The Berlin Wall (Berliner Mauer) was a barrier that divided Berlin from 1961 to 1989. Constructed by the German Democratic Republic (DDR – Deutsche Demokratische Republik), starting on 13 August 1961, the Wall completely cut off (by land) West Berlin from surrounding East Germany and from East Berlin until government officials opened it 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 defences. 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 had 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 Protective Wall” (Antifaschistischer Schutzwall) by GDR authorities, implying that the NATO countries and West Germany in particular were considered equal to “fascists” by GDR propaganda. 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 symbolise a physical marker of 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 which 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 ranging 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 people 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 the summer of 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.
After the end of World War II in Europe, what remained of pre-war Germany west of the Oder-Neisse line was divided into four occupation zones (as per the Potsdam Agreement), each one controlled by one of the four occupying Allied powers: the United States, the United Kingdom, France and the Soviet Union. The capital of Berlin, as the seat of the Allied Control Council, was similarly subdivided into four sectors despite the city’s location, which was fully within the Soviet zone.
Within two years, political divisions increased between the Soviets and the other occupying powers. These included the Soviets’ refusal to agree to reconstruction plans making post-war Germany self-sufficient and to a detailed accounting of the industrial plants, goods and 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 to approve the extension of the Marshall Plan.
Eastern Bloc and the Berlin Airlift
Following World War II, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin headed a group of nations on his Western border, the Eastern Bloc, that then included Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, which he wished to maintain alongside a weakened Soviet-controlled Germany.
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 would then stand in the way of a united communist Germany within the bloc.
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, which in turn would be presented as internal measures. Property and industry was nationalised 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. The East Germans created an elaborate political police apparatus that 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 Berlin.
The United States, Britain, France, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and several other countries began a massive “airlift”, supplying West Berlin with food and other supplies.
The Soviets mounted a public relations campaign against the Western policy change. 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 7 October 1949. By a secret treaty, the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs accorded the East German state administrative authority, but not autonomy. The Soviets permeated East German administrative, military and secret police structures and had full control.
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 steadily improved, many East Germans wanted to move to West Germany.
Emigration westward in the early 1950s
After the 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 totaled 187,000 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, given 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, which 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 demarcation lines between East Germany and the western occupied zones could be easily crossed in most places. On 1 April 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 lives.”
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 flash-point 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 recognised 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 in 1956.
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 favour of the Democratic [East] Berlin.”
Berlin emigration loophole
With the closing of the inner German border officially in 1952, the border in Berlin remained considerably more accessible then because it was administered by all four occupying powers. Accordingly, Berlin became the main route by which East Germans left for the West. On 11 December 1957, East Germany introduced a new passport law that reduced the overall number of refugees leaving Eastern Germany.
It had the unintended result of drastically increasing the percentage of those leaving through West Berlin from 60% to well over 90% by the end of 1958. Those caught trying to leave East Berlin were subjected to heavy penalties, but with no physical barrier and subway train access still available 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 who had left by 1961 totalled approximately 20% of the entire East German population.
An important reason that the West Berlin border was not closed earlier was that doing so would cut off much of the railway traffic in East Germany. Construction of a new railway bypassing West Berlin, the Berlin outer ring, commenced in 1951. Following the completion of the railway in 1961, closing the border became a more practical position.
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 28 August 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 material. He stated “the flight of the intelligentsia has reached a particularly critical phase.”
An East German SED propaganda booklet published in 1955 dramatically described the serious nature of ‘flight from the republic’:
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 depravity.
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 favours 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 labour 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 blindness? …
Workers 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.
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 to East Germany (and corresponding gain to the West) 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 losses.
In addition, the drain of East Germany’s young population potentially cost it over 22.5 billion marks in lost educational investment. 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 imperative.
The exodus of emigrants from East Germany presented two minor potential benefits: an easy opportunity to smuggle East German secret agents to West Germany, and a reduction in the number of citizens hostile to the communist regime. Neither of these perks, however, proved particularly useful.
