Image of the Berlin Wall taken in 1986
The Berlin Wall
) was a concrete barrier built by
the German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany) that
completely enclosed the city of West Berlin, separating it from
East Germany, including East Berlin. The Wall 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 defences.
The fall of the Berlin
separate and much longer Inner German Border (the IGB)
demarcated the border between East and West Germany. Both
borders came to symbolize the Iron Curtain between Western
Europe and the Eastern Bloc.
Before the Wall's erection, 3.5 million East Germans had
avoided Eastern Bloc emigration restrictions and escaped from
the GDR, many by crossing over the border from East Berlin into
West Berlin. From West Berlin, emigrants could travel to West
Germany and other Western European countries. During its
existence from 1961 to 1989, the Wall stopped almost all such
emigration and separated the GDR from West Berlin for more than
a quarter of a century.
After its erection, around 5,000 people attempted to escape over
the wall, with estimates of the resulting death toll varying
between around 100 and 200.
During a revolutionary wave sweeping across the Eastern Bloc,
the East German government announced on November 9, 1989, after
several weeks of civil unrest, that all GDR citizens could visit
West Germany and West Berlin. Crowds of East Germans climbed
onto and crossed the wall, joined by West Germans on the other
side in a celebratory atmosphere. Over the next few weeks, parts
of the wall were chipped away by a euphoric public and by
souvenir hunters; industrial equipment was later used to remove
almost all of the rest. The fall of the Berlin Wall paved the
way for German reunification, which was formally concluded on
October 3, 1990.
The Berlin Wall was officially referred to as the
"Anti-Fascist Protection Wall" (German:
by the communist GDR authorities, implying that the western
countries controlling West Berlin were fascist. The West Berlin
city government sometimes referred to it as the Wall of Shame, a
term coined by Willy Brandt.
After the end of World War II in Europe, what remained of
Nazi Germany west of the Oder-Neisse line was divided into four
occupation zones (per the Potsdam Agreement), each one
controlled by one of the four occupying Allied powers: the
Americans, British, French and the Soviet Union. The capital,
Berlin, as the seat of the Allied Control Council, was similarly
subdivided into four sectors despite the city lying deep inside
the Soviet zone.
Within two years, divisions occurred between the Soviets and the
other occupying powers, including the Soviets' refusal to agree
to reconstruction plans making post-war Germany self-sufficient
and a detailed accounting of the industrial plants, goods
infrastructure already removed by the Soviets.
Britain, France, the United States and the Benelux countries
later met to combine the non-Soviet zones of the country into
one zone for reconstruction and approve the extension of the
The Eastern Bloc and the Berlin airlift
Following World War II, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin built up
a protective belt of Soviet-controlled nations on his Western
border, the Eastern bloc, that then included Poland, Hungary and
Czechoslovakia, which he wished to maintain alongside a weakened
As early as 1945, Stalin revealed to German communist leaders
that he expected to slowly undermine the British position within
the British occupation zone, that the United States would
withdraw within a year or two and that nothing then would stand
in the way of a united Germany under communist control within
the Soviet orbit.
The major task of the ruling communist party in the Soviet
zone was to channel Soviet orders down to both the
administrative apparatus and the other bloc parties pretending
that these were initiatives of its own.
Property and industry was nationalized in the East German zone.
If statements or decisions deviated from the described line,
reprimands and, for persons outside public attention, punishment
would ensue, such as imprisonment, torture and even death.
Indoctrination of Marxism-Leninism became a compulsory part of
school curricula, sending professors and students fleeing to the
west. An elaborate political police apparatus kept the
population under close surveillance,
including Soviet SMERSH secret police.
In 1948, following disagreements regarding reconstruction and
a new German currency, Stalin instituted the Berlin Blockade,
preventing food, materials and supplies from arriving in West
United States, Britain, France, Canada, Australia, New Zealand
and several other countries began a massive "Berlin airlift",
supplying West Berlin with food and other supplies.
The Soviets mounted a public relations campaign against the
western policy change and communists attempted to disrupt the
elections of 1948 preceding large losses therein,
while 300,000 Berliners demonstrated for the international
airlift to continue.
In May 1949, Stalin lifted the blockade, permitting the
resumption of Western shipments to Berlin.
The German Democratic Republic (East Germany) was declared on
October 7, 1949, within which the Soviet Ministry of Foreign
Affairs with a secret treaty accorded the East German state
administrative authority, but not autonomy, with an unlimited
Soviet exercise of the occupation regime and Soviet penetration
of administrative, military and secret police structures.
East Germany differed from West Germany (Federal Republic of
Germany), which developed into a Western capitalist country with
a social market economy ("Soziale
Marktwirtschaft" in German) and a democratic
parliamentary government. Continual economic growth starting in
the 1950s fuelled a 20-year "economic miracle" ("Wirtschaftswunder").
As West Germany's economy grew and its standard of living
continually improved, many East Germans wanted to move to West
Emigration westward in the early 1950s
After Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe at the end of World
War II, the majority of those living in the newly acquired areas
of the Eastern Bloc aspired to independence and wanted the
Soviets to leave.
Taking advantage of the zonal border between occupied zones in
Germany, the number of GDR citizens moving to West Germany
totalled 197,000 in 1950, 165,000 in 1951, 182,000 in 1952 and
331,000 in 1953.
One reason for the sharp 1953 increase was fear of potential
further Sovietization with the increasingly paranoid actions of
Joseph Stalin in late 1952 and early 1953.
226,000 had fled in just the first six months of 1953.
Erection of the inner German border
By the early 1950s, the Soviet approach to controlling
national movement, restricting emigration, was emulated by most
of the rest of the Eastern Bloc, including East Germany.
The restrictions presented a quandary for some Eastern Bloc
states that had been more economically advanced and open than
the Soviet Union, such that crossing borders seemed more
natural—especially where no prior border existed between East
and West Germany.
Up until 1952, the lines between East Germany and the western
occupied zones could be easily crossed in most places.
On April 1, 1952, East German leaders met the Soviet leader
Joseph Stalin in Moscow; during the discussions Stalin's foreign
minister Vyacheslav Molotov proposed that the East Germans
should "introduce a system of passes for visits of West Berlin
residents to the territory of East Berlin [so as to stop] free
movement of Western agents" in the GDR. Stalin agreed, calling
the situation "intolerable". He advised the East Germans to
build up their border defences, telling them that "The
demarcation line between East and West Germany should be
considered a border – and not just any border, but a dangerous
one ... The Germans will guard the line of defence with their
Consequently, the inner German border between the two German
states was closed, and a barbed-wire fence erected. The border
between the Western and Eastern sectors of Berlin, however,
remained open, although traffic between the Soviet and the
Western sectors was somewhat restricted. This resulted in Berlin
becoming a magnet for East Germans desperate to escape life in
the GDR, and also a flashpoint for tension between the United
States and the Soviet Union.
In 1955, the Soviets gave East Germany authority over
civilian movement in Berlin, passing control to a regime not
recognized in the West.
Initially, East Germany granted "visits" to allow its residents
access to West Germany. However, following the defection of
large numbers of East Germans under this regime, the new East
German state legally restricted virtually all travel to the West
Soviet East German ambassador Mikhail Pervukhin observed that
"the presence in Berlin of an open and essentially uncontrolled
border between the socialist and capitalist worlds unwittingly
prompts the population to make a comparison between both parts
of the city, which unfortunately, does not always turn out in
favor of the Democratic [East] Berlin."
The Berlin emigration loophole
With the closing of the inner German border officially in
the border in Berlin remained considerably more accessible than
the rest of the border because it was administered by all four
Accordingly, Berlin became the main route by which East Germans
left for the West.
East Germany introduced a new passport law on December 11, 1957
that reduced the overall number of refugees leaving Eastern
Germany, while drastically increasing the percentage of those
leaving through West Berlin from 60% to well over 90% by the end
Those actually caught trying to leave East Berlin were subjected
to heavy penalties, but with no physical barrier and even subway
train access to West Berlin, such measures were ineffective.
The Berlin sector border was essentially a "loophole" through
which Eastern Bloc citizens could still escape.
The 3.5 million East Germans that had left by 1961 totalled
approximately 20% of the entire East German population.
The emigrants tended to be young and well-educated, leading
to the brain drain feared by officials in East Germany.
Yuri Andropov, then the CPSU Director on Relations with
Communist and Workers Parties of Socialist Countries, wrote an
urgent letter on August 28, 1958, to the Central Committee about
the significant 50% increase in the number of East German
intelligentsia among the refugees.
Andropov reported that, while the East German leadership stated
that they were leaving for economic reasons, testimony from
refugees indicated that the reasons were more political than
He stated "the flight of the intelligentsia has reached a
particularly critical phase."
By 1960, the combination of World War II and the massive
emigration westward left East Germany with only 61% of its
population of working age, compared to 70.5% before the war.
The loss was disproportionately heavy among
professionals—engineers, technicians, physicians, teachers,
lawyers and skilled workers.
The direct cost of manpower losses has been estimated at $7
billion to $9 billion, with East German party leader Walter
Ulbricht later claiming that West Germany owed him $17 billion
in compensation, including reparations as well as manpower
In addition, the drain of East Germany's young population
potentially cost it over 22.5 billion marks in lost educational
The brain drain of professionals had become so damaging to the
political credibility and economic viability of East Germany
that the re-securing of the German communist frontier was
Construction begins, 1961
On June 15, 1961, two months before the construction of the
Berlin Wall started, First Secretary of the Socialist Unity
Party and GDR State Council chairman Walter Ulbricht stated in
an international press conference,
"Niemand hat die Absicht, eine
Mauer zu errichten!" (No one has the intention of
erecting a wall!). It was the first time the colloquial term
Mauer (wall) had
been used in this context.
The record of a telephone call between Nikita Khrushchev and
Ulbricht on August 1 in the same year, suggests that it was
Khrushchev from whom the initiative for the construction of the
wall came. On
Saturday, August 12, 1961, the leaders of the GDR attended a
garden party at a government guesthouse in
Döllnsee, in a wooded area
to the north of East Berlin, at which time
Ulbricht signed the order
to close the border and erect a wall.
At midnight, the police and units of the East German army
began to close the border and by Sunday morning, August 13, the
border with West Berlin was closed. East German troops and
workers had begun to tear up streets running alongside the
border to make them impassable to most vehicles, and to install
barbed wire entanglements and fences along the 156 kilometres
(97 miles) around the three western sectors and the
43 kilometres (27 miles) which actually divided West and East
The barrier was built slightly inside East Berlin or East
German territory to ensure that it did not encroach on West
Berlin at any point, and was later built up into the Wall
proper, the first concrete elements and large blocks being put
in place on August 15. During the construction of the Wall,
National People's Army (NVA) and Combat Groups of the Working
Class (KdA) soldiers stood in front of it with orders to shoot
anyone who attempted to defect. Additionally, chain fences,
walls, minefields, and other obstacles were installed along the
length of the inner-German border between East and West Germany.
Mocking the Allied Forces in West Berlin in the days of August
1961 an English language radio station from East Germany
broadcast again and again the popular cowboy hit Don't Fence Me
Memorials of East Germans who died when trying to escape over the Berlin Wall to
Because of the closure of the East-West sector boundary in
Berlin, the vast majority of East Germans could no longer travel
or emigrate to West Germany. Many families were split, while
East Berliners employed in the West were cut off from their
jobs; West Berlin became an isolated enclave in a hostile land.
West Berliners demonstrated against the wall, led by their Mayor
Abbott, who strongly criticized the United States for failing to
respond. Allied intelligence agencies had hypothesized about a
wall to stop the flood of refugees, but the main candidate for
its location was around the perimeter of the city.
John F. Kennedy had acknowledged in a speech on July 25,
1961, that the
United States could only hope to defend West Berliners and West
Germans; to attempt to stand up for East Germans would result
only in an embarrassing downfall. Accordingly, the
administration made polite protests at length via the usual
channels, but without fervour, even though it was a violation of
the postwar Potsdam Agreements, which gave the United Kingdom,
France and the United States a say over the administration of
the whole of Berlin. Indeed, a few months after the barbed wire
was erected, the U.S. government informed the Soviet government
that it accepted the Wall as "a fact of international life" and
would not challenge it by force.
U.S. and UK sources had expected the Soviet sector to be
sealed off from West Berlin, which had appeared to be the best
option the GDR and Soviet powers had at their disposal, but were
surprised how long it had taken for a move of this kind. They
also saw the wall as an end to concerns about a GDR/Soviet
retaking or capture of the whole of Berlin; the wall would
presumably have been an unnecessary project if such plans were
afloat. Thus the possibility of a military conflict over Berlin
The East German government claimed that the Wall was an
"anti-fascist protective rampart" (German:
intended to dissuade aggression from the West.
Another official justification was the activities of western
agents in Eastern Europe.
A yet different explanation was that West Berliners were buying
out state-subsidized goods in East Berlin. Most of these
positions were, however, viewed with scepticism even in East
Germany, even more so since most of the time, the border was
only closed for citizens of East Germany traveling to the West,
but not for residents of West Berlin travelling to the East.
The construction of the Wall had caused considerable hardship to
families divided by it, and the view that the Wall was mainly a
means of preventing the citizens of East Germany from entering
West Berlin or fleeing was widely accepted.
An East German propaganda booklet published in 1955 outlined
the seriousness of 'flight from the republic' to SED party
Both from the moral standpoint as well as in terms of
the interests of the whole German nation, leaving the
GDR is an act of political and moral backwardness and
Those who let themselves be recruited objectively
serve West German Reaction and militarism, whether they
know it or not. Is it not despicable when for the sake
of a few alluring job offers or other false promises
about a "guaranteed future" one leaves a country in
which the seed for a new and more beautiful life is
sprouting, and is already showing the first fruits, for
the place that favors a new war and destruction?
Is it not an act of political depravity when
citizens, whether young people, workers, or members of
the intelligentsia, leave and betray what our people
have created through common labor in our republic to
offer themselves to the American or British secret
services or work for the West German factory owners,
Junkers, or militarists? Does not leaving the land of
progress for the morass of an historically outdated
social order demonstrate political backwardness and
[W]orkers throughout Germany will demand punishment
for those who today leave the German Democratic
Republic, the strong bastion of the fight for peace, to
serve the deadly enemy of the German people, the
imperialists and militarists.
The forbidding presence of an old Berlin Wall watch tower
General Lucius D. Clay, an anti-communist who was known to
have a firm attitude towards the Soviets, was sent to Berlin
with ambassadorial rank as Kennedy's special advisor. He and
Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson arrived at Tempelhof Airport on
the afternoon of Saturday August 19, 1961.
They arrived in a city defended by three Allied brigades —
one each from the UK, the US, and France (the Forces Françaises
à Berlin). On August 16, Kennedy had given the order for them to
be reinforced. Early on August 19, the 1st Battle Group, 18th.
Infantry (commanded by Col. Glover S. Johns Jr.) was alerted.
On Sunday morning, U.S. troops marched from West Germany into
East Germany, bound for West Berlin. Lead elements—arranged in a
column of 491 vehicles and trailers carrying 1,500 men, divided
into five march units—left the Helmstedt-Marienborn checkpoint
at 06:34. At Marienborn, the Soviet checkpoint next to Helmstedt
on the West German/East German border, U.S. personnel were
counted by guards. The column was 160 kilometres (100 mi) long,
and covered 177 kilometres (110 mi) from Marienborn to Berlin in
full battle gear, with East German police watching from beside
trees next to the autobahn all the way along.
The front of the convoy arrived at the outskirts of Berlin
just before noon, to be met by Clay and Johnson, before parading
through the streets of Berlin to an adoring crowd. At 04:00 on
August 21, Lyndon Johnson left a visibly reassured West Berlin
in the hands of Gen. Frederick O. Hartel and his brigade of
4,224 officers and men. Every three months for the next three
and a half years, a new American battalion was rotated into West
Berlin by autobahn to demonstrate Allied rights.
The creation of the Wall had important implications for both
German states. By stemming the exodus of people from East
Germany, the East German government was able to reassert its
control over the country: in spite of discontent with the wall,
economic problems caused by dual currency and the black market
were largely eliminated, and the economy in the GDR began to
grow. However, the Wall proved a public relations disaster for
the communist bloc as a whole. Western powers used it in
propaganda as a symbol of communist tyranny, particularly after
the shootings of would-be defectors, later treated as acts of
murder by the reunified Germany.
Structure and adjacent areas
Layout and modifications
The Berlin Wall was more than 140 kilometres (87 mi) long. In
June 1962, a second, parallel fence some 100 metres (110 yd)
farther into East German territory was built. The houses
contained between the fences were razed and the inhabitants
relocated, thus establishing the No Man's Land that later became
known as The Death Strip. The No Man's Land was covered
with raked gravel, rendering footprints easy to notice and thus
enabling officers to see which guards had neglected their task;
it offered no cover; and most importantly, it offered clear
fields of fire for the wall guards. Through the years, the
Berlin Wall evolved through four versions:
- Wire fence (1961)
- Improved wire fence (1962–1965)
- Concrete wall (1965–1975)
- Grenzmauer 75
(Border Wall 75) (1975–1989)
The "fourth-generation wall", known officially as "Stützwandelement
UL 12.11" (retaining wall element UL 12.11), was the
final and most sophisticated version of the Wall. Begun in 1975
and completed about 1980,
it was constructed from 45,000 separate sections of reinforced
concrete, each 3.6 metres (12 ft) high and 1.2 metres (3.9 ft)
wide, and cost 16,155,000 East German Marks or about 3,638,000
United States Dollars.
The concrete provisions added to this version of the Wall were
done so to prevent escapees from driving their cars through the
The top of the wall was lined with a smooth pipe, intended to
make it more difficult to scale. It was reinforced by mesh
fencing, signal fencing, anti-vehicle trenches, barbed wire,
dogs on long lines, "beds of nails" under balconies hanging over
the "death strip", over 116 watchtowers,
and 20 bunkers. This version of the Wall is the one most
commonly seen in photographs, and surviving fragments of the
Wall in Berlin and elsewhere around the world are generally
pieces of the fourth-generation Wall. The layout came to
resemble the inner German border in most technical aspects,
except the Berlin Wall had no landmines and no Spring-guns.
Official crossings and usage
There were eight border crossings between East and West
Berlin, which allowed visits by West Berliners, West Germans,
Western foreigners and Allied personnel into East Berlin, as
well as visits by GDR citizens and citizens of other socialist
countries into West Berlin, provided that they held the
necessary permits. Those crossings were restricted according to
which nationality was allowed to use it (East Germans, West
Germans, West Berliners, other countries). The most famous was
the vehicle and pedestrian checkpoint at the corner of
Friedrichstraße and Zimmerstraße, also known as Checkpoint
Charlie, which was restricted to Allied personnel and
Several other border crossings existed between West Berlin
and surrounding East Germany. These could be used for transit
between West Germany and West Berlin, for visits by West
Berliners into East Germany, for transit into countries
neighbouring East Germany (Poland, Czechoslovakia, Denmark), and
for visits by East Germans into West Berlin carrying a permit.
After the 1972 agreements, new crossings were opened to allow
West Berlin waste to be transported into East German dumps, as
well as some crossings for access to West Berlin's exclaves (see
Four autobahns connected West Berlin to West Germany, the
most famous being the Berlin-Helmstedt autobahn, which entered
East German territory between the towns of Helmstedt and
Marienborn (Checkpoint Alpha), and which entered West Berlin at
Dreilinden (Checkpoint Bravo for the Allied forces) in
southwestern Berlin. Access to West Berlin was also possible by
railway (four routes) and by boat for commercial shipping via
canals and rivers.
Removal of a section of the Berlin wall by crane in 1989
Non-German Westerners could cross the border at
Friedrichstraße station in East Berlin and at Checkpoint
Charlie. When the Wall was erected, Berlin's complex public
transit networks, the S-Bahn and U-Bahn, were divided with it.
Some lines were cut in half; many stations were shut down. Three
western lines travelled through brief sections of East Berlin
territory, passing through eastern stations (called
ghost stations) without stopping. Both the eastern and western
networks converged at
Friedrichstraße, which became a major crossing point for
those (mostly Westerners) with permission to cross.
West Germans and citizens of other Western countries could in
general visit East Germany. Usually this involved application of
a visa at an East German embassy several weeks in advance. Visas
for day trips restricted to East Berlin were issued without
previous application in a simplified procedure at the border
crossing. However, East German authorities could refuse entry
permits without stating a reason. In the 1980s, visitors from
the western part of the city who wanted to visit the eastern
part had to exchange at least DM 25 into East German currency at
the poor exchange rate of 1:1. It was forbidden to export East
German currency from the East, but money not spent could be left
at the border for possible future visits. Tourists crossing from
the west had to also pay for a visa, which cost DM 5; West
Berliners did not have to pay this.
West Berliners initially could not visit East Berlin or East
Germany at all. All crossing points were closed to them between
26 August 1961 and 17 December 1963. In 1963, negotiations
between East and West resulted in a limited possibility for
visits during the Christmas season that year (Passierscheinregelung).
Similar very limited arrangements were made in 1964, 1965 and
In 1971, with the Four Power Agreement on Berlin, agreements
were reached that allowed West Berliners to apply for visas to
enter East Berlin and East Germany regularly, comparable to the
regulations already in force for West Germans. However, East
German authorities could still refuse entry permits.
East Berliners and East Germans could at first not travel to
West Berlin or West Germany at all. This regulation remained in
force essentially until the fall of the wall, but over the years
several exceptions to these rules were introduced, the most
- Old age pensioners could travel to the West starting in
- Visits of relatives for important family matters
- People who had to travel to the West for professional
reasons (e.g. artists, truck drivers etc.)
However, each visit had to be applied for individually and
approval was never guaranteed. In addition, even if travel was
approved, GDR travellers could exchange only a very small amount
of East German Marks into Deutsche Marks (DM), thus limiting the
financial resources available for them to travel to the West.
This led to the West German practice of granting a small amount
of DM annually (Begrüßungsgeld, or welcome money) to GDR
citizens visiting West Germany and West Berlin to help alleviate
Citizens of other East European countries were in general
subject to the same prohibition of visiting Western countries as
East Germans, though the applicable exception (if any) varied
from country to country.
Allied military personnel and civilian officials of the
Allied forces could enter and exit East Berlin without
submitting to East German passport controls, purchasing a visa
or being required to exchange money. Likewise, Soviet military
patrols could enter and exit West Berlin. This was a requirement
of the post-war Four Powers Agreements. A particular area of
concern for the Western Allies involved official dealings with
East German authorities when crossing the border, since
Allied policy did not recognize the authority of the GDR to
regulate Allied military traffic to and from West Berlin, as
well as the Allied presence within Greater Berlin, including
entry into, exit from, and presence within East Berlin; the
Allies held that only the Soviet Union, and not the GDR, had
authority to regulate Allied personnel in such cases. For this
reason, elaborate procedures were established to prevent
inadvertent recognition of East German authority when engaged in
travel through the GDR and when in East Berlin. Special rules
applied to travel by Western Allied military personnel assigned
to the Military Liaison Missions accredited to the commander of
Soviet forces in East Germany, located in Potsdam.
East German guards feed the birds from their watch tower at the Berlin Wall near
Allied personnel were restricted by policy when travelling by
land to the following routes:
- Transit between West Germany and West Berlin
- Road: the Helmstedt-Berlin autobahn (A2)
(Checkpoints Alpha and Bravo respectively). Soviet military
personnel manned these checkpoints and processed Allied
personnel for travel between the two points. Military
personnel were required to be in uniform when travelling in
- Rail: Western Allied military personnel and
civilian officials of the Allied forces were forbidden from
using commercial train service between West Germany and West
Berlin, due to the fact of GDR passport and customs controls
when using them. Instead, the Allied forces operated a
series of official (duty) trains that travelled between their
respective duty stations in West Germany and West Berlin.
When transiting the GDR, the trains would follow the route
between Helmstedt and Griebnitzsee, just outside of West
Berlin. In addition to persons travelling on official
business, authorized personnel could also use the duty
trains for personal travel on a space-available basis. The
trains travelled only at night, and as with transit by car,
Soviet military personnel handled the processing of duty
- Entry into and exit from East Berlin
- Checkpoint Charlie (as a pedestrian or riding in a
As with military personnel, special procedures applied to
travel by diplomatic personnel of the Western Allies accredited
to their respective embassies in the GDR. This was intended to
prevent inadvertent recognition of East German authority when
crossing between East and West Berlin, which could jeopardize
the overall Allied position governing the freedom of movement by
Allied forces personnel within all Berlin.
Ordinary citizens of the Western Allied powers, not formally
affiliated with the Allied forces, were authorized to use all
designated transit routes through East Germany to and from West
Berlin. Regarding travel to East Berlin, such persons could also
use the Friedrichstraße train station to enter and exit the
city, in addition to Checkpoint Charlie. In these instances,
such travelers, unlike Allied personnel, had to submit to East
German border controls.
