The Berlin Wall
The 155-kilometer-long Berlin Wall, which cut through the middle of the city center, surrounded West Berlin from August 13, 1961 to November 9, 1989. The Wall was designed to prevent people from escaping to the West from East Berlin. In 1961, the SED began adding additional obstacles to the border, expanding the Wall into a complex multi-layered system of barriers. In the West, the border strip was referred to as the “death strip” because so many people were killed there while trying to escape. In 1989, the Wall that the SED had used for so long to maintain its power in the GDR, fell. With the fall of the Wall, the dictatorship came to its definitive end.
After World War II ended in 1945, the SED, the state party of the GDR, established a dictatorship in East Germany with the support of the Soviet occupying power. A large part of the East German population did not agree with the new political and economic system. By the late 1940s, a mass migration to the West was underway. People had different reasons – political, economic and personal – for wanting to leave. By August 1961, the GDR had lost a sixth of its population – at least four million people. The SED had already closed off East Germany’s border with West Germany in 1952, making it increasingly dangerous to cross there. But the sector borders in Berlin remained open, leading many to try to reach West Germany through this last opening.
On August 13, 1961, the SED began to seal off the borders around West Berlin, first with barbed wire and a few days later with walls. It hoped this measure would put an end to the mass exodus to Berlin. It also wanted to stabilize its power and document its sovereignty to the outside world. But not even barbed wire and the Wall could stop people from fleeing. The efforts to perfect the border fortifications in Berlin continued until 1989.
Even after the Wall was built, the SED leadership was not able to completely stop the westward migration. In fact, now that the Wall separated friends and family in Berlin, the pressure on East Berliners and people living on the outskirts of Berlin to flee was even greater. This, in turn, led the SED to further expand the border fortifications. What began as a single wall evolved into a complex, multi-layered border installation designed to prevent escapes.
In the beginning, when a successful escape occurred, border soldiers and pioneer units added temporary, individual barriers to a specific site behind the border wall. After the border area was established behind the Wall on the East Berlin side in 1963, a fence was added to block off large parts of this area. In the mid-1960s, the SED tore down several buildings to make room for a uniform border strip that provided border soldiers with an “unobstructed view and clear field of fire.” Over the following years this border strip was continually expanded and improved. In the 1970s, a second “inner wall” was added, blocking off the border strip to East Berlin and the GDR.
Dog runs were also installed in some areas so that watchdogs could block the path and alert border soldiers of an approaching intruder. At night the border strip was lit brightly by a line of lamps, making it easier for border soldiers to see someone fleeing in the dark. Shadows were more visible against both walls, which were painted white on the sides facing inward. The watchtowers stood approximately 250 meters apart, providing border guards with a good view of their section of the border. Guards on the towers observed the border strip and the rear border territory. They were on the constant lookout for anyone trying to flee, ready to stop their escape at an early stage. The border soldiers were also expected to keep an eye on the West Berlin territory on the other side of the Wall.
In the late 1970s, the SED leadership rebuilt the border wall. Hoping for international recognition, it no longer wanted the East German capital’s public image to be dictated by the menacing border fortifications with their metal gratings, bunkers and vehicle obstacles. These types of barriers were removed from the border strip by 1983. They were less essential to stopping escapes now that the new Wall had a greater “blocking capability” and surveillance had improved in the rear border territory and throughout the entire GDR. By the late 1980s, shortly before the Wall fell in 1989, almost all of the menacing obstacles between East and West Berlin had been removed from the border.
The Wall and border fortifications alone were not enough to stop escapes. The Wall also had to be guarded by armed soldiers who were ordered to use their weapons if they were otherwise unable to stop the escape. In the West, this was referred to as the “order to shoot.”
The use of firearms on the GDR’s western borders was regulated by internal directives and commands. An official law, the “GDR border law,” was not passed until 1982. But independent of the changing situation, beginning in 1952, a verbally dictated command was in place that required border policemen and border soldiers to shoot at a fleeing person if they were otherwise unable to prevent the escape.
Many people lost their lives at the GDR border due to firearms. Of the 140 total deaths that occurred at the Berlin Wall between 1961 and 1989, 91 of the victims – mostly people trying to flee – had been shot by GDR border soldiers. The order to shoot was not lifted until April 1989. It became totally obsolete when the border opened in November.
At the CSCE conference in Helsinki in 1975, the SED agreed in principle, albeit without wanting to admit it, to the rights of people to move freely and enjoy freedom of travel. Afterwards, more and more GDR citizens submitted applications to immigrate permanently to West Germany. An opposition movement also developed in the 1980s that expressed pointed criticism of the political and social conditions in the GDR. The general public, angered by environmental pollution and economic stagnation, turned away from the SED state. Similar developments were taking place in other Eastern Bloc countries, such as Poland, where the independent trade union Solidarność achieved national recognition in November 1980.
After Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union in 1985, the political situation in the Eastern Bloc slowly began to change. Gorbachev introduced internal political reforms to solve serious economic and social problems. In 1988 he abandoned the Brezhnev Doctrine, a central political principle of Soviet foreign policy that demanded limited sovereignty of the Warsaw Pact nations. This change allowed the Eastern Bloc states to set their own national policies. Hungary’s shift towards the West led it to demonstratively dismantle its border fence on May 2, 1989. The first hole was made in the “Iron Curtain.”
The SED was not interested in adopting the Soviet Union’s reform course in the GDR. But the country’s growing protest movement and the migration wave to the West in the late 1980s brought the dictatorship to an end in 1989. The SED had been compelled to make concessions, such as opening up travel to its citizens. When a new travel law was mistakenly announced on November 9, 1989, crowds rushed to the border, which was opened under the onslaught of so many people. The fall of the Wall led to the ultimate collapse of the GDR.
The demolition of the Wall began soon after the border opened. So-called “wall peckers” broke off pieces of concrete as souvenirs. New border crossings were created, leaving behind large gaps in the Wall. Border soldiers began dismantling the signal fence and other border obstacles. Both the GDR government and the border troops began thinking about ways of marketing the Wall. Pieces of the Wall were sold all over the world.
In June 1990 the systematic dismantling of the border grounds began at Ackerstrasse, between the districts of Wedding (West Berlin) and Mitte (former East Berlin), and was basically finished by the year’s end. The East Berlin magistrate placed the first sections of the Wall, including the section on Bernauer Strasse, under protection as a historical monument in 1990.
The Victims at the Berlin Wall, 1961–1989
The Berlin Wall Foundation commemorates the victims and researches their history