Following Germany’s defeat in the second world war, the country was split between the victors – the Western Allies’ occupation zones became the Federal Republic in 1949, while the Soviet zone was reconstituted as the German Democratic Republic shortly thereafter.
Germany’s capital, Berlin, was also split down the middle. In 1952, the East German government closed the border with West Germany, but the border between East and West Berlin remained open. East Germans could still escape through the city to the less oppressive and more affluent West.
The wall was erected by the East German leadership in August 1961 to stop the flow of citizens from East to West, completing a sealed border that elsewhere ran along the frontier between the two German states. Established crossing points between the Western and Soviet sectors were closed, dividing neighborhoods and separating families overnight. From a barbed wire barricade, the Wall would eventually develop into a fortified concrete structure encircling West Berlin and isolating it from the surrounding East German territory.
The Wall’s opening was the product of two processes that had gathered momentum throughout the second half of 1989: the peaceful demonstrations and protest marches of a number of newly constituted East German civil rights organizations, and the growing number of East German citizens leaving from the GDR’s side doors.
The official purpose of this Berlin Wall was to keep Western “fascists” from entering East Germany and undermining the socialist state, but it primarily served the objective of stemming mass defections from East to West. In all, at least 171 people were killed trying to get over, under or around the Berlin Wall.
The Berlin Wall stood until November 9, 1989, when the head of the East German Communist Party announced that citizens of the GDR could cross the border whenever they pleased. That night, ecstatic crowds swarmed the wall. Some crossed freely into West Berlin, while others brought hammers and picks and began to chip away at the wall itself. To this day, the Berlin Wall remains one of the most powerful and enduring symbols of the Cold War.