlin Wall Itself

Barbed wire in front of the Brandenburg Gate, circa 1962. The sign warns that if you pass this point you leave West Berlin.
Barbed wire in front of the Brandenburg Gate, circa 1962. The sign warns that if you pass this point you leave West Berlin.
John Waterman/Fox Photos/Getty Images

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.

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.

East German guards watching over the Berlin wall during Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip's visit on May 29, 1965.
East German guards watching over the Berlin wall during Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip's visit on May 29, 1965.
J Wilds/Getty Images

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.

Living In the Shadow of the Wall

A German women hangs clothing out to dry on a line strung between a tree and the Berlin Wall, Nov.13, 1963.
A German women hangs clothing out to dry on a line strung between a tree and the Berlin Wall, Nov.13, 1963.
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Before the Berlin Wall was built, many Germans suspected the border would be closed eventually. Some East Germans planned to move to the West, and took steps to make the move easier. Some residents of East Berlin took jobs in West Berlin. In some cases, fathers or mothers rented apartments on the other side and began saving money so their families could soon join them. When the wall went up, families were split apart. People who had spent the night in East Berlin, perhaps visiting friends, couldn't return to their homes in the West. They were stranded.

In a few places, apartment buildings made up part of the Berlin Wall. At first, people could simply enter one of these buildings, walk out a back door or window and enter West Berlin. But then all exits on the lower floors were bricked up, so people began jumping from second- and third-story windows, usually into blankets being held by West Berliners below. Eventually, these escape routes were also bricked over.

The East German guards were given orders to prevent anyone from crossing the border, using force if necessary. There was some dispute over whether the guards had official shoot-to-kill orders, but documents surfaced years later proving this was true. Günter Litwin was the first person killed while trying to escape, shot by East German soldiers [source: Burgan]. One of the most dramatic deaths was that of Peter Fechter. In 1962, he was shot by border guards, who left him to bleed to death slowly in broad daylight. The total number of civilians killed trying to get across the wall is in dispute. Some sources claim 86, while some claim 239 or more [source: Grant, Burgan]. The number is almost certainly more than 100. Even pregnant women were shot to death trying to escape.

An East Berlin youth being helped down from the Berlin wall by two West Berlin police officers after he climbed to freedom.
An East Berlin youth being helped down from the Berlin wall by two West Berlin police officers after he climbed to freedom.
Paul Schutzer/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Life on either side of the wall was very different. West Germany was thriving economically, and West Berlin was no exception. Theaters, zoos, museums, shops and nightclubs lined the main streets. East Berlin was a typical communist city. The economy was depressed by the loss of so many educated professionals and the looting of the city by the Russians. Most buildings were drab, gray and nearly identical to each other. Citizens there could afford few luxuries. But the economic and aesthetic conditions weren't the worst problems. It was the atmosphere of fear that drove so many East Germans to flee. No one could be certain who was a member or informant for the Stasi. People were regularly taken in for questioning and often jailed for speaking out against the government -- or if a neighbor simply claimed that they had.

Up next: The wall begins to fall.

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Leading Up to The Fall of the Berlin Wall

A border patrol on the Berlin Wall
A border patrol on the Berlin Wall
Terry Fincher/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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.

President Ronald W. Reagan, left, viewing the Berlin Wall from the balcony of the Reichstag.
President Ronald W. Reagan, left, viewing the Berlin Wall from the balcony of the Reichstag.
Dirck Halstead/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

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.

Berlin Wall Torn Down

An unidentified man removes pieces of the Berlin Wall with a hammer Nov. 27, 1989, in East Berlin.
An unidentified man removes pieces of the Berlin Wall with a hammer Nov. 27, 1989, in East Berlin.
Stephen Ferry/Getty Images

The official opening of the border with West Berlin occurred in a strange, confused way -- not much of a hammer blow at all. On Nov. 9, 1989, an East German official announced that East Germans would be allowed "permanent departure" or travel abroad. They could get passports or exit visas freely. No one was sure what this meant, exactly, and the language barrier between the official and foreign reporters confused things further. German media outlets broadcast news that East Germans could travel freely, so thousands showed up at the wall, waiting at the gates and pressing forward as their numbers grew. The guards had no idea what to do, because no formal announcement had been made as to the wall's status. Finally, more to prevent a riot than for any other reason, the crowds were allowed to surge forward. They crossed the wall and freely entered West Berlin for the first time in almost 30 years.

What followed was a two-day long party in the streets of Berlin. People began taking hammers and chisels to the wall, tearing it down piece by piece (and saving many pieces for souvenirs -- you can still buy them in German gift shops). Thousands of hammer blows finally destroyed the wall. Every East German who entered the West was given a "welcome gift" of 100 marks -- about 800,000 of them crossed over on the first day [source: Schmemann].

Once the exuberance had faded, Germany got down to the difficult work of reuniting the two halves of the country. There were many problems to overcome, and many Germans didn't want to reunite the two countries at all. The economic problems of the East had to be absorbed into the West, including the conversion of the nearly worthless East German currency into West German marks. There are still problems in Germany to this day related to reunification: Unemployment is high in the East, which has lead to a resurgence of antipathy toward immigrants and outsiders, and the economy of the West is drained by subsidies for the poorer East. Yet Germany is now one nation, one of the most important members of the European Union and a respected, growing economic power.

The longest surviving piece of the Berlin Wall is a stretch called the East Side Gallery.
The longest surviving piece of the Berlin Wall is a stretch called the East Side Gallery.
Photo by Kurt Vinion/Getty Images

Today, sections of the Berlin Wall still exist, brought out occasionally as art exhibits or museum pieces. The small shack used by American soldiers to guard Checkpoint Charlie stands as the only memorial to that border crossing, while the neoclassical columns of the Brandenburg Gate no longer stand within a barbed wire "death zone."

For more articles and information on the Berlin Wall and oppressive government, try the next page.

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Sources

  • Burgan, Michael. The Berlin Wall: Barrier to Freedom. Compass Point Books; First edition (January 1, 2008).
  • Grant, R.G. The Berlin Wall. Raintree (September 1998).
  • Jackson, Robert. The Berlin Airlift. Harpercollins (April 1988).
  • Schmemann, Serge. When the Wall Came Down: The Berlin Wall and the Fall of Soviet Communism. Kingfisher (May 10, 2006).
  • Taylor, Frederick. The Berlin Wall. HarperCollins (May 30, 2007).