- Curious Peoples
- Berlin Wall
The Symbol of a Divided World
The Berlin Wall is one of the most significant structures of the 20th century. It stood as a symbol of division and conflict between the East and West during the Cold War era. Its construction and subsequent fall marked a pivotal moment in world history. This is the story of the Berlin Wall.
At the peace conferences of Yalta and Potsdam held after World War II, the victors agreed to divide Germany’s territories into four “allied occupation zones.” The Soviet Union received control of the eastern part of the country, while the western part went to the United States, Great Britain, and ultimately France. Later, the three allied zones became the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), whereas the former Soviet occupation zone became the German Democratic Republic (GDR).
However, there’s one problem: the city of Berlin, the capital, lies entirely within the Soviet-controlled territory, yet it’s also divided between the Allies. This peculiar situation would prove to be a constant source of tension between the two superpowers.
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev referred to West Berlin, a strikingly capitalist city in the heart of communist East Germany, as “sticking like a bone in the Soviet throat.” The Soviet Union contended that if West Germany were to gain independence, Berlin, which was situated more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) from its border, could no longer serve as its capital. The Russians took action to permanently remove the United States, Britain, and France from Berlin. This culminated in 1948 with a Soviet blockade of West Berlin, an attempt to starve the Western Allies out of the city.
The Western powers refused to back down and launched a bold plan to supply their parts of the city from the air. This operation, known as the Berlin Airlift, lasted over a year, and during that time, more than 2.3 million tons of crucial supplies including food, fuel, and other essential goods were delivered to West Berlin. The Soviet Union lifted the blockade in 1949.
West Berliners watch a Douglas C-54 Skymaster land at Tempelhof Airport, 1948.
In the meantime, East Germans, unlike people from other Soviet-dominated countries, could see a free and prosperous neighbor right next door. This led to a massive wave of migration to the West, with nearly 200,000 East Germans leaving their country for West Germany in just 1960 and over 2.5 million fleeing since the war. The young and skilled were the most willing to risk everything to seek their freedom. The GDR, meant to be a showcase of the Soviet model in the heart of Europe, was being drained of its most valuable assets—people. The epicenter of this outflow was East Berlin.
On the night of August 13, 1961, Khrushchev gave the East German government permission to put an end to the exodus by permanently closing the border. This resulted in the construction of a makeshift wall made of barbed wire and concrete blocks—the Berlin Wall—in just two weeks. East Germany officially designated the Wall as an “anti-fascist protective barrier” to keep Western “fascists” from entering and undermining their socialist state.
East German Combat Groups of the Working Class closing the border on August 13, 1961, in preparation for the Berlin Wall construction.
Map of the location of the Berlin Wall, showing checkpoints.
Later entire neighborhoods and other buildings were demolished to make space for moats, security fences, lighting and alert systems, guard towers, and areas for guard dogs. The Wall spanned across 28 miles (45 km) of Berlin, dividing the city into two parts, and extended another 75 miles (120 km) around West Berlin, isolating it from the rest of East Germany.
Despite these efforts, more than 5,000 East Germans successfully crossed the border, utilizing methods such as jumping from adjacent buildings’ windows, climbing over barbed wire, crawling through a sewer, or even ramming through in vehicles at high speeds and attempting to cross in hot air balloons. Over 170 people fell as the victims of the Wall.
The National People’s Army soldier Conrad Schumann defecting to West Berlin during the Wall’s early days in 1961.
In 1989, General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev came to the realization that the Soviet Union needed to undergo significant reforms. He introduced a new policy summarized under the buzzwords glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring). It became increasingly evident that the Soviet Union was no longer willing to support hardline Communist regimes in Eastern Europe.
The Wall fell on November 9, 1989, after 28 years and 91 days since its construction. During a hastily arranged international press conference, East German spokesman Günter Schabowski announced that East Germans could freely travel to West Germany. The news of opening the borders spread like wildfire, causing crowds to gather at checkpoints on both sides of the Wall.
West and East Germans at the Brandenburg Gate. November 10, 1989.
West Germans welcoming East Germans on Bösebrücke bridge. November 10, 1989.
Over two million people from East Berlin flocked to West Berlin that weekend to take part in what a journalist described as “the biggest street party in history.” Using hammers and picks, people chipped away the Wall, while cranes and bulldozers tore down segment after segment. Someone spray-painted on the Wall: “Only today is the war really over.” The fall of the Berlin Wall had a significant political, economic, and social impact, further destabilizing the already fragile East German government. It took only 11 months for Germany to reunite on October 3, 1990.
Today, merely a few sections of the Wall remain standing as a reminder of the division and conflict that once existed. The lessons learned from the Berlin Wall are still relevant today as we strive to build a more just and equitable world.
“Nobody has the intention of building a wall.” —Walter Ulbricht, GDR head of state, East Berlin, June 15, 1961
“The Wall was brought down, not by Washington or Moscow, but by courageous people from the east.” —Gerhard Schröder
“Many small people, who in many small places do many small things, can alter the face of the world.” —East Side Gallery, Berlin, 1990
“I’m not a prophet, but I always thought it was natural for dictatorships to fall. I remember in 1989, two months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, had you said it was going to happen no one would have believed you. The system seemed powerful and unbreakable. Suddenly overnight it blew away like dust.” —Salman Rushdie
“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” —Ronald Reagan
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