The Berlin Wall (German: Berliner Mauer) was a barrier that divided Berlin from 1961 to 1989, constructed by the German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany) starting on 13 August 1961, that completely cut off (by land) West Berlin from surrounding East Germany and from East Berlin until it was opened in November 1989. Its demolition officially began on 13 June 1990 and was completed in 1992. The barrier included guard towers placed along large concrete walls, which circumscribed a wide area (later known as the “death strip”) that contained anti-vehicle trenches, “fakir beds” and other defenses. The Eastern Bloc claimed that the wall was erected to protect its population from fascist elements conspiring to prevent the “will of the people” in building a socialist state in East Germany. In practice, the Wall served to prevent the massive emigration and defection that marked East Germany and the communist Eastern Bloc during the post-World War II period.
The Berlin Wall was officially referred to as the “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart” (German: Antifaschistischer Schutzwall) by GDR authorities, implying that the NATO countries and West Germany in particular were “fascists.” The West Berlin city government sometimes referred to it as the “Wall of Shame”—a term coined by mayor Willy Brandt—while condemning the Wall’s restriction on freedom of movement. Along with the separate and much longer Inner German border (IGB), which demarcated the border between East and West Germany, it came to symbolize the “Iron Curtain” that separated Western Europe and the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War.
Before the Wall’s erection, 3.5 million East Germans circumvented Eastern Bloc emigration restrictions and defected from the GDR, many by crossing over the border from East Berlin into West Berlin, from where they could then travel to West Germany and other Western European countries. Between 1961 and 1989, the wall prevented almost all such emigration. During this period, around 5,000 people attempted to escape over the wall, with an estimated death toll of from 136 to more than 200 in and around Berlin.
In 1989, a series of radical political changes occurred in the Eastern Bloc, associated with the liberalization of the Eastern Bloc’s authoritarian systems and the erosion of political power in the pro-Soviet governments in nearby Poland and Hungary. After several weeks of civil unrest, the East German government announced on 9 November 1989 that all GDR citizens could visit West Germany and West Berlin. Crowds of East Germans crossed and climbed onto the wall, joined by West Germans on the other side in a celebratory atmosphere. Over the next few weeks, euphoric public and souvenir hunters chipped away parts of the wall; the governments later used industrial equipment to remove most of what was left. Contrary to popular belief the wall’s actual demolition did not begin until Summer 1990 and was not completed until 1992. The fall of the Berlin Wall paved the way for German reunification, which was formally concluded on 3 October 1990.
- The Berlin Wall evolved from a temporary border of barbed wire fencing to a heavily fortified, concrete barrier with numerous guards, tank traps and other obstacles.
- The wall between East and West Berlin was 11-13 feet high and stretched 28 miles.
- It also encircled the city of West Berlin and stretched approximately 100 miles.
- Buildings behind the barriers were demolished, and the wide open area became known as “no man’s land” or the “death strip,” where guards in more than 300 sentry towers could shoot anyone trying to escape.
- Wires and mines were buried underneath the surface to prevent escape attempts; pipes on top of the wall prevented it from being scaled.
- Over 100,000 people attempt to escape over the wall. Between 5,000 and 10,000 succeeded.
- Approximately 200 people were killed while trying to escape; many of them were shot by guards or had a fatal accident.
- The most famous border crossing was known as Checkpoint Charlie.
- Sections of the wall may be viewed at NATO Headquarters in Belgium, midtown Manhattan, and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
- February 1945 – In the waning days of World War II, the Allies’ Yalta Conference divides Germany into four zones of occupation: Great Britain, France and the United States occupy the western and southern portions, and the Soviet Union occupies the eastern side. Berlin, located in Soviet territory, is also divided into zones.
1949 – The western and southern zones occupied by Britain, France and the United States become West Germany (The Federal Republic of Germany). The Soviet zone becomes the German Democratic Republic (GDR), or East Germany. West Germany is a democratic republic. East Germany is a Communist country aligned with the Soviet Union.
- 1949-1961 – More than two million East Germans escape to the West. Foreign citizens, West Germans, West Berliners and Allied military personnel are allowed to enter East Berlin, but East Berliners need a special pass to leave.
- August 12, 1961 – East German Communist Party leader Walter Ulbricht signs the order for a barricade separating East and West Berlin.
- August 13, 1961 – East German security forces chief Erich Honecker orders police and troops to erect a barbed wire fence.
- August 15, 1961 – The first concrete barrier is built.
- August 18, 1961 – U.S. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson and General Lucius D. Clay fly to Berlin as a show of U.S. support for West Germany.
- August 21, 1961 – Approximately 1,500 U.S. troops arrive in West Berlin.
- August 23, 1961 – West Berliners without permits are banned from entering East Berlin.
- June 26, 1963 – President John F. Kennedy speaks to an enthusiastic crowd at West Berlin’s old Schoeneberg Rathaus (city hall): “Today in the world of freedom the proudest boast is ‘Ich bin ein Berliner (I am a Berliner) all free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin. And therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.'”
- September 1971 – An agreement is reached allowing West Berlin and East Berlin to import and export goods.
- December 1972 – West and East Germany sign a treaty normalizing diplomatic relations and recognizing each other’s sovereignty.
- June 12, 1987 – In a speech at the Brandenburg Gate, U.S. President Ronald Reagan challenges Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall!”
- April 3, 1989 – GDR border guards are instructed to stop “using firearms to prevent border violations.”
- October 18, 1989 – Communist Party chief Erich Honecker is ousted and is replaced by Egon Krenz.
- November 1, 1989 – More than half million people participate in a pro-freedom rally in East Berlin, demanding free elections.
- November 2, 1989 – Egon Krenz announces sweeping political and economic reforms.
- November 6, 1989 – A preliminary law is passed that gives all citizens travel and emigration rights.
- November 7, 1989 – The East German cabinet resigns. Almost half of the members of the Politburo are removed and replaced the next day.
- November 9, 1989 – East Germany lifts travel restrictions to the West. Politburo member Guenter Schabowski announces that East German citizens can “leave the country through East German border crossing points,” effective immediately.
- November 9-10, 1989 – Jubilant crowds tear down the wall piece by piece.
- November 10, 1989 – Several new crossing points are opened, and tens of thousands of people cross over into West Berlin.
- October 3, 1990 – East and West Germany are officially reunited under the name the Federal Republic of Germany.