During the division of Germany, the Berlin Wall was a border fortification system of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) that existed for more than 28 years, from August 13, 1961 to November 9, 1989, and was intended to hermetically seal off the GDR from West Berlin. It not only separated the connections in the area of Greater Berlin between the eastern part (“capital of the GDR”) and the western part of the city, but completely enclosed all three sectors of the western part, thus also cutting off its connections to the rest of the surrounding area, which was in the GDR district of Potsdam. For the most part, the Wall ran a few meters behind the actual border.
The Berlin Wall is to be distinguished from the former inner-German border between West Germany (old Federal Republic) and East Germany (GDR).
The Berlin Wall, as the last action of the division of the four-sector city of Berlin created by the postwar order of the Allies, was a component and at the same time a striking symbol of the Cold War conflict between the Western powers dominated by the United States and the so-called Eastern bloc led by the Soviet Union. It was built on the basis of a decision by the political leadership of the Soviet Union in early August 1961 and a directive from the GDR government issued a few days later. The Berlin Wall supplemented the 1378-kilometer inner-German border between the GDR and the Federal Republic of Germany, which had already been “fortified” more than nine years earlier to stop the flow of refugees.
Since 1960, GDR border guards had been subject to shoot-to-kill orders in cases of “unlawful border crossing,” which were not formally codified into law until 1982. According to current research (2009), between 136 and 245 people were killed in attempts to cross the 167.8-kilometer-long, heavily guarded border fortifications toward West Berlin. The exact number of fatalities at the Berlin Wall is not known.
The Berlin Wall was opened on the evening of November 9, 1989, in the course of the political turnaround. This happened under the growing pressure of the GDR population demanding more freedom. The fall of the Wall paved the way that, within a year, led to the collapse of the SED dictatorship, the dissolution of the GDR and, at the same time, the state unity of Germany.
With its watchtowers, barbed wire, and death strip, as well as the death shots fired at escapees, the Wall erected in August 1961 aroused comparisons with concentration camps, which led to expressions such as “red concentration camp” and “Ulbricht concentration camp” for the GDR and “Ulbricht SS” for the border guards in the West. As late as August 1961, the governing mayor Willy Brandt coined the term “wall of shame,” which became commonly used. On the GDR side, in the fall of 1961 the SED Politburo gave Horst Sindermann, head of the Agitation Department at the SED Central Committee, the task of developing an ideological justification for the construction of the Wall. Sindermann came up with the term “antifascist protective wall.” To justify it, he told Der Spiegel in May 1990: “We did not want to bleed out, we wanted to preserve the anti-fascist-democratic order that existed in the GDR. In this respect, I still consider my concept to be correct today.” The suggestion that the open border to West Berlin represented a “fascist” threat to the GDR was intended to conceal the true motive: the main purpose was to prevent people from fleeing the GDR.
The term entered the political language of the SED as late as 1961. Walter Ulbricht used it on October 20, 1961, in his greeting address to the XXII Party Congress of the CPSU in Moscow, and a little later it appeared in the SED central organ Neues Deutschland. A GDR propaganda brochure from December 1961 stated that on August 13, an anti-fascist protective wall had “brought the source of the war in West Berlin under control.
At its meeting on July 31, 1962, when planning a propaganda campaign for the first anniversary of the Wall”s construction, the SED Politburo established Sindermann”s words as the obligatory designation of the Berlin Wall in the GDR”s public sphere and stuck with them until the GDR”s final days. By the mid-1960s, other terms, including “the Wall,” had disappeared from public language, while the term “antifascist protective wall” was socially regarded as a sign of political good conduct. Beyond propaganda, the designation found its place in school and textbooks and in scientific accounts.
The propaganda legend was accompanied by complete control over pictorial representations of the border fortifications in Berlin. Images of the border fortifications in Berlin were only allowed if they were related to the Brandenburg Gate. Only photographs from a series taken there on August 14, 1961, by the ADN news agency were permitted to document the barrier measures. A photograph of four armed members of the fighting groups of the working class looking resolutely westward with the gate behind them became a media icon of the GDR, and the gate became the logo of the Wall in parades and on postage stamps.
When Willy Brandt and Egon Bahr initiated a “policy of small steps” toward the GDR toward the end of the 1960s, they dispensed with vocabulary such as “wall of shame” and “Ulbricht concentration camp.” Another reason for the increasing silencing of Nazi comparisons on the subject of the Wall was the coming to terms with the Nazi dictatorship that began in the mid-1960s with the Auschwitz trial.
In the GDR, the term “antifascist protective wall” remained until its final years, but in 1988, “antifascist protective wall” was missing from school curricula.
After the end of World War II, Germany was divided into four occupation zones in 1945 in accordance with the EAC zone protocols and the agreements of the Yalta Conference, respectively, which were to be controlled and administered by the Allied victorious powers USA, USSR, Great Britain and France. Similarly, Greater Berlin, the former capital of the Reich, was divided into four sectors.
In the summer of 1945, demarcation lines were drawn between the occupation zones, the so-called “zone borders”. In some cases, turnpikes and white-and-yellow wooden posts were erected, and color markings were made on trees. A permit was now required to cross the zone border; only commuters and farmers were allowed to cross the border. By order of the Soviet Military Administration in Germany (SMAD), a border police force was established in the Soviet Occupation Zone (SBZ), which became active for the first time on December 1, 1946; regulations for the use of firearms were issued. Interzone passports now had to be obtained for travel between the SBZ and the western zones. The first border fortifications were erected on the eastern side, especially barbed wire obstacles in forest areas, and roadblocks along cross-border roads and paths.
A little later, the Cold War between the West and the developing Eastern Bloc began on a wide variety of levels. Initially, the Cold War conflict was followed by a mutual exchange of blows between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union. The first intractable rift was over reparations, over which a dispute arose between the four Allies, who were still meeting together. Since the USSR saw in the meantime that it could not meet its needs for reparations from its zone, it demanded in 19461947 at various Allied conferences a share in the reparations from the Ruhr, otherwise it could not agree to an economic unity planned in the Potsdam Agreement. Only France accepted this; the USA and Great Britain did not.
There was also the problem of the different social systems – capitalism on the one hand and communism on the other, with the Soviet Union purposefully planning to build a communist social structure in its sector as well. However, this contradicted the plans of the Western powers.
The Soviet Union was excluded from the London Six-Power Conference in February 1948, at which the Western powers held their first negotiations on, among other things, a separate state in western Germany; it was not invited. As a result, the Soviet Union withdrew from the supreme Allied authority in Germany, the Control Council, in March, leaving no joint inter-Allied control over Germany. In March 1948, after France abandoned its opposition, the three victorious Western powers agreed to form a joint trizone out of the three Western zones. About three months later, at short notice – and to the general public”s surprise – starting on June 20, 1948, currency reform was carried out in this new unified zone, introducing the D-Mark (West) and devaluing the Reichsmark. At this point, the SPD-dominated Berlin magistrate was still wavering about the form in which Berlin should participate in the upcoming currency reform.
The result of the currency reform was a split in Germany”s political and economic unity into two opposing zones with two different currencies. Greater Berlin was divided into two currency areas because the Western Allies had not accepted the introduction of the DM East in their sectors as ordered by the SMAD and had in turn introduced the DM West as a second currency. Among other things, this created initial problems when the places of residence and work of Berlin”s residents were located in the other area.
The Soviet Union reacted with the Berlin Blockade, which lasted from June 24, 1948 to May 12, 1949. During this time, Berlin was divided and the first Berlin crisis occurred.
Another effect of the Cold War was that Greater Berlin became a central area of mutual spying by intelligence services from East and West.
Immediately after the end of the Soviet blockade, the Federal Republic of Germany was founded in the territory of the trizone on May 23, 1949. This was followed by the founding of the German Democratic Republic in the SBZ on October 7 of the same year. Formally, Berlin had the status of a demilitarized four-sector city with respect to the German military and was independent of the two German states, but in practice this had little significance. In many respects, West Berlin approached the status of a federal state and was regarded as such by the West German side, although later, as part of the policy of détente and the treaties with the East, sessions of the German Bundestag, the Bundesrat and the Federal Assembly were not held in West Berlin. When the GDR was founded, all of Berlin was declared its capital. The designation Capital of the German Democratic Republic for the eastern part of the city was not introduced until the 1960s. Initially, the eastern part bore the propagandistic name Democratic Sector. Since the existence of the GDR, citizens fled to the Federal Republic, including extraordinary and often life-threatening means of escape.
In 1952, the GDR began to secure the inner-German border by means of fences, guards and alarms, and also established a five-kilometer-wide exclusion zone that could only be entered with special permission – typically for residents. Toward the border, there was again a 500-meter-wide protective strip, followed immediately by a ten-meter-wide control strip. “Unreliable” residents were forcibly relocated from the border area – for example, in the “Aktion Ungeziefer” program.
The SED leadership had also been considering sealing off the border to the western sectors since 1952. On the one hand, however, the Soviet Union did not give its consent, and on the other hand, sealing off the border would hardly have been possible for traffic reasons: It is true that as early as 1956, the SED leadership had the Potsdam Pirschheide train station – currently largely in ruins – expanded into the Potsdam-Süd train station, which was renamed “Hauptbahnhof” in 1960. However, the Deutsche Reichsbahn continued to rely on trips through the western sectors. Bypassing West Berlin was only possible with the full completion of the Berlin Outer Ring (BAR) in May 1961, a rail ring that simultaneously ensured connections to the radial lines crossing it to the stations of Birkenwerder, Hennigsdorf, Albrechtshof, Staaken, Potsdam Stadt, Teltow, Mahlow and ultimately the connection to the Görlitzer Bahn. The only transportation project that at that time allowed for truly independent traffic without using the territory of the western sectors was the Havel Canal, which was built with considerable effort from 1950 to 1952.
Nevertheless, the People”s Police carried out intensive checks on people on many roads leading into the western sectors, on railroads and other means of transport in order to apprehend suspected fugitives and smugglers, among other things. However, the 45.1-kilometer-long sector border as the city border between West and East Berlin and the border to the surrounding area of about 120 kilometers could hardly be completely controlled; they therefore acted as a loophole through the border, which initially remained open.
Thus, from 1945 until the construction of the Berlin Wall, a total of about 3.5 million people fled, including about 2.6 million people from the Soviet occupation zone and the later GDR as well as East Berlin between 1949 and 1961. In addition, for many people from Poland and Czechoslovakia, Berlin was also a gateway to escape to the West. Since the refugees were often well-educated young people, this exodus threatened the economic strength of the GDR and ultimately the existence of the state.
The Soviet Union pursued the goal of transforming West Berlin into a Free City, achieving recognition of the GDR by the Federal Republic and a peace treaty. In the event of rejection, it threatened the Western powers with transferring to the GDR control of all routes between the Federal Republic and the western sectors of Berlin. The German government rejected the demands, which were part of Khrushchev”s ultimatum, on January 5, 1959. The United States likewise refused to give up its position in Berlin. This led to the failure of these longer-term attempts by the Soviet Union.
During these three years (1959-1961), moreover, the situation came to a head again, and the GDR fell into a renewed but even deeper crisis in almost all areas than in 19521953. During the first crisis in the GDR from 1952 to 1953, the USSR still stepped in and waived some of the payments, for example, when the Soviet joint-stock companies were handed over to the GDR, and made additional deliveries of grain, ore and coke. After the popular uprising, there was another waiver of payments and there were again deliveries of goods. However, in the current crisis, caused among other things by mistakes in the collectivization of agriculture, there was no support from the Soviet Union for the GDR in the form of additional supplies or payments. The information on the crisis is itself documented, among other things, by reports from the MfS to the party and state leadership.
Moreover, in these last years before the Wall was built, the number of refugees to the West – including well-educated professionals – increased rapidly, which greatly exacerbated the GDR”s economic crisis. Half of the refugees were under 25 years old. The labor shortage was now so severe that the GDR was in danger of being unable to sustain its economy, with a shortage of 45,000 workers in the eastern part of Berlin alone. The GDR was threatened with both a personnel and intellectual bloodletting. This wave of flight also reached record levels in 1961. In the month of July, there were already 30,000, and on August 12, 1961, on a single day, 3,190 people fled.
The decision to close the sector border was made at a meeting between Khrushchev and Ulbricht in Moscow on August 3, 1961, after the Soviet leadership had long opposed such a project since the mid-1950s. The plan to build the Wall, or literally, to secure the western border was then decided at the meeting of the political leaders of the Warsaw Treaty states from August 3 to 5, 1961. The wall was to serve the rulers of the Eastern Bloc to finally stop the colloquially called “vote with the feet”, away from the “socialist workers” and peasants” state”, by sealing off the borders.
The plan to build the Wall was a state secret of the GDR government. It was not until August 10, 1961, three days before the Wall was built, that the Federal Intelligence Service received the first indications that the Wall was to be built. The Wall was built by construction workers at the behest of the SED leadership under the protection and surveillance of People”s Police officers, soldiers of the National People”s Army and, in some cases, members of the combat groups – contrary to the assurances of the GDR”s Council of State Chairman, Walter Ulbricht, at an international press conference on June 15, 1961, in the large ballroom of the House of Ministries in East Berlin. The journalist Annamarie Doherr from the Frankfurter Rundschau had asked the question there at the time:
Walter Ulbricht replied:
Ulbricht was thus the first to publicly use the term “Wall” in this context – two months before it was even built. However, the construction of the Wall had not yet been decided at that time.
The aforementioned goal of a contractual agreement had been confirmed by Ulbricht with Khrushchev in an exchange of letters on January 18 and 30, 1961.
In February, Moscow and East Berlin assumed a peace treaty, which Khrushchev had announced he would conclude with the GDR at his summit meeting with Kennedy in Vienna a week and a half before the Wall was built in June 1961.
The Warsaw Treaty States did not formally adopt the measures of August 13, 1961, until August 3-5, 1961, in Moscow; agreements and material preparations had already taken place before then.
Although the Western Allies were informed by sources about the planning of “drastic measures” to seal off West Berlin, they were publicly surprised by the actual timing and extent of the cordon. Since their rights of access to and within Berlin were not curtailed, however, there was no reason to intervene militarily. The foreign ministers of the three Western powers and the Federal Republic decided in Paris on August 7 to take preparatory measures to deal with a critical situation in Berlin.
The Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) had also received similar information as early as mid-July. After Ulbricht”s visit to Khrushchev during the high-level meeting of the Warsaw Pact states in Moscow from August 3 to 5, 1961, the BND weekly report of August 9 stated:
The published statement of the participating states of the Warsaw Pact meeting proposed “to give way at the West Berlin border to rioting activity against the countries of the socialist camp and to ensure around the territory of West Berlin reliable guarding and effective control.” On August 7, in a radio speech, Premier Khrushchev announced a reinforcement of the armed forces on the Soviet western border and the conscription of reservists. On August 11, the East German People”s Chamber approved the results of the Moscow consultation and passed a “resolution on peace treaty issues.” In it, the Council of Ministers was instructed, in vaguely worded terms, to “prepare and implement all measures that prove necessary on the basis of the determinations of the participating states of the Warsaw Treaty and this resolution.”
On Saturday, August 12, the BND received the following information from East Berlin:
Ulbricht invited members of the SED Politburo, ministers and state secretaries, the chairmen of the bloc parties and the mayor of East Berlin to a “get-together” at 4 p.m. on August 12 at the GDR government”s guest house at Großer Döllnsee, some 80 km north of Berlin, where they were cut off from the outside world and under control. He initially concealed the purpose of the meeting; only the members of the SED Politburo had already been initiated on August 7. At around 10 p.m., Ulbricht issued an invitation to a “small meeting.” At it, he informed his guests: “Based on the People”s Chamber resolutions, reliable security measures will be taken at the border tonight.”
The resolution, signed by the members of the Council of Ministers without objection, stated: “In order to prevent the hostile activity of the revanchist and militarist forces of West Germany and West Berlin, such control shall be introduced at the borders of the German Democratic Republic, including the border with the western sectors of Greater Berlin, as is customary at the borders of any sovereign state. Reliable guarding and effective control are to be provided at the West Berlin borders in order to cut off the path of rummaging activity.” Ulbricht had signed the instructions for the border closure even before the guests arrived. Honecker had drawn up “Operation Rose” and had long since been on his way to East Berlin police headquarters, the operations center for sealing the border with West Berlin.
During the night of August 12-13, 1961, the NVA and 5,000 members of the German Border Police (the forerunner of the border troops), along with 5,000 members of the Schutzpolizei (protective police) and the Volkspolizei (people”s police), as well as 4,500 members of the Betriebskampfgruppen (company fighting groups), began to seal off the roads and railroads leading to West Berlin. The NVA deployed the 1st Motorized Rifle Division and the 8th Motorized Rifle Division as a second “security squadron” at a depth of about 1,000 meters behind the border, with significant participation by units from Prora. Soviet troops also maintained heightened combat readiness and were present at the Allied border crossings. All remaining transport links between the two parts of Berlin were interrupted. However, this only affected the U-Bahn and the S-Bahn. The West Berlin S-Bahn and U-Bahn lines on the tunnel routes under East Berlin territory were affected only insofar as the stations were closed off and it was no longer possible to get on or off the trains. From August 13, trains ran without stopping in the evening through the stations, which had become so-called “ghost stations.” Only the lines touching Friedrichstrasse station stopped here to allow them to reach the border crossing point that had been set up. Erich Honecker, as the then Central Committee Secretary for Security Affairs and Secretary of the National Defense Council of the GDR (NVR), was politically responsible for the entire planning and implementation of the Wall”s construction on behalf of the SED leadership.
