Construction of the Berlin Wall

July 13th, 1961 — November 9th, 1989

Germany

Borders Identity & Belonging

In August 1961, at the order of the GDR government, the Berlin Wall is erected. Intended primarily to prevent the flight of East German citizens into West Germany, it goes on to divide this city of millions for more than 28 years.

Between August 13, 1961 and November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall surrounded the former city of West Berlin, cutting straight across the heart of greater Berlin. The construction of a wall as a means of closing the border within the city was proposed and initiated by Walter Ulbricht, then general secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany’s (SED) central committee, and implemented under the oversight of Erich Honecker. The reasons for this fateful decision were the precarious state of the East German economy and the massive increase in the number of GDR citizens fleeing west. Emigration from the GDR through “unlawful border crossing” (also referred to as “flight from the Republic”) was penalized. Until 1989, approximately three million people fled the GDR. The Berlin Wall was to become a symbol of a world divided into east and west during the Cold War.

The 160km-long border surrounding West Berlin was cordoned off in the night of August 13, 1961. Streets were blocked and bisected, train stations seized and rail links severed. Initially, the border installation consisted of barbed wire, with the construction of a wall from bricks and cement blocks beginning a few days later. As large numbers of GDR citizens nonetheless continued to attempt crossing the border into West Berlin, the SED ordered the construction of numerous additional border fortifications, creating zones in which, in cases of attempted escape, shoot-to-kill orders were often in place. The resulting border strip was referred to in West Germany as the “death strip”. More than 1,000 people died attempting to illegally cross out of the GDR, 136 of them in Berlin.

Nearly thirty years later, the fall of the Berlin Wall would bring about the German reunification [see: Reunification, 1989-1990].