Did the Berlin Wall actually work?

Berlin wall

German-German border

Since 1952, the leadership of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) had sealed off their territory from the west. The inner-German border had an exclusion zone several kilometers wide and stretched with almost 1,400 kilometers from Bavaria to the Baltic Sea. It divided settlements and landscapes, cut roads and railway lines, it shaped the lives of millions of people.

Only six railroad crossings and five road or motorway crossings were open for traffic between the Federal Republic of Germany and the GDR and Berlin. 200 streets in and around Berlin were blocked and telephone connections to the western part of the city were cut.

Many residents were forcibly relocated from the immediate vicinity of the inner-German border. Berlin became more and more a loophole for refugees. With the construction of the wall it was stuffed.

August 13, 1961: The construction of the wall begins

In June 1961, Walter Ulbricht publicly declared: "Nobody has any intention of building a wall!" The head of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) had long thought of sealing off East Berlin from the west of the city. However, approval from Moscow did not come until the beginning of August.

On the night of August 12th to 13th, the People's Police, industrial combat groups and the National People's Army (NVA) blocked the sector border running through Berlin with barbed wire barnacles and stone walls.

In the days and months that followed, a 46-kilometer wall was built between East and West Berlin and border installations were finally fortified around the whole of West Berlin over a total of 155 kilometers. The population could no longer get from one part of the city to the other.

Hesitation in the west, cheers in the east

The Berliners were stunned; the international reactions tend to be subdued. The Western powers hardly protested, and their free access to West Berlin was not endangered.

General Lucius D. Clay, the US special envoy in the city, had tanks deployed a few weeks later, in October 1961. He wanted to know whether one was dealing only with the Ulbricht regime or still with Moscow. When Soviet tanks rolled up on the other side, the matter was clear.

The political leadership of the GDR celebrated the construction of the wall - in the language of the SED propaganda "anti-fascist protective wall" - as the "victory of the socialist camp over western imperialism". The main concern of the GDR leadership was to stop the flow of refugees, because until the Wall was built, the GDR had lost hundreds of thousands of its citizens to the West every year.

Escape attempts and fatal shots

The concrete walls, trenches, walkways for trained guard dogs, watchtowers and rifle positions made the state border almost insurmountable. At least 235 people were killed trying to get to the west. Many nevertheless tried their luck, not infrequently with spectacular lines of the wall.

November 9, 1989: The Wall opens

The hoped-for political and economic stability, which the GDR leadership wanted to achieve, among other things by closing off the borders, actually led to an increase in the standard of living. But the "real existing socialism", as the SED leadership called their social order, ultimately proved to be unable to survive. At the end of the 1980s, the GDR system collapsed.

Mikhail Gorbachev had come to power in Moscow and was trying to modernize the state and government apparatus. He reformed the Soviet Union under the slogans "Glasnost" (in German "Openness", "Transparency") and "Perestroika" (in German "Umbau", "Umgestaltung"). This also had an impact on the other socialist states in Central and Eastern Europe.

The GDR leadership lost the support of the Soviet Union. In every big city people protested for their freedom. A wave of refugees through Hungary and Czechoslovakia worsened the situation.

On October 18, 1989, the SED Central Committee deposed the Chairman of the State Council, Erich Honecker. Nevertheless, the opening of the border on the evening of November 9, 1989 came as a surprise to everyone. The wall fell. The turning point could no longer be stopped. That evening, thousands stormed the border crossings and celebrated the "Miracle of Berlin".

Today the traces of the wall have largely disappeared from the landscape and the Berlin cityscape. In Berlin itself there are only 1.5 kilometers of remains of the wall, the rest has been sold all over the world. The paving stones at the Brandenburg Gate are reminiscent of the former course of the Wall.