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How and why was the Berlin Wall built?

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How and why was the Berlin Wall built?
The wall is built in August 1961. Photo: DPA

58 years ago today, August 13th 1961, the first border fences were erected around the border of West Berlin, in what would quickly become the Berlin Wall. So what were the events leading up to 1961? How and why was the Wall built, even though "nobody had the intention" to do so?


This November 9th will mark 30 years since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Nearly three decades before this monumental date, the wall began to be built. In the days and weeks that followed, barbed wire and newly constructed concrete walls sealed people off from families and friends, from their workplaces and homes.

Flowers are laid on Tuesday at a Berlin Wall memorial on Bernauer Strasse, where the Wall once divided East and West Berlin. Photo: DPA

For 28 years, Berlin remained a city divided by around 160 kilometres of 3.6m high concrete slabs. The Wall not only divided the city down the middle, it surrounded the entirety of West Berlin, isolating it completely from East Germany.

What the communist regime of the German Democratic Republic called their “anti-fascist protection wall”, was in fact not conceived to keep anybody out, but rather to keep East German citizens in.

According to figures from the Berlin Wall Memorial, a total of 140 people died trying to escape over the Wall, many of them in the notorious “death strip” between the wall itself, and the series of fences behind it.

"58 years ago today the building of the Berlin Wall began. Millions of people had their freedom taken. The fact that Germany is now united remains a stroke of luck," government spokesman Steffen Seibert wrote on Twitter.

Monday also saw a remembrance service held at the Chapel of Reconciliation, a stone’s throw from the Berlin Wall Memorial on the site of a church which had sat in the death strip until it was demolished by the East German government in 1985.

The Chapel of Reconciliation at Bernauer Straße (right) and the demolition of its predecessor in the death strip in 1985 (left). Photo: DPA

The Berlin Wall Memorial has held a similar service at the chapel every year since 2005, with a different individual victim of the wall remembered each year. This year, prayers were said for the memory of Bernd Lünser, who leapt to his death from the roof of a house on Bernauer Straße in an escape to jump the Wall in October 1961.

So how and why did the Berlin Wall come into being? Here’s our concise guide to the origins of the structure which would change Berlin forever.

Division of Germany

In the immediate post-war period, Germany was divided into four sectors by the Allied Powers of France, the UK, the USA and the Soviet Union. Each was placed under the occupation of a different country.

Berlin, too, was split in four, with the French occupying the North-West of the city, the British the West and the Americans controlling large swathes of the south and south-west. The Soviets, meanwhile, were in charge of what would later become East Berlin.

As relations between the western powers and the Soviet Union worsened, and Cold War divisions began to become entrenched, the situation reached a head in the late forties.

Competing currencies and Berlin Blockade

With relations at a low point and the absence of co-operation with the Soviet Union, the Western Allies merged their three sectors into a “tri-zone”, and introduced a new currency, the Deutsche Mark, in the western sectors of Germany and Berlin.

This saw a rapid devaluation of the Reichsmark, which remained official currency in the East, increasing the attractiveness of living or working in West Berlin, and infuriating the Soviets.

They responded with the infamous Berlin Blockade, in which all supply routes through the Soviet sector were cut off to West Berlin, effectively besieging the city. For nearly a year, West Berlin was kept running only by regular airlifts from the western Allies, as US and British planes flew supplies in to Tempelhof airport.

Though the blockade was finally lifted, it went down in history as the first major crisis of the Cold War and led to the consolidation of the zones into official states. In 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) was declared in the West, while the German Democratic Republic (GDR) came into being in the East.

GDR leader Walter Ulbricht, who would declare that "nobody has the intention to build a wall" just two months before building one. Photo: DPA

Flight from East Berlin

Though Berlin officially remained neutral territory, in practice it too was a city divided between two states. Completely surrounded by East Germany, West Berlin was effectively treated as an unofficial federal state of the FRG.

While the East German government considered the whole of Berlin the “Capital of the GDR”, they retained no control over West Berlin, which soon became, for many East Berliners, a gateway to a new life in the West.

Nearly 3 million refugees left East Berlin for the West, in search of better economic conditions and greater personal freedoms. As the 1950’s wore on, the number of refugees continued to rise, with many registering for asylum in the famous centre in Marienfelde, West Berlin.

“Nobody has the intention of building a wall”

With more and more East Germans leaving the GDR through West Berlin - more than 150,000 in 1960 alone - the communist regime once again, with Soviet support, attempted to gain control over West Berlin.

In the second Berlin crisis, which began in 1958 and lasted several years, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev demanded the immediate withdrawal of western Allied troops from West Berlin and the declaration of West Berlin as a “free city”. The Allies, and the mayor of West Berlin Willy Brandt, rejected these proposals as a backdoor attempt to annex the city.

Come June 1961, things were once again reaching a head, when GDR leader Walter Ulbricht held an infamous press conference on the “Berlin question” to German and international media. Among other things, he demanded the closure of the Marienfelde asylum centre.

In response to a question by the Frankfurter Rundschau journalist Annamarie Doherr, Ulbricht declared that “nobody has the intention to build a wall”.

Just two months later, his troops and police officers were building a wall.

The wall is built

With the West having refused to budge on Khrushchev’s ultimatums, the Soviet leader eventually agreed with Ulbricht to erect a wall around the border of West Berlin, a scenario he had long rejected. 

Overnight on the the 13th August, officers of the Volkspolizei began to erect fences, barbed wire and concrete walls. From one day to the next, families were separated, people were shut off from their workplaces or homes, and West Berlin was hermetically sealed.

Though the building of the wall arguably averted a bigger conflict and led to the end of the second Berlin crisis, it would naturally become a symbol not just of a divided Germany, but of oppression and autocracy in general.

What began as a series of barbed wire fences would soon expand into a series of walls, watch towers, and other measures designed to make the border uncrossable. A renovation in 1975 saw the current, recognisable design of the wall with its plinth like sections and rounded top.

The death strip would develop over time, ultimately claiming 140 lives, before the Wall and the East German regime were finally toppled in 1989/90.

A still-standing section of the Wall at Bernauer Straße, with a mock up of the former death strip behind it. Photo: DPA


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Anonymous 2018/08/13 19:45
"What the communist regime of the German Democratic Republic called their “anti-fascist protection wall”, was in fact not conceived to keep anybody out, but rather to keep East German citizens in."<br /><br />Really? What a surprise!
Anonymous 2018/08/13 19:44
Funny how the workers always wind up fleeing the workers' paradises.

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