The rise and fall of the Berlin Wall – Konrad H. Jarausch

In the early hours of August 13, 1961, East German construction workers flanked
by soldiers and police began tearing up streets and erecting
barriers throughout the city of Berlin and its surroundings. This night marked the beginning of one
of history’s most infamous dividing lines, the Berlin Wall. Construction on the wall continued
for the next decade as it cut through neighborhoods, separated families, and divided not just Germany,
but the world. To understand how we got to this point, we have to go back to World War II. America, Britain, and France joined forces with the Soviet Union
against the Axis Powers. After they defeated Nazi Germany, each of the victorious nations occupied
part of the country. The division was meant to be temporary, but the former allies found
themselves at odds over their visions for post-war Europe. While Western powers promoted
liberal market economies, the Soviet Union sought to surround itself
with obedient Communist nations, including a weakened Germany. As their relations deteriorated, the Federal Republic of Germany
was formed in the West while the Soviets established the
German Democratic Republic in the East. The Soviet satellite countries restricted
Western trade and movement, so a virtually impassable border formed. It became known as the Iron Curtain. In the former German capital of Berlin,
things were particularly complicated. Although the city lay fully within
the East German territory of the GDR, the post-war agreement gave the allies
joint administration. So America, Britain, and France created
a Democratic enclave in Berlin’s western districts. While East Germans were officially banned
from leaving the country, in Berlin, it was simply
a matter of walking, or riding a subway, streetcar or bus, to the Western half, then traveling on to West Germany
or beyond. This open border posed a problem
for the East German leadership. They had staked a claim to represent
the Communist resistance against Hitler and portrayed Western Germany as
a continuation of the Nazi regime. While the U.S. and its allies poured
money into West Germany’s reconstruction, the Soviet Union extracted resources
from the East as war reparations, making its planned economy
even less competitive. Life in East Germany passed under
the watchful eye of the Stasi, the secret police whose wiretaps
and informants monitored citizens for any hint of disloyalty. While there was free health care
and education in the East, the West boasted higher salaries, more consumer goods, and greater personal freedom. By 1961, about 3.5 million people,
nearly 20% of the East German population, had left,
including many young professionals. To prevent further losses, East Germany decided to close the border,
and that’s where the Berlin Wall came in. Extending for 43 kilometers
through Berlin, and a further 112 through East Germany, the initial barrier consisted
of barbed wire and mesh fencing. Some Berliners escaped by
jumping over the wire or leaving from windows, but as the wall expanded,
this became more difficult. By 1965, 106 kilometers of 3.6-meter-high
concrete barricades had been added topped with a smooth
pipe to prevent climbing. Over the coming years, the barrier
was strengthened with spike strips, guard dogs, and even landmines, along with 302 watchtowers
and 20 bunkers. A parallel fence in the rear set off
a 100-meter area called the death strip. There, all buildings were demolished
and the ground covered with sand to provide a clear line of sight
for the hundreds of guards ordered to shoot anyone
attempting to cross. Nevertheless, nearly 5,000 people
in total managed to flee East Germany between 1961 and 1989. Some were diplomats or athletes
who defected while abroad, but others were ordinary citizens who
dug tunnels, swam across canals, flew hot air balloons, or even crashed a stolen tank
through the wall. Yet the risk was great. Over 138 people died
while attempting escape. Some shot in full view of West Germans
powerless to help them. The wall stabilized East Germany’s economy
by preventing its work force from leaving, but tarnished its reputation, becoming a global symbol
of Communist repression. As part of reconciliation with the East, the Basic Treaty of 1972 recognized
East Germany pragmatically while West Germany retained its hope
for eventual reunification. Although the Eastern regime
gradually allowed family visits, it tried to discourage people
from exercising these rights with an arduous bureaucratic process
and high fees. Nonetheless, it was still overwhelmed
by applications. By the end of the 1980’s, the liberalization of
other Eastern Bloc regimes caused mass demonstrations
for free travel and demands for democracy. On the evening of November 9, 1989, East Germany tried to defuse tension
by making travel permits easier to obtain. But the announcement brought thousands
of East Berliners to the border crossing points in the wall, forcing the surprised guards to open
the gates immediately. Rejoicing crowds poured into West Berlin as people from both sides danced
atop the wall. And others began to demolish it
with whatever tools they could find. Although the border guards initially
tried to maintain order, it was soon clear that the years
of division were at an end. After four decades, Germany was
officially reunified in October 1990. And the Soviet Union fell soon after. Today, parts of the wall still
stand as a reminder that any barriers we put up
to impede freedom, we can also break down.

