Berlin Wall: History, Construction, Rise and Fall of the German “Iron Curtain”
On August 13, 1961, construction of the Berlin Wall began. On this day, 61 years ago, work began on the 160 km long wall that separated West Berlin from East Berlin. The Berlin Wall was built on the border between West Berlin controlled by the Allied powers and East Berlin controlled by Soviet Russia. It was built on the orders of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who immediately succeeded Joseph Stalin after his death in 1953.
Although the Berlin Wall was initially made of barbed wire and concrete, it was reinforced in later years to strengthen the structure and make it harder for people to pass without noticing. Notably, the 160 km wall which reached a maximum height of 12 feet was completed in less than 15 days in August 1961. The wall effectively wrapped around West Berlin to isolate the Grand Alliance which included the Great Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union before a Cold War began between the Allies and Russia.
The construction of the wall meant that ordinary citizens were forbidden to cross the city, even for commerce, leisure or even to meet friends and families. Only diplomats and personnel with special papers and authorization were allowed to cross from one side to the other. The wall remained heavily guarded for nearly 28 years before the onset of the fall of the USSR which led to a more democratized society in the region.
This is a photograph of an East German soldier helping a little boy through the newly erected Berlin Wall on the day it was built. A boy who had been left behind in the chaos of people on the run and families caught on either side of the border. pic.twitter.com/nbYzZ0hnXA
— 🛸SpaceGoblin👺 (@SpaceGoblin6) August 12, 2022
61 years ago, on August 12, 1961, at midnight, East German police and units began closing the border between West and East #Berlin. On the morning of the 13th, the border was closed. This photo at the Brandenburg Gate shows precisely how the #Berlin Wall started. pic.twitter.com/bfvbyx23bu
— Christophe Robin (@XopheRobin) August 12, 2022
Yalta Conference and tide reversal during World War II
In 1945, as German forces began to weaken following the entry of American troops, a conference was held in Yalta, near the Black Sea. It was then decided by the Allied Powers that once Germany surrendered unconditionally, it would be divided into four areas to halt again a possible unified rise in the future. Of the four zones, the United States, United Kingdom and France got three while the eastern camp was cut out for Soviet Russia.
Following the success of the Yalta conference and the completion of World War II, Germany was divided as suggested by Joseph Stalin under whose command Berlin conveniently fell. However, despite the treaty and the fall of Berlin under Russian control, the United States, France and the United Kingdom occupied the western part of the city. The Soviets, dissatisfied with the allies, decide to blockade the city. The Allied powers then began airlifting supplies to millions of people on the Eastern Front, which encouraged more people to leave East Berlin and cross to the camps in the West.
This led to a mass exodus of young people who were highly skilled professionals, leaving their homes for better jobs and a better life in West Berlin. West Berlin offered much better opportunities and a better quality of life, as it was ruled by capitalist countries, while the East was under Soviet Communism. The Soviets who did not want to rule over an empty city feared bad publicity for communism and also for the Soviet Union if people left in large numbers. Therefore, Nikita Khrushchev ordered the construction of a wall to separate the two sides of the city. It separated East Berlin from the West. Many workers were sent from Russia to build the wall and it was reportedly completed in two weeks in August 1961.
Why was the Berlin Wall taken down?
It has been reported that in the 28 years of the wall’s existence, more than 5,000 people have successfully escaped and more than 100 people have lost their lives trying to leave. There were strict orders to guard the wall and shoot intruders on sight. In the 1980s, at the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union faced enormous economic challenges and was unable to control such a massive empire while competing with the United States in space races, armaments and technology.
The economy stagnated in the Soviet Union and in the countries it occupied. Moreover, the hierarchical structure of government and the problems were too local to bring about positive central changes. Mikhail Gorbachev, who was the leader of Russia, then tried to save the Soviet Union by introducing additional reforms. However, by this time communism and the Soviet Union’s hold on Eastern Europe were weakening.
Following these developments, the communist government of East Berlin announced that it would grant free passage from East Berlin to the West at midnight on November 9, 1989. There were impromptu celebrations and a party at the city-wide began as the wall, which was a symbolic manifestation of an ‘iron curtain’ that was toppled by thousands of Germans who gathered and scaled the walls with hammers and scissors . On the same night, Berlin was reunited with the rest of the country and was crowned the capital of a unified Germany.
Does the Berlin Wall still exist?
Parts of the Berlin Wall still exist in Berlin today, on display at the Topography of Terror Museum, the Berlin Wall Memorial, and the East Side Gallery. Some segments of the wall are also exhibited in museums around the world.