Construction begins, 1961
On 15 June 1961, 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 transcript of a telephone call between Nikita Khrushchev and Ulbricht on 1 August in the same year, suggests that the initiative for the construction of the Wall came from Khrushchev. However, other sources suggest that Khrushchev had initially been wary about building a wall, fearing negative Western reaction. What is beyond dispute, though, is that Ulbricht had pushed for a border closure for quite some time, arguing that East Germany’s very existence was at stake.
Khrushchev had been emboldened by US President John F. Kennedy’s tacit indication[how?] that the US would not actively oppose this action in the Soviet sector of Berlin.
On Saturday, 12 August 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. There 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, 13 August, 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 mi) around the three western sectors, and the 43 kilometres (27 mi) that divided West and East Berlin.
The barrier was built inside East Berlin or East German territory to ensure that it did not encroach on West Berlin at any point. Generally, the Wall was only slightly inside East Berlin, but in a few places it was some distance from the legal border, most notably at Potsdamer Bahnhof and the Lenné Triangle that is now much of the Potsdamer Platz development.
Later, the initial barrier was built up into the Wall proper, the first concrete elements and large blocks being put in place on 17 August. 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 East Germany’s western border with West Germany proper. A huge no man’s land was cleared to provide a clear line of fire at fleeing refugees.
With the closing of the East-West sector boundary in Berlin, the vast majority of East Germans could no longer travel or emigrate to West Germany. Berlin soon went from being the easiest place to make an unauthorized crossing between East and West Germany to being the most difficult. Many families were split, while East Berliners employed in the West were cut off from their jobs. West Berlin became an isolated exclave in a hostile land. West Berliners demonstrated against the Wall, led by their Mayor (Oberbürgermeister) Willy Brandt, 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. In 1961, Secretary of State Dean Rusk proclaimed, “The Wall certainly ought not to be a permanent feature of the European landscape. I see no reason why the Soviet Union should think it is—it is to their advantage in any way to leave there that monument to communist failure.”
United States and UK sources had expected the Soviet sector to be sealed off from West Berlin, but were surprised by how long the East Germans took for such a move. They considered 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 they concluded that the possibility of a Soviet military conflict over Berlin had decreased.
The East German government claimed that the Wall was an “anti-fascist protective rampart” (German: “antifaschistischer Schutzwall”) intended to dissuade aggression from the West.
Another official justification was the activities of Western agents in Eastern Europe.
The Eastern German government also claimed that West Berliners were buying out state-subsidized goods in East Berlin. East Germans and others greeted such statements with skepticism, as 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. Most people believed that the Wall was mainly a means of preventing the citizens of East Germany from entering or fleeing to West Berlin.
The National Security Agency was the only American intelligence agency that was aware that East Germany was to take action to deal with the brain drain problem. On 9 August 1961, the NSA intercepted an advance warning information of the Socialist Unity Party’s plan to close the intra-Berlin border between East and West Berlin completely for foot traffic.
The interagency intelligence Berlin Watch Committee assessed that this intercept “might be the first step in a plan to close the border.”
This warning did not reach U.S. President John F. Kennedy until noon on 13 August 1961, while he was vacationing in his yacht off the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.
While Kennedy was angry that he had no advance warning, he was relieved that the East Germans and the Soviets had only divided Berlin without taking any action against West Berlin’s access to the West. However, he denounced the Berlin Wall, whose erection worsened the relations between the United States and the Soviet Union.
In response to the erection of the Berlin Wall, a retired general, Lucius D. Clay, was appointed by Kennedy as his special advisor and sent to Berlin with ambassadorial rank. Clay had been the Military Governor of the US Zone of Occupation in Germany during the period of the Berlin Blockade and had ordered the first measures in what became the Berlin Airlift.
He was immensely popular with the residents of West Berlin, and his appointment was an unambiguous sign that Kennedy would not compromise on the status of West Berlin. Clay and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson arrived at Tempelhof Airport on the afternoon of Saturday, 19 August 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 16 August, Kennedy had given the order for them to be reinforced. Early on 19 August, the 1st Battle Group, 18th Infantry (commanded by Colonel Glover S. Johns Jr.) was alerted.
