After the war, Berlin’s administration was split between Britain, France, the US and the USSR. Each sector was to exist peacefully with its neighbours under a unified city council. But antagonism between the Soviet and other sectors was high. Only three years after the war, Soviet forces closed the land-access corridors to the city from West Germany in what became known as the Berlin Blockade: it was successfully overcome by a massive airlift of food and supplies that lasted nearly a year. This, followed by the 1953 uprising, large-scale cross-border emigration (between 1949 and 1961, the year the Wall was built, over three million East Germans – almost a fifth of the population – fled to West Germany) and innumerable “incidents”, led to the building of what the GDR called an “an antifascist protection barrier”.
Backs to the wall
The Wall was erected overnight on August 13, 1961, when, at 2am, forty thousand East German soldiers, policemen and workers’ militia went into action closing U- and S-Bahn lines and stringing barbed wire across streets leading into West Berlin to cordon off the Soviet sector. The Wall followed its boundaries implacably, cutting through houses, across squares and rivers, with its own cool illogicality. Many Berliners were rudely evicted from their homes, while others had their doors and windows blocked by bales of barbed wire. Suddenly the British, American and French sectors of the city were corralled some 200km inside the GDR.
Most people in West and East Berlin were taken by surprise. Crowds gathered and extra border guards were sent to prevent trouble. A tiny number – including a few border guards – managed to find holes in the new barrier and flee west. But within a few days the barbed wire and makeshift barricades were reinforced with bricks and mortar. Additionally, West Berliners were no longer allowed into East Berlin. From 1961 onwards the GDR strengthened the Wall making it almost impenetrable – in effect two walls separated by a Sperrgebiet (forbidden zone), dotted with watchtowers and patrolled by soldiers and dogs. It was also known as the Todesstreifen (death strip), as border troops were under instructions to shoot anyone attempting to scale the Wall: any guard suspected of deliberately missing was court-martialled, and his family could expect severe harassment from the authorities. Over the years, over two hundred people were killed trying to cross the Wall.
The wall crumbles
An oddity of the Wall was that it was built a few metres inside GDR territory; so the West Berlin authorities had little control over the graffiti that covered it. The Wall was an ever-changing mixture of colours and slogans. Late in 1989 the East German government, spurred by Gorbachev’s glasnost and a tense domestic climate, realized it could stay stable no longer. To an initially disbelieving and then jubilant Europe, travel restrictions for GDR citizens were lifted on November 9, 1989 – effectively, the Wall ceased to matter, and pictures of Berliners, East and West, hacking away at the detested symbol filled newspapers and TV bulletins around the world.
Today, it’s only possible to tell exactly where the Wall ran by the simple row of cobbles placed along much of its former course. Few significant stretches remain, the sections devoted to the East Side Gallery and the Berlin Wall Memorial being the most notable.