The Berlin Wall (1961 - 1989)

The Berlin Wall was a sophisticated system of concrete walls, barbwire and minefields that ran along the eastern border of West Berlin and was designed to prevent East Germany’s access to West Berlin and, hence, West Germany.

The origins of the Berlin Wall date back to post World War II years when during the period of 1949 to 1961 more than 2.5 million East Germans fled to West Germany, including a steadily rising number of students, workers, professionals and intellectuals. This exodus threatened to undermine the economy of East Germany. To prevent this brain-drain a decree was passed on August 12, 1961 by the East German Volkskammer (“People’s Chamber”) that ordered a wall be built to close off unrestricted access to West Berlin.

The original wall built of cinder blocs and barbed wire was subsequently replaced with concrete slabs (1965 – 1975) and ultimately the 4th generation wall, the final and most sophisticated version of the wall, was constructed by 1980. The top of the wall was lined with a smooth pipe so as to prevent scaling. The wall was reinforced by signal fencing, mesh fencing, barbed wire, anti-vehicle trenches, dogs on long lines, “beds of nails” under the balconies hanging over the “death strip”, over 116 watchtowers and 20 bunkers. A huge no man's land was cleared to provide a clear line of fire at fleeing refugees.

During the years of the wall, around 5,000 people defected successfully to West Berlin. The number of people who died while trying to cross the wall is close to 200. So immense was people’s desire to flee to the West that they used a variety of methods to escape the East German oppression: digging long tunnels under the wall, taking a hot air balloon, sliding along aerial wires, flying ultralights and, in one instance, simply driving a sports car at full speed through the initial fortifications. If an escapee was wounded while trying to cross the wall, no matter how close they lay to the western wall, Westerners could not intervene for fear of being shot at by the East German border guards. In one widely publicized case an East German teenager was shot in pelvis and bled to death a few meters away from West Berlin border. It was a slow and painful death which demonstrated to the rest of the world that human rights and freedoms meant absolutely nothing to the Communist regime.

“Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” These words were pronounced by U.S. President Ronald Reagan speaking at the Brandenburg Gate on June 12, 1987 to commemorate the 750th anniversary of Berlin. 12 years later in October 1989 the hard-line East German communist leadership was forced from power following a sweeping democratization wave across Eastern Europe. On November 9, 1989 the East German government opened the borders with West Germany and thousands of East Berliners joined their relatives and friends in West Berlin to rejoice in the new era of freedom.

Nowadays not much remains of the Berlin Wall as urbanization and city development saw large parts of the Wall demolished. East Side Gallery is a surviving stretch of the Wall bearing paintings by artists from all over the world that were painted on the East side of the Wall in 1990.

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