During the Wall's existence there were around 5,000
successful escapes to West Berlin. The number of people who died
trying to cross the wall or as a result of the wall's existence
has been disputed. The most vocal claims by Alexandra
Hildebrandt, Director of the Checkpoint Charlie Museum and widow
of the Museum's founder, estimated the death toll to be well
while an ongoing historic research group at the Centre for
Contemporary Historical Research (ZZF) in Potsdam has confirmed
Prior official figures listed 98 as being killed.
The East German government issued shooting orders to border
guards dealing with defectors, though such orders are not the
same as shoot to kill orders which GDR officials denied ever
issuing. Guards were told by East German authorities in an
October 1973 order later discovered by researchers that people
attempting to cross the wall were criminals and needed to be
shot: "Do not hesitate to use your firearm, not even when the
border is breached in the company of women and children, which
is a tactic the traitors have often used".
Early successful escapes involved people jumping the initial
barbed wire or leaping out of apartment windows along the line,
but these ended as the wall was fortified. To solve these simple
escape attempts, East German authorities no longer permitted
apartments near the wall to be occupied and any building near
the wall had its windows boarded and later bricked up. On August
15, 1961, Conrad Schumann was the first East German border guard
to escape by jumping the barbed wire to West Berlin.
Later successful escape attempts included long tunnels,
waiting for favourable winds and taking a hot air balloon,
sliding along aerial wires, flying ultra lights, and in one
instance, simply driving a sports car at full speed through the
basic, initial fortifications. When a metal beam was placed at
checkpoints to prevent this kind of escape, up to four people
(two in the front seats and possibly two in the boot) drove
under the bar in a sports car that had been modified to allow
the roof and wind screen to come away when it made contact with
the beam. They simply lay flat and kept driving forward. This
issue was rectified with zigzagging roads at checkpoints. The
sewer system preceded the wall, and some people escaped through
the sewers, in a number of cases with assistance from the
Girmann student group.
An airborne escape was made by Thomas Krüger, who landed a
Zlin Z 42M light aircraft of the Gesellschaft für Sport und
Technik, an East German youth military training organization, at
RAF Gatow. His aircraft, registration DDR-WOH, was dismantled
and returned to the East Germans by road, complete with humorous
slogans painted on by RAF airmen such as "Wish you were here"
and "Come back soon". DDR-WOH is still flying today, but under
the registration D-EWOH.
If an escapee was wounded in a crossing attempt and lay on
the death strip, no matter how close they were to the Western
wall, they could not be rescued for fear of triggering engaging
fire from the 'Grepos', the East Berlin border guards. The
guards often let fugitives bleed to death in the middle of this
ground, as in the most notorious failed attempt, that of Peter
Fechter (aged 18). He was shot and bled to death in full view of
the Western media, on August 17, 1962. Fechter's death created
negative publicity worldwide that led the leaders of East Berlin
to place more restrictions on shooting in public places, and
provide medical care for
|Last remnants of the Berlin Wall as seen in 2008 in Liesenstraße.
"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"
In a speech at the Brandenburg Gate commemorating the 750th
anniversary of Berlin
on June 12, 1987, Ronald Reagan challenged Mikhail Gorbachev,
then the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet
Union, to tear down the wall as a symbol of increasing freedom
in the Eastern Bloc:
We welcome change and openness; for we believe that
freedom and security go together, that the advance of
human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world
peace. There is one sign the Soviets can make that would
be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the
cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev,
if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet
Union and eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization,
come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate.
Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!
On August 23, 1989, Hungary removed its physical border
defences with Austria, and in September more than 13,000 East
German tourists in Hungary escaped to Austria.
This set up a chain of events. The Hungarians prevented many
more East Germans from crossing the border and returned them to
Budapest. These East Germans flooded the West German embassy and
refused to return to East Germany. The East German government
responded by disallowing any further travel to Hungary, but
allowed those already there to return.
This triggered a similar
incident in neighboring Czechoslovakia. On this occasion, the
East German authorities allowed them to leave, providing that
they used a train which transited East Germany on the way. This
was followed by mass demonstrations within East Germany itself.
(See Monday demonstrations in East Germany.) The
long-time leader of East Germany, Erich Honecker, resigned on
October 18, 1989, and was replaced by Egon Krenz a few days
later. Honecker had predicted in January of that year that the
wall would stand for a "hundred more years" if the conditions
which had caused its construction did not change.
Protest demonstrations broke out all over East Germany in
September 1989. Initially, they were of people wanting to leave
to the West, chanting "Wir
wollen raus!" ("We want out!"). Then protestors began
to chant "Wir bleiben hier",
("We're staying here!"). This was the start of what East Germans
generally call the "Peaceful Revolution" of late 1989.
By November 4, the protests had swelled significantly, with half
a million people gathered that day at the Alexanderplatz
demonstration in East Berlin (Henslin, 07).
Meanwhile the wave of refugees leaving East Germany for the
West had increased and had found its way through Czechoslovakia,
tolerated by the new Krenz government and in agreement with the
communist Czechoslovak government. To ease the complications,
the politburo led by Krenz decided on November 9, to allow
refugees to exit directly through crossing points between East
Germany and West Germany, including West Berlin. On the same
day, the ministerial administration modified the proposal to
include private travel. The new regulations were to take effect
on November 17, 1989.
Günter Schabowski, a spokesperson for the politburo, had the
task of announcing this; however he had not been involved in the
discussions about the new regulations and had not been fully
Shortly before a press conference on November 9, he was handed a
note that said that East Berliners would be allowed to cross the
border with proper permission but given no further instructions
on how to handle the information. These regulations had only
been completed a few hours earlier and were to take effect the
following day, so as to allow time to inform the border
guards—however, nobody had informed Schabowski. He read the note
out loud at the end of the conference. When the Italian
journalist Riccardo Ehrman, the Berlin correspondent of ANSA
newsagency, asked when the regulations would come into effect,
Schabowski assumed it would be the same day based on the wording
of the note and replied "As far as I know effective immediately,
without delay". After further questions from journalists he
confirmed that the regulations included the border crossings
towards West Berlin, which he had not mentioned until then.
A Section of the Berlin Wall in 1989 viewed from West Berlin
Soon afterwards, a West German television channel, ARD,
broadcast incomplete information from Schabowski's press
conference. A moderator stated: "This ninth of November is a
historic day." East Germany "has announced that, starting
immediately, its borders are open to everyone."
After hearing the broadcast, East Germans began gathering at
the wall, demanding that border guards immediately open its
The surprised and overwhelmed guards made many hectic telephone
calls to their superiors, but it became clear that there was no
one among the East German authorities who would dare to take
personal responsibility for issuing orders to use lethal force,
so there was no way for the vastly outnumbered soldiers to hold
back the huge crowd of East German citizens. In face of the
growing crowd, the guards finally yielded, opening the
checkpoints and allowing people through with little or no
identity checking. Ecstatic East Berliners were soon greeted by
West Berliners on the other side in a celebratory atmosphere.
November 9 is thus considered the date the Wall fell. In the
days and weeks that followed, people came to the wall with
sledgehammers to chip off souvenirs, demolishing lengthy parts
of it in the process. These people were nicknamed "Mauerspechte"
The East German regime announced the opening of ten new
border crossings the following weekend, including some in
symbolic locations (Potsdamer Platz, Glienicker Brücke, Bernauer
Straße). Crowds on both sides waited there for hours, cheering
at the bulldozers which took parts of the Wall away to reinstate
old roads. Photos and television footage of these events is
sometimes mislabelled "dismantling of the Wall", even though it
was merely the construction of new crossings. New border
crossings continued to be opened through the middle of 1990,
including the Brandenburg Gate on December 22, 1989.
West Germans and West Berliners were allowed visa-free travel
starting December 23. Until then they could only visit East
Germany and East Berlin under restrictive conditions that
involved application for a visa several days or weeks in
advance, and obligatory exchange of at least 25 DM per day of
their planned stay, all of which hindered spontaneous visits.
Thus, in the weeks between November 9 and December 23, East
Germans could travel more freely than Westerners.
Technically the Wall remained guarded for some time after
November 9, though at a decreasing intensity. In the first
months, the East German military even tried to repair some of
the damages done by the "wall peckers". Gradually these attempts
ceased, and guards became more lax, tolerating the increasing
demolitions and "unauthorized" border crossing through the
holes. On June 13, 1990, the official dismantling of the Wall by
the East German military began in Bernauer Straße. On July 1,
the day East Germany adopted the West German currency, all
border controls ceased, although the inter-German border had
become meaningless for some time before that. The dismantling
continued to be carried out by military units (after unification
under the Bundeswehr) and lasted until November 1991. Only a few
short sections and watchtowers were left standing as memorials.
The fall of the Wall was the first step toward German
reunification, which was formally concluded on October 3, 1990.
In most European capitals at the time there was a deep
anxiety over prospects for a reunified Germany. In September,
1989, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher pleaded with
Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev not to let the Berlin Wall
fall and confided that she wanted the Soviet leader to do what
he could to stop it.
“We do not want a united Germany. This would lead to a change to
post-war borders, and we cannot allow that because such a
development would undermine the stability of the whole
international situation and could endanger our security.”
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, French President François
Mitterrand warned Thatcher that a unified Germany could make
more ground than Adolf Hitler ever had and that Europe would
have to bear the consequences.
The famous you are 'Leaving the American Sector' sign in West
On December 25, 1989, Leonard Bernstein gave a concert in
Berlin celebrating the end of the Wall, including Beethoven's
9th symphony (Ode to Joy) with the word "Joy" (Freude)
changed to "Freedom" (Freiheit)
in the text sung. The orchestra and choir were drawn from both
East and West Germany, as well as the United Kingdom, France,
the Soviet Union, and the United States.
Roger Waters performed the Pink Floyd album The Wall
just north of Potsdamer Platz on 21 July 1990, with guests
including Bon Jovi, Scorpions, Bryan Adams, Sinéad O'Connor,
Thomas Dolby, Joni Mitchell, Marianne Faithfull, Levon Helm,
Rick Danko and Van Morrison. David Hasselhoff performed his song
"Looking for Freedom", which was very popular in Germany at that
time, standing on the Berlin wall.
Over the years, there has been a repeated controversial
November 9 would make a suitable German national holiday, often
initiated by former members of political opposition in East
Germany such as Werner Schulz.
