The Berlin Wall (Berliner Mauer)

The Berlin Wall (Berliner Mauer) divided the city into west and east for 28 years and was a symbol of the Cold War, the confrontation between socialism and capitalism. Its official name was the Antifaschistischer Schutzwall. Until the end of the summer of 1961, the inhabitants were free to move from one part of Berlin to the other, and to compare the living standards of the western and eastern parts of the city. Economic hardship, increased production standards, forced collectivisation, foreign political tensions in East Germany and higher wages in West Berlin encouraged GDR citizens, especially young people and skilled professionals, to leave for the West.

Stages of construction

As the situation around Berlin deteriorated, the closure of the border was on the agenda of the Warsaw Pact countries. And when some 360,000 people moved to the West in 1960 alone, the Soviet leadership was forced to do something urgent and unorthodox, as the GDR was on the verge of social and economic collapse. Khrushchev had two choices - an air barrier or a wall. Khrushchev chose the second one, as the first option could have entailed a serious quarrel with the USA up to the war.

On Saturday and Sunday, August 13, 1961, a barbed wire fence was set up between East and West Berlin. In the morning, the three million people in Berlin were already divided in two. The barbed wire blocked 193 streets, 8 tram lines, and 4 underground lines. Gas and water pipes were welded in places close to the border, and electric and telephone cables were cut off. From then on, Berliners began to live in two different cities.

People began to gather on both sides of the barbed wire. They were perplexed. A merry wedding party, which had been celebrating until the morning, was on its way to the bride's parents' house and had been stopped by the border guards a few paces away; kindergartens were left without teachers, hospitals without doctors. An order to disperse immediately was given over loudspeakers, but people did not disperse, and then water cannons were used to disperse everyone within half an hour. In the following days the barbed wire was replaced by a stone wall. The walls of residential houses also became part of the border fortifications.

This had a particularly dramatic effect on daily life in Bernauer Straße, where the pavements now belonged to West Berlin's Wedding district and the houses belonged to East Berlin's Mitte district. During the first hours of this "partition" the residents jumped out of the windows onto the West Berlin side. West Berliners saved and helped as much as they could: they threw blankets and tents. Seeing this, the border guards began bricking up the doors of the entrances and the windows of the lower floors. Later, forced relocations from all the residential frontier sections began.

Journalists' cameras and film cameras were "burning" in their hands from the work. One of the most famous photos was of East Berlin soldier Hans Conrad Schumann jumping over the barbed wire. The wall was to be brought to 'perfection' for another 10 years as it was first made of stone and then replaced with a reinforced concrete one. As a result, the wall seemed to be absolutely impregnable. But the Berliners never lost hope of breaking through to the other side, and many attempts ended successfully, but even more tragically.

The fall of the Berlin Wall

On 9 November 1989, Günter Schabowski, General Secretary of the Central Committee of the SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany), announced on television new rules for entering and leaving the country, containing some relaxations. At the end it was said that the border is now practically open. It did not matter what the word "practically" meant, because right after this, East Germans began gathering at the wall in Bornholmer Straße. When the border guards asked "What happened?", they answered that the border was cancelled on TV. For the next week, the world watched on TV as people climbed over the Berlin Wall, danced for joy and splintered bits of concrete as souvenirs.

Today, it is no longer possible to take a piece of the Berlin Wall. In 1990, it was demolished, leaving a small 1,300 metre-long fragment as a reminder of the Cold War. At the Heimatmuseum in the East Berlin district of Treptow, the last block was left to be "dismantled" as souvenirs. The remaining pieces of the wall in the centre were fenced off with barriers. Fragments of the reinforced concrete German barrier can be found in many places around the world, including Microsoft, the CIA and Ronald Reagan's presidential library.

The total length of the wall was 155 km (43 km within the city and 112 km along the outer border of West Berlin). During its existence, some 200 people were killed and 150 injured trying to cross it. Some 5,500 people were able to cross the barrier. However, so far all these figures are inaccurate.

Where to view the wall

Fragments of the Berlin Wall, scattered around the city, and various museum displays and temporary exhibitions can help you feel the atmosphere of the wall: