The Berlin Wall:  Barricades Can Be Broken
Western Civ

Research Report
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The Berlin Wall, erected November 13, 1961, served to separate communist East Germany from Western influences. Intended to "protect" East Germans, the wall actually was erected to prevent them from leaving the country. The Wall finally came down August 13, 1989, reuniting families and symbolizing the end of the cold war was near.

Historical Background

The initial plans for Allied occupation of Germany were prepared in 1944 in London by the European Advisory Commission. In this agreement, Germany would be divided into four occupational zones governed by Great Britain, the United States, France, and the Soviet Union. The city of Berlin, which would be in the Soviet occupational zone, would be divided among the four powers as well. They would govern Berlin collectively in the Kommandatura.

This plan was not very successful and led to the following events. November 30, 1948 Communists set up a separate city council in the Soviet sector. June 1948 Great Britain, France, and the United States resolved to let the Western German people, the people under their zones of occupation establish their own government based on a democratic provisional constitution. May 23, 1949 the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) was proclaimed. The Berlin blockade (June 24, 1948-May 12, 1949), during which the Soviet’s blockaded all connections between West Berlin and the Western powers, led further to the demise of the Four Power cooperation. .

By the time of the blockade, there was a major contrast between the East and West Berlin. West Berlin was a thriving democratic, capitalist city, while East Berlin was in drab poverty. Trying to escape the forced collectivization of goods and agriculture, numerous shortages, and a police state, many fled to West Berlin. To maintain the stability of the communist regime, the East German leaders felt that these floods of people had to be stopped.

Research Report

The first "sealing of the border" began in May 1952. After initially separating the East/ West Germany Border, East German authorities turned to the city of Berlin. They barricaded 200 streets linking the two, and set up 81 police controls at the access points that remained open. All but twenty telephone lines connecting the sections were cut; Tram and bus traffic between the two was cancelled. A punishment of 16 months to four years of imprisonment was given for the offense of "fleeing the Republic". Despite all this, Berlin remained the only way possible to escape to the West and free people from oppression. Nearly 50,000 crossed each day; a total of 1,600,000 crossed between 1949 and 1961 (when the Berlin Wall was finally erected).

The "Berlin Crisis" began November 26, 1958, when Nikita Khrushchev, Premier of Soviet Ministers, issued an ultimatum to the Western Powers. He declared that they had six months to turn West Berlin into a "demilitarized free city". If they failed to do so, he would sign a separate peace treaty with East Germany. A series of unsuccessful conferences were held: Geneva (May-Aug 1959), Paris (May 1960), and Vienna (June 1961), all with no results. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of East Germans escaped to the West.

Ulbricht, leader of East Germany and founder of the German Communist Party, decided that the survival of the communist East Germany regime depended on the complete closing of East/ West Berlin. He met with Khrushchev in Moscow August 5, 1961 at the meeting of the Communist Party heads to ask for support. Two days later, Khrushchev announced on radio that the "handy escape route" had to be closed. Upon hearing this, thousands left everything they possessed and crossed the border before it was too late.

Operation "Wall of China" began August 12, 1961 when Ulbricht sent orders to Honecker to make preparations for closing the border. August 13, 1961 at 1:11 a.m., as people slept on that Sunday and national holiday, soldiers began placing barbed wire between the two sections of the city. Within a few hours the S-Bahn and any remaining traffic between the two was closed; by August 23rd relatives could not pass through without a permanent resident card. Eastern Berlin was isolated.

The Western powers, content that the USSR had not signed a separate treaty with East Germany, offered no formal protest. After it was apparent that there would be no protest, barriers began replacing the barbed wire (August 15). This two-day gap allowed 6, 904 East Germans to escape.

Over time the wall became more and more impassible. After four "generations" of wall, it achieved its final appearance in 1979-80. Covering 103 mi overall (26.8 mi in Berlin) and consisting of concrete slabs 11.5’-14’ high (in some places an additional 10’-13’ of wire mesh would be added on top of the concrete) and 6" wide with 116 watch towers (32 along the East/West Berlin border) the Berlin Wall was not an easy obstacle to overcome. Armed guards were trained to shoot anyone who attempted to escape. (The following link: shows what an escapee would have to encounter.)

Despite all these obstacles many people successfully escaped. Their methods varied considerably. 5,043 successfully scaled the wall. Others doctored cars and hid in the bottom. Jumping off buildings was another extreme measure taken. The grandest escape occurred October 3-5, 1964, where 57 East Germans escaped through a tunnel dug for them by separated family members and students in West Berlin. The tunnel was 50’ deep, 475’ long, and 2’3" high.

After increased tension and riots in December 1963, an agreement was made allowing West Berliners to visit friends and family over Christmas and New Year. Other visitation provisions were made, allowing for East Germans to visit the West for special occasions. After June 1968 travelers between West Germany and West Berlin were required to buy and carry a passport and visa. September 3, 1971 the four occupying powers signed an agreement in which the USSR guaranteed access to West Berlin and the West acknowledged that West Berlin was not an integral part of West Germany. West Berliners could now stay in East Berlin for 30 days each year.

The Wall remained erect from 1961-1989. On May 2,1989, after Mikal Gorbachev declared that Moscow was no longer willing to use force to prevent democratic transformation of its satellite states, Hungary took down its iron curtain. East Germans poured out; 220,000 had passed to the West over six months. On October 7, 1989 East Germany’s 40th anniversary celebration turned into riotous protests against the current communist regime. The people called for Gorbachev’s, a guest at the ceremony, help. He responded "whoever comes too late is punished by life". This warning encouraged SED leaders to get rid of Honecker. November 4th a demonstration of a million people on the Alexanderplatz called for basic freedoms from the SED. This led to the resignations of party leaders November 8th.. Trying to save East Germany, they ceded to the demonstrators' main demands: to move around freely. November 9th it was announced that East Germans could finally move freely into West Germany. Thousands passed through and celebrated that night; families were reunited. The Wall would separate them no longer.

Historical Significance

The Wall served as the epitome of the Cold War, a visual representation of the division of Europe. By contrasting West and East Berlin one can clearly see the differences between communism and democracy. The collapse of the Berlin Wall foretold the final collapse of communism, which would occur two years later with the division of the Soviet Union.


Heller, Deanne and David. The Berlin Wall. New York: Walker and Company, 1962.
Slusser, Robert M. The Berlin Crisis of 1961. Baltimore: The Johns Hopskins University Press, 1973.
Speier, Hans. Divided Berlin. New York: Fredrick A. Praeger, 1961.
Tusa, Ann. The Last Division, Berlin and the Wall. London: Hodder and Staighton, 1996.
Wyden, Peter. Wall: The Inside Story of Divided Berlin. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.

Web Resources   A very good timeline.   Good pictures.   Good summary. Lots of links!   Very complete site: lots of information and pictures!   Pretty good site. Links and questions to ask yourself provided.