On Sunday morning, U.S. troops marched from West Germany through 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, US personnel were counted by guards. The column was 160 kilometres (99 mi) long, and covered 177 kilometres (110 mi) from Marienborn to Berlin in full battle gear. East German police watched 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 in front of a large crowd. At 04:00 on 21 August, Lyndon Johnson left West Berlin in the hands of General 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; each traveled 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. 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 portrayed it as a symbol of communist tyranny, particularly after East German border guards shot and killed would-be defectors. Such fatalities were later treated as acts of murder by the reunified Germany.
Structure, Layout & Adjacent areas
The Berlin Wall was more than 140 kilometres (87 mi) long. In June 1962, a second, parallel fence was built some 100 metres (110 yd) farther into East German territory. The houses contained between the fences were razed and the inhabitants relocated, thus establishing what later became known as the death strip. The death strip was covered with raked sand or gravel, rendering footprints easy to notice, easing the detection of trespassers and also 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 and concrete block wall (1961)
- Improved wire fence (1962–1965)
- Improved 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 DDM 16,155,000 or about US$3,638,000. The concrete provisions added to this version of the Wall were done to prevent escapees from driving their cars through the barricades.
At strategic points, the Wall was constructed to a somewhat weaker standard, so that East German and Soviet armored vehicles could easily break through in the event of war.
The top of the wall was lined with a smooth pipe, intended to make it more difficult to scale. The Wall was reinforced by mesh fencing, signal fencing, anti-vehicle trenches, barbed wire, dogs on long lines, “beds of nails” (also known as “Stalin’s Carpet”) under balconies hanging over the “death strip”, over 116 watchtowers, and 20 bunkers with hundreds of guards.
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 that the Berlin Wall had no landmines nor spring-guns.
Besides the sector-sector boundary within Berlin itself, the Wall also separated West Berlin from the present-day state of Brandenburg. The following present-day municipalities, listed in counter-clockwise direction, share a border with former West Berlin:
- Oberhavel : Mühlenbecker Land (partially), Glienicke/Nordbahn, Hohen Neuendorf, Hennigsdorf
- Havelland : Schönwalde-Glien, Falkensee, Dallgow-Döberitz
- Potsdam (urban district)
- Potsdam-Mittelmark : Stahnsdorf, Kleinmachnow, Teltow
- Teltow-Fläming : Großbeeren, Blankenfelde-Mahlow
- Dahme-Spreewald : Schönefeld (partially)
Official crossings and usage
here were nine border crossings between East and West Berlin. These allowed visits by West Berliners, other 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.
These 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 foreigners.
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 Steinstücken).
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.
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 traveled through brief sections of East Berlin territory, passing through eastern stations (called Geisterbahnhöfe, or 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 generally visit East Germany, often after applying for 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 1966.
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 not, at first, 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 significant being:
- Elderly pensioners could travel to the West starting in 1965
- Visits of relatives for important family matters
- People who had to travel to the West for professional reasons (for example, artists, truck drivers, musicians, writers, 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 this situation.
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.
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 traveling in this manner.
- Rail: Western Allied military personnel and civilian officials of the Allied forces were forbidden to use commercial train service between West Germany and West Berlin, because of GDR passport and customs controls when using them. Instead, the Allied forces operated a series of official (duty) trains that traveled 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 West Berlin. In addition to persons traveling on official business, authorized personnel could also use the duty trains for personal travel on a space-available basis.
The trains traveled only at night, and as with transit by car, Soviet military personnel handled the processing of duty train travelers.
Entry into and exit from East Berlin
- Checkpoint Charlie (as a pedestrian or riding in a vehicle)
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 years of the Wall, around 5,000 people successfully defected 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 above 200.
A historic research group at the Center for Contemporary Historical Research (ZZF) in Potsdam has confirmed 136 deaths. Prior official figures listed 98 as being killed.
The East German government issued shooting orders (Schießbefehl) to border guards dealing with defectors, though such orders are not the same as “shoot to kill” orders. GDR officials denied issuing the latter. In an October 1973 order later discovered by researchers, guards were instructed 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. 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 15 August 1961, Conrad Schumann was the first East German border guard to escape by jumping the barbed wire to West Berlin.
On 22 August 1961, Ida Siekmann was the first casualty at the Berlin Wall: she died after she jumped out of her third floor apartment at 48 Bernauer Strasse. The first person to be shot and killed while trying to cross to West Berlin was Günter Litfin, a twenty-four-year-old tailor. He attempted to swim across the Spree Canal to West Germany on 24 August 1961, the same day that East German police had received shoot-to-kill orders to prevent anyone from escaping.
Another dramatic escape was carried out on April 1963 by Wolfgang Engels, a 19-year-old civilian employee of the Nationale Volksarmee. Engels stole a Soviet armored personnel carrier from a base where he was deployed and drove it right into the Wall. He was fired at and seriously wounded by border guards. But a West German policeman intervened, firing his weapon at the East German border guards. The policeman removed Engels from the vehicle, which had become entangled in the barbed wire.
East Germans successfully defected by a variety of methods: digging long tunnels under the Wall, waiting for favorable winds and 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 basic, initial fortifications.
When a metal beam was placed at checkpoints to prevent this kind of defection, 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 windscreen to come away when it made contact with the beam. They lay flat and kept driving forward. The East Germans then built zig-zagging roads at checkpoints. The sewer system predated the Wall, and some people escaped through the sewers, in a number of cases with assistance from the Unternehmen Reisebüro.
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 it 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, Westerners could not intervene 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 17 August 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 possible “would-be escapers”.
The last person to be shot and killed while trying to cross the border was Chris Gueffroy on 6 February 1989, while the final person to die in an escape attempt was Winfried Freudenberg who was killed when his homemade natural gas-filled balloon crashed on 8 March 1989.
The Wall gave rise to a widespread sense of desperation and oppression in East Berlin, as expressed in the private thoughts of one resident, who confided to her diary “Our lives have lost their spirit…we can do nothing to stop them.”
Fall of the Wall
Hungary effectively disabled its physical border defenses with Austria on 19 August 1989 and, in September, more than 13,000 East German tourists escaped through Hungary 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 to East Germany. This triggered similar events in neighboring Czechoslovakia. This time, however, the East German authorities allowed people to leave, provided that they did so by train through East Germany. This was followed by mass demonstrations within East Germany itself. Protest demonstrations spread throughout East Germany in September 1989.
Initially, protesters were mostly people wanting to leave to the West, chanting “Wir wollen raus!” (“We want out!”). Then protestors began to chant “Wir bleiben hier!” (“We are staying here!”). This was the start of what East Germans generally call the “Peaceful Revolution” of late 1989. The protest demonstrations grew considerably by early November. The movement neared its height on 4 November, when half a million people gathered to demand political change, at the Alexanderplatz demonstration, East Berlin’s large public square and transportation hub.
The longtime leader of East Germany, Erich Honecker, resigned on 18 October 1989 and was replaced by Egon Krenz that day. Honecker had predicted in January of that year that the Wall would stand for 50 or 100 more years if the conditions that had caused its construction did not change.
The wave of refugees leaving East Germany for the West kept increasing. By early November refugees were finding their way to Hungary via Czechoslovakia, or via the West German Embassy in Prague. This was tolerated by the new Krenz government, because of long-standing agreements with the communist Czechoslovak government, allowing free travel across their common border. However this movement of people grew so large it caused difficulties for both countries.
To ease the difficulties, the politburo led by Krenz decided on 9 November to allow refugees to exit directly through crossing points between East Germany and West Germany, including between East and West Berlin. Later the same day, the ministerial administration modified the proposal to include private, round-trip, travel. The new regulations were to take effect the next day.
Günter Schabowski, the party boss in East Berlin and the spokesman for the SED Politburo, had the task of announcing the new regulations. However, he had not been involved in the discussions about the new regulations and had not been fully updated.
Shortly before a press conference on 9 November, he was handed a note announcing the changes, 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. But this starting time delay was not communicated to Schabowski.