Besides being the emotional apogee of East Germany's peaceful
revolution, November 9 is also the date of the end of the
Revolution of 1848 and the date of the abdication of Kaiser
Wilhelm II and the declaration of the first German republic, the
Weimar Republic, in 1918. However, November 9 is also the
anniversary of the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch and the infamous
Kristallnacht pogroms of 1938. Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel
critiqued the euphoria, noting that "they forgot that Nov. 9 has
already entered into history - 51 years earlier it marked the
Moreover, reunification wasn't official and complete until
October 3; therefore, October 3 was chosen instead as German
20th anniversary celebrations
On November 9, 2009, Berlin celebrated the 20th anniversary
of the fall of the Berlin Wall with a "Festival of Freedom" with
dignitaries from around the world in attendance for an evening
celebration around the Brandenburg Gate. A high point was when
over 1000 colourfully designed foam domino tiles, each over 8
feet tall, that were stacked along the former route of the wall
in the city centre were toppled in stages, converging in front
of the Brandenburg Gate.
A Berlin Twitter Wall was set up to allow Twitter users post
messages commemorating the 20th anniversary. Masses of Chinese
users have used it to protest the Great Firewall of China.
Berlin Twitter Wall was quickly blocked by the Chinese
In the United States, the German Embassy coordinated a public
diplomacy campaign with the motto "Freedom Without Walls" to
commemorate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The campaign was focused on promoting awareness of the fall of
the Berlin Wall among current college students, and students at
over 20 universities will participate in "Freedom Without Walls"
events in late 2009.
An international project called "Mauerreise" – Journey of the
Wall took place in various countries. Twenty symbolic wall
bricks were sent from Berlin starting in May 2009. Their
destination: Korea, Cyprus, Yemen and other places where
everyday life is characterised by division and border
experience. In these places the bricks will become a blank
canvas for artists, intellectuals and young people to tackle the
To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin
Wall, Twinity has reconstructed a true-to-scale section of the
wall in virtual Berlin.
The MTV Europe Music Awards, on the 5th of November, had U2
and Tokio Hotel perform songs dedicated to, and about the Berlin
Wall. U2 performed at the Brandenburg Gate, and Tokio Hotel
performed "World Behind My Wall".
Palestinians in the town of Kalandia, West Bank pulled down
parts of the Israeli West Bank barrier, in a demonstration
marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Little is left of the Wall at its original site, which was
destroyed almost everywhere. Three long sections are still
standing: an 80-metre (263 ft) piece of the first (westernmost)
wall at the Topography of Terror site of the former Gestapo
headquarters half way between Checkpoint Charlie and Potsdamer
Platz; a longer section of the second (easternmost) wall along
the Spree River near the Oberbaumbrücke nicknamed East Side
Gallery; and a third section with hints of the full
installation, but partly reconstructed, in the north at Bernauer
Straße, which was turned into a memorial in 1999. Some other
isolated fragments and a few watchtowers also remain in various
parts of the city. None still accurately represent the Wall's
They are badly damaged by souvenir seekers, as fragments of
the Wall were taken and sold around the world. Appearing both
with and without certificates of authenticity, these fragments
are now a staple on the online auction service eBay as well as
German souvenir shops. Today, the eastern side is covered in
graffiti that did not exist while the Wall was guarded by the
armed soldiers of East Germany. Previously, graffiti appeared
only on the western side. Along the tourist areas of the city
centre, the city government has marked the location of the
former wall by a row of cobblestones in the street. In most
places only the "first" wall is marked, except near Potsdamer
Platz where the stretch of both walls is marked, giving visitors
an impression of the dimension of the barrier system.
Part of the wall is now located at the Ronald Reagan
Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, USA.
Fifteen years after the fall, a private museum rebuilt a
200-metre (656 ft) section close to Checkpoint Charlie, although
not in the location of the original wall. They also raised more
than 1,000 crosses in memory of those who died attempting to
flee to the West. The memorial was installed in October 2004 and
demolished in July 2005.
For many years after reunification, there still was talk in
Germany of cultural differences between East and West Germans
(colloquially Ossis and Wessis), sometimes
described as Mauer im Kopf (The wall in the head). A
September 2004 poll found that 25 percent of West Germans and 12
percent of East Germans wished that East and West should be
separated again by a "Wall".
A poll taken in October 2009 on the occasion of the 20th
anniversary of the fall of the wall indicated however that only
about a tenth of the population was still unhappy with the
unification (8 percent in the East; 12 percent in the West).
Although differences are still perceived between East and West,
Germans also make similar distinctions between North and South.
A recent poll conducted by Russia's VTsIOM, found that more
than half of all Russians do not know who built the Berlin Wall.
Ten percent of people surveyed thought Berlin residents built it
themselves. Six percent said Western powers built it and four
percent thought it was a "bilateral initiative" of the Soviet
Union and the West. Fifty-eight percent said they did not know
who built it, with just 24 percent correctly naming the Soviet
Union and its then-communist ally East Germany.
Wall segments around the world
Not all segments of the wall were ground up as the wall was
being torn down. Many segments have been given to various
institutions around the world since its fall. They can be found
for instance in presidential and historical museums, lobbies of
hotels and corporations, at universities and government