In the night from 12 August to 13 August 1961
, East German border police in Berlin began tearing up streets, building barricades with the stones and putting up barbed-
wire barriers across the city. They built a three-
high, impregnable wall around West Berlin. This separated the western part of Berlin from East Germany (also called the German Democratic Republic
or GDR) and East Berlin. Why did they do it?
The Berlin Wall, built on 13 August 1961
To understand this, we have to know something of the historical background:
The Second World War
ended in 1945 with the defeat of the National Socialist
(Nazi) dictatorship. Germany was divided up into four occupied zones
. The capital, Berlin, was jointly administrated by the four victorious allies – the USA, the Soviet Union, England and France – and split up into four areas, so-
called “sectors”. Right from the start there were great tensions between the allies, and soon their coalition broke up, leading to the Cold War
. In 1949, two German states were formed: in the West, the Federal Republic
of Germany, a democratic
state with its temporary capital in Bonn; in the East, the GDR, a communist dictatorship with East Berlin as its capital. West Berlin was under the protection of the Western allies.
In the first years after Germany was divided, people were able to cross the border between East Germany and West Germany with relative ease. This was particularly important in divided Berlin, because many people who lived in the eastern part of the city worked in the western part. However, the economic situation in East Germany took a downturn
between 1950 and 1960. The people in West Germany (and in West Berlin), on the other hand, experienced an economic revival; they were doing well. This led to many people leaving East Germany and remaining in the West. The East began to suffer from a lack of labour. So the top Party
and state leaders of the GDR decided to prevent people from leaving East Germany. They strengthened the border installations and had the Wall built in Berlin in August 1961. The GDR built watchtowers along its borders so people wanting to leave the country could be observed. Mines were laid as well that killed people if they were touched. This was the so-
called “death strip”, which was lit up at night by powerful spotlights.
© Stefan Eling
The construction of the Wall meant that the eastern part of Berlin was completely cut off from the western part. Many families were torn apart and were unable to meet for decades.
Although the Wall was considered impregnable, many people still risked their lives trying to escape from East Germany. In Berlin alone, 270 people died attempting to cross the border. Almost a thousand people died along the entire border between West and East Germany.
The Berlin Wall was not torn down until after 9 November 1989, when the GDR collapsed.
On 13 August 1998, a Wall Memorial Site was opened in Berlin in Bernauer Strasse. It consists of an around 70-
long remnant of the wall enclosed by barbed wire.
Gerd Schneider / Christiane Toyka-Seid