August 13, 1961, is known as “the day the Wall was built,” but actually only the sector border was sealed off on that day. To secure the border, walls were erected in some places on this and the following days, while fences were erected and barbed wire was drawn in others. On the south side of Bernauer Strasse on the border between the Mitte and Wedding districts, the sidewalk belonged to West Berlin, while the buildings were on East Berlin territory. In such cases, the entrances to the houses were bricked up. The residents could only get to their apartments through the backyards. In the days after the sector border was sealed off, there were many escape attempts, which were later made more difficult by, for example, the bricking up of windows that opened onto West Berlin at the sector border and the further expansion of the border security installations.
The closure also brought about bizarre situations, especially in the area of the exclaves, where years later there were also some exchanges of territory. For example, the Lenné Triangle at Potsdamer Platz, although belonging to East Berlin, was left out when the Wall was erected. For lack of authority on the part of the West Berlin authorities, the terrain developed at times into a de facto lawless area.
The Soviet government declared on August 24 that the air corridors to West Berlin were being misused to smuggle in West German “agents, revanchists, and militarists.” West Berlin was not part of the Federal Republic; therefore, the competence of official agencies of the Federal Republic could not extend to Berlin.
By September 1961, 85 of the security forces alone had deserted to West Berlin, and there were 216 successful escape attempts by 400 people. Unforgotten are the well-known pictures of refugees rappelling from houses on Bernauer Strasse on bedsheets, an old woman who dropped into a jump sheet belonging to the West Berlin fire department, and the young border police officer Conrad Schumann jumping over the barbed wire.
Reactions of the GDR citizens
The GDR population was well aware that the closure of the sector border was intended to stop the movement of refugees (“Republikflucht”) and commuters (“Grenzgängertum”). Nevertheless, there were only isolated protests. As early as August 13, East Berliners gathered at the border crossings to West Berlin, loudly voicing their displeasure. Around 500 people gathered at the Wollankstrasse crossing in Pankow alone. Time and again, GDR border police officers forcibly pushed the demonstrators back from the barriers. In addition, many GDR citizens used the remaining loopholes in the sector border to escape to the West. However, there were no mass protests against the border closures, as there had been in West Berlin. In the GDR factories, too, there were only isolated strikes during the following work week. The strongest rebellion was among the youth, who saw their freedom restricted and, above all, cut off from Western leisure culture. State security registered a number of political “youth gangs.” The best-known group was the Strausberg “Ted Herold Fan Club” around Michael Gartenschläger, which openly protested against the construction of the Wall. In contrast, the artists of the GDR Writers” Association and the Academy of Arts of the GDR expressed their unqualified approval of the “measures taken by the government of the GDR” on August 13, 1961. Researchers attribute the fact that there was no uprising against the Wall to the GDR citizens” fear of repression in memory of the suppressed popular uprising of June 17, 1953, as well as to the SED leadership”s being caught off guard, which had prepared the border closure in secret. More recent studies expand the radius of motives for the lack of mass protests. For example, many GDR citizens followed the border closure with indifference, either because they were not directly affected by it in their private or professional lives or because they found the economic crisis, which they felt as a massive supply crisis, more outrageous. Others found the border closure necessary so that the GDR would not lose even more skilled workers due to the ongoing flight movement. Some welcomed the construction of the Wall because they hoped that the implementation of the socialist idea could now be realized undisturbed.
West German and West Berlin Reactions
On the same day, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer appealed to the population over the radio for calm and prudence and referred to unspecified reactions that would follow together with the Allies. He did not visit West Berlin until August 22, nine days after the Wall was built. On the political level, only Governing Mayor Willy Brandt protested vigorously – but ultimately powerlessly – against the walling-in of West Berlin and the seemingly final division of the city. In the same year, the West German states founded the Central Registration Office of the State Justice Administrations in Salzgitter to document human rights violations on the territory of the GDR and thus, at least symbolically, put a stop to the regime. On August 16, 1961, Willy Brandt and 300,000 West Berliners staged a protest demonstration in front of Schöneberg City Hall.
In the official language of the Senate, the wall was soon referred to only as the Wall of Shame.
The reactions of the Western powers to the building of the Wall came hesitantly and successively: after 20 hours, military patrols appeared at the border. After 40 hours, a legal notice was sent to the Soviet commander of Berlin. After 72 hours, diplomatic protests from the Allies – to conform to form – were received directly in Moscow. Rumors persisted that the Soviets had previously assured the Western Allies that they would not touch their rights to West Berlin. In 1970, Egon Bahr received word that none of the Western powers had protested in Moscow against the construction of the Wall.