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Reader Comments

  1. NateyBeast

    Some Guy: What are you doing today?
    An Absolute Legend: Just gonna take a tank and crash through the Berlin Wall, I need my frisby
    Some Guy: Ni…. wait what

  2. MrRoztoc

    I was a 22-year-old cool East German boy when the Berlin wall fell. I'm glad I was experiencing those historical weeks and months before and after. The West Germans mostly didn't care.

  3. SuperBStream

    Communism isnt bad it depends on the dictator.In my country Bulgaria(East European Country)was under communist regime and everyone who I know and its old enough have positive ratings for communism.Also in mine country people weren’t poor.People were allowed to have more than one flat.In communism people had free hospital services,free schools,high schools and more.But there were alot rules.You dont have to speak against the government or they will send you to gulag and many other rules.In communism(At least in my country)people worked for the country and the reason majority of the people were poor is that their money were going to the government

  4. Richard Dennison

    it doesnt matter if capitalist or communist, all authoritarianism is wrong. restricting movement of people only leads to more suffering, heartbreak, and blood. i hope we can still remember this story as not how capitalism won over the USSR, but as how people stood up against the powers that be and sets a precident on how we should fight all powers that try to restrict and make others suffer.

  5. Abhishek Rohera

    I wish history could be just history, tomorrow I have a history paper and it will be my future/present Idk how useful is this gonna be in life 😕

  6. Stephen Cramer

    A couple years back I was decorating the Xmas tree and I had some old family decorations, these old bells… and I looked at the top and it said "Made In West Germany"… A very cool find.

  7. mugen31337

    Let me try to explain what the Berlin Wall really is. this is not a legacy of communism, as you drive it into your head. it is the reckoning of the German people for what they have done. Russians deserve Germany, I think even the whole of Germany. and the fall of the wall, this is not a victory of the democracies, this is the forgiveness of the Russians for all the pain that Europe caused them. half a century of occupation, only half of Germany, in my opinion, is still small, in comparison with 40 million Soviet lives, 2 million children's lives, children who are not even five years old, children who were burned alive.

  8. WindowsXP Gamer

    5:59 December 25th ( 26th ) , 12 AM, 1991 Moscow
    Looks like It didn’t go so well but here is a story

    Kim Jong il and sung had died,Stalin died,Germany is reunited. No wonder why they collapsed
    But my dad was 9 When he saw Tiananmen Square ( Massacre ) he was 10 when the Berlin Wall collapsed,He was 10 when the Gulf war happened,
    He was 11 when he saw the USSR collapse, He was 14 when Kim Jong il died,my dad was 17 when 9/11 happened, My dad was 17 when the war on terror started, My dad was 27 when now Kim is sung died, And my dad was 30 when the French Paris attacks happened and now My dad is 40 Seeing Al bagdadi killed. It’s ironic that the old generation has to see what happened,

  9. Charlie Lee

    same story happened in China. HK people are Chinese but were ruled by British government,and mainland China is people's republic of China,and Taiwan is republic of China.
    sad story.

  10. L.K.N 176250

    Guy: I really wanted a pizza
    East Germany: Sorry dude, no pizza store here
    Guy: Are there pizza stores over West Germany?
    East Germany: Yes
    Guy: Then I'm gonna go to West Germany!
    East Germany: Ah, I'd like to see how you cross the Berlin Wall
    Guy: Okie Doki!
    East Germany: Wait no-
    Guy: steals a tank and crash down the Berlin Wall yay pizza time

  11. John I’m a gemini

    Thank you for teaching me about the Berlin Wall. I was able to explain the history with the Berlin Wall for literally 10 minutes. She had to cut me off so she could get on with the lesson

  12. Serhii Topor

    And after this actual imprisonment, deprivation of speech and basic human rights, people shootings, KGB`s muppet Stasi and all of these – guys in Eastern Germany have the most sympathies of Russia, Putinversteher`s, Die Linke and communism, mass Stockholm syndrome

  13. Jesu Sode

    Thank you for this. I always heard about the Berlin Wall and keep wondering why it is so symbolic. Now I know. Freedom is human rights. And I'm glad that Germans get it at the end.

  14. Jack McFord

    Fun fact : Citizens of SFR Yugoslavia were allowed to go in and out of East Germany, because of its diplomatic neutrality during the Cold War.

  15. jason s

    The untold winners of ww2 who controlled both the west and the east, let the walls of this nation sized concentration camp fall feeling satisfied that the Germans ethnic identity had been sufficiently destroyed and they would come crawling into the arms of the globalist puppeteers who funded both sides of both world wars and yet remain the world’s most victimized people!

  16. gabriel mesa

    Actually it was one little mistake in the bill that made traveling unconditional and free which made the guards pointless and powerless even though it was a mistake. And so the people responded by tearing down the wall

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