At the end of the press conference, Schabowski read out loud the note he had been given. One of the reporters, ANSA’s Riccardo Ehrman, asked when the regulations would take effect.
After a few seconds’ hesitation, Schabowski assumed it would be the same day based on the wording of the note and replied, “As far as I know, it takes effect immediately, without delay”.
After further questions from journalists, he confirmed that the regulations included the border crossings through the Wall into West Berlin, which he had not mentioned until then.
Excerpts from Schabowski’s press conference were the lead story on West Germany’s two main news programs that night—at 7:17 PM on ZDF’s heute and at 8 PM on ARD’s Tagesschau.
This, of course, meant that the news was broadcast to nearly all of East Germany as well. Later that night, on ARD’s Tagesthemen, anchorman Hanns Joachim Friedrichs proclaimed, “This 9 November is a historic day. The GDR has announced that, starting immediately, its borders are open to everyone. The gates in the Wall stand open wide.”
After hearing the broadcast, East Germans began gathering at the Wall, at the six checkpoints between East and West Berlin, demanding that border guards immediately open the gates.
The surprised and overwhelmed guards made many hectic telephone calls to their superiors about the problem.
At first, they were ordered to find the “more aggressive” people gathered at the gates and stamp their passports with a special stamp that barred them from returning to East Germany—in effect, revoking their citizenship. However, this still left thousands of people demanding to be let through “as Schabowski said we can.”
It soon became clear that no one among the East German authorities would take personal responsibility for issuing orders to use lethal force, so the vastly outnumbered soldiers had no way to hold back the huge crowd of East German citizens.
Finally, at 10:45 pm, Harald Jäger, the commander of the Bornholmer Straße border crossing yielded, allowing for the guards to open the checkpoints and allowing people through with little or no identity checking.
As the Ossis swarmed through, they were greeted by Wessis waiting with flowers and champagne amid wild rejoicing. Soon afterward, a crowd of West Berliners jumped on top of the Wall, and were soon joined by East German youngsters. They danced together to celebrate their new freedom.
Another border crossing to the south may have been opened earlier. An account by Heinz Schäfer indicates that he also acted independently and ordered the opening of the gate at Waltersdorf-Rudow a couple of hours earlier. This may explain reports of East Berliners appearing in West Berlin earlier than the opening of the Bornholmer Straße border crossing.
Demolition of the Berlin Wall
The fall of the Berlin Wall (Mauerfall) began the evening of 9 November 1989 and continued over the following days and weeks, with people nicknamed Mauerspechte (wall woodpeckers) using various tools to chip off souvenirs, demolishing lengthy parts in the process, and creating several unofficial border crossings.
Television coverage of citizens demolishing sections of the Wall on 9 November was soon followed by the East German regime announcing ten new border crossings, including the historically significant locations of Potsdamer Platz, Glienicker Brücke, and Bernauer Straße.
Crowds gathered on both sides of the historic crossings waiting for hours to cheer the bulldozers that tore down portions of the Wall to reinstate ancient roads. While the Wall officially remained guarded at a decreasing intensity, new border crossings continued for some time, including the Brandenburg Gate on 22 December 1989. Initially the East German military attempted repairing damage 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.
West Germans and West Berliners were allowed visa-free travel starting 23 December. 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 9 November and 23 December, East Germans could actually travel more freely than Westerners.
On 13 June 1990, the East German military officially began dismantling the Wall, beginning in Bernauer Straße and around the Mitte district. From there, demolition continued through Prenzlauer Berg/Gesundbrunnen, Helligensee and throughout the city of Berlin until that December. Various military units dismantled the Berlin/Brandenberg border wall, completing the job in November 1991. Virtually every road that was severed by the Berlin Wall (that links from West Berlin to East Berlin) was reconstructed and reopened by 1 August 1990.
On 1 July, the day East Germany adopted the West German currency, all de jure border controls ceased, although the inter-German border had become meaningless for some time before that.
The fall of the Wall marked the first critical step towards German reunification, which formally concluded a mere 339 days later on 3 October 1990 with the dissolution of East Germany and the official reunification of the German state along the democratic lines of the West German government.