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Berlin Wall

Berlin WallBerlin WallBerlin Wall

The lights on the Brandenburg Gate went out shortly after midnight on 13 August 1961. With armed soldiers securing the area, engineers ripped up the cobbles and drove concrete shafts into the ground between which they erected an near-impenitrable barbed wire barrier. Shocked passers-by were moved on quickly. Although West Berlin had been cut off within hours, there was no interruption to train or airline traffic. This was an indication to the Western Allies that the Soviets did not intend to encroach their rights. Few had anticipated this development; the majority were stunned. How could Berlin be cut into two?


Planning for their victory over the Third Reich, the victorious allies took the decision to divide Germany into four zones of occupation controlled by the French, British, American and Soviet forces. This partition was mirrored in Berlin, which was split into four sectors. Although the city was initially run by a joint military administration, the Cold War saw the city split between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union. Breaking all previous agreements, the Soviet Union established East Berlin as the capital of the GDR. The Western sector was run by West Germany under the sovereignty of the Western allies. Despite this formal division, the borders between the two sectors remained open. Nevertheless, crossing the border was to travel between two different worlds. People moved between the sectors for a number of reasons - to buy food, smuggle goods, go to the cinema, or to work in the West. Crossing the open border was also one of the most popular methods of escaping the dictatorship permanently. Between 1949 and 1961, some 4-5 million East Germans used the Berlin border as an escape route to West Germany. Despite Walter Ulbricht’s assurances to the international press that "nobody intends to build a wall" (15 June 1961), many East Germans took the opportunity to escape while they had the chance. Unable to afford the loss of so many (predominantly) young and skilled workers, the GDR decided to act. The SED felt its hand was forced: the existence of the GDR depended on closing the border.


The border around West Berlin was a frontier of unparalleled brutality. The actual concrete "Wall" to the West was preceded by a large-scale security system. First there was the barbed-wire fence, laced with trip wires. Then the flood-lit expanse of raked sand known as the "death strip" which was guarded by dog runs. Guards patrolled the area in pairs day and night with order to use lethal force against all fugitives who refused to stop. Although the figures are controversial, some 100 deaths have been recorded as resulting from attempts to leave the GDR via the Berlin border. Although the government invested considerable sums to make it ever-more impassable, it slowly developed into an anachronism - the same state allowed citizens to apply to leave the GDR, sold many political prisoners to West Germany and allowed others to visit relatives in the Federal Republic. Despite these political changes around it, the border retained its brutal character right up until November 1989.