Shortly after midnight on this day in 1961, East German soldiers began laying down barbed wire and bricks as a barrier between the Soviet-controlled East Berlin and the democratic western section of the city.
After World War II, defeated Germany was divided into Soviet, American, British and French zones of occupation. The city of Berlin, though technically part of the Soviet zone, was also split, with the Soviets taking the eastern part of the city.
After a massive Allied airlift in June 1948 foiled a Soviet attempt to blockade West Berlin, the eastern section was drawn even more tightly into the Soviet fold.
Over the next 12 years, cut off from its western counterpart and basically reduced to a Soviet satellite, East Germany saw between 2,5 million and 3 million of its citizens head to West Germany in search of better opportunities. By 1961, some 1 000 East Germans – including many skilled labourers, professionals and intellectuals – were leaving every day.
In August, Walter Ulbricht, the Communist leader of East Germany, got the go-ahead from Soviet Premier, Nikita Khrushchev, to begin sealing off all access between East and West Berlin. Soldiers began the work during the night of 12 to 13 August, laying more than 100 miles of barbed wire just slightly inside the East Berlin border.
The wire was soon replaced by a nearly two-metre (six feet)-high, 154,5-kilometre (96-mile)-long wall of concrete blocks, complete with guard towers, machine-gun posts and searchlights. East German officers known as the Volkspolizei (Volpos) patrolled the Berlin Wall day and night.
Many Berlin residents found themselves suddenly cut off from friends or family members in the other half of the city on that first morning. Led by their mayor, Willi Brandt, West Berliners demonstrated against the wall, and Brandt criticised Western democracies, particularly the United States, for failing to take a stand against it.
The Berlin Wall was one of the most powerful and iconic symbols of the Cold War. In June 1963, American president, John F Kennedy, gave his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” (“I am a Berliner”) speech in front of the Wall, celebrating the city as a symbol of freedom and democracy in its resistance to tyranny and oppression.
The height of the Wall was raised to slightly more than three metres (10 feet) in 1970 in an effort to stop escape attempts, which at that time occurred almost daily. From 1961 to 1989, a total of 5 000 East Germans escaped. Many more tried and failed.
On 9 November, 1989, masses of East and West Germans alike gathered at the Berlin Wall and began to climb over and dismantle it. As this symbol of Cold War repression was destroyed, East and West Germany became one nation again, signing a formal treaty of unification on 3 October, 1990.
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