Based on this attitude of the Soviets, American President Kennedy had already given his agreement to Soviet Premier Khrushchev at a meeting in Vienna in early June 1961 that measures could be taken to prevent the migration of people from the GDR and East Berlin to West Berlin. The precondition, however, was free access to West Berlin. In fact, given the experience of the Berlin Blockade, the status of West Berlin was always at risk in the eyes of the Western Allies – the building of the Wall was now a concrete manifestation of the status quo:
U.S. President John F. Kennedy was initially reluctant to react, but stood by the “free city” of Berlin. He reactivated General Lucius D. Clay, the “father of the Berlin Airlift,” and sent him to West Berlin together with U.S. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. The two arrived in the city on August 19, 1961. The American combat forces in the city were reinforced: 1,500 men of the 8th U.S. Infantry Division, coming from Mannheim, drove to West Berlin via the transit route through East Germany. Upon their arrival in the city, the troops were greeted by the people with such great jubilation that the U.S. mission wrote to Washington that they were reminded of the enthusiasm at the liberation of France in World War II. Both made it clear to the bewildered West Berlin population that the United States would stand by its rights in the city. The Americans vigorously rejected attempts by the People”s and Border Police to control Allied officers and employees. Finally, Marshal Ivan Konev, commander-in-chief of the Soviet Armed Forces Group in Germany (GSSD), exerted a moderating influence on GDR officials.
A direct confrontation between American and Soviet troops took place on October 27, 1961, at Checkpoint Charlie on Friedrichstrasse, when – as a result of disagreements – 30 battle tanks each of the American and Soviet armies drove up directly opposite each other on the border strip. The next day, however, both groups of tanks were withdrawn. This “cold skirmish” had enormous political significance, however, because in this way the Americans had succeeded in proving that the USSR and not the GDR was responsible for the eastern part of Berlin. Neither side wanted to escalate the Cold War over Berlin or even risk a nuclear war.
In a television interview on February 28, 1962, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk spoke in favor of the creation of an international authority to monitor free access to Berlin and against recognition of the GDR, and on April 24 Rusk stated that the U.S. government considered free access to Berlin incompatible with powers of GDR authorities over access routes. In turn, West German Foreign Minister Heinrich von Brentano and French President Charles de Gaulle spoke in press conferences against an international access control authority for Berlin.
In June 1963, US President John F. Kennedy visited Berlin. In front of Schöneberg City Hall, he gave a speech about the Wall, uttering the historic words “Ich bin ein Berliner.” This symbolic act meant a lot to West Berliners – especially considering American acceptance of the Wall”s construction. For the Western Allies and the GDR, the construction of the Wall meant political and military stabilization, the status quo of West Berlin was fixed – the Soviet Union gave up its demand for a demilitarized, “free” city of West Berlin, formulated in Khrushchev”s ultimatum as late as 1958.
On August 22, 1962, the Soviet command in Berlin was dissolved. On September 28, 1962, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara declared in Washington that free access to Berlin must be secured by all means. The foreign ministers of the three Western powers and the Federal Republic agreed in Paris on December 12, 1962, that no new proposals should be made to the Soviet Union on the Berlin question.
On the occasion of a working visit by German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard to Paris on June 11, 1964, French President Charles de Gaulle offered the immediate use of French nuclear weapons in the event of a military conflict over Berlin or the Federal Republic.
The governments of the three Western powers reaffirmed their joint responsibility for the whole of Berlin in a joint declaration on June 26, 1964, on the Treaty of Friendship between the Soviet Union and the GDR of June 12, 1964.
GDR propaganda portrayed the Wall, as well as the entire border security with the Federal Republic, as protection against “migration, infiltration, espionage, sabotage, smuggling, sellouts and aggression from the West. Propagating this image included organizing show trials, the one against Gottfried Strympe ending in a judicial murder in 1962. The barriers were mainly directed against the country”s own citizens. This fact was not allowed to be discussed in the GDR”s public sphere, nor was the fact of mass escapes from the GDR. Initially, leaving the territory of the GDR without permission had been a punishable offense since 1954 under § 8 of the GDR”s passport law. It was not until the GDR”s penal code came into force on July 1, 1968 that unlawful border crossing was punishable by a prison sentence of two years, although in sentencing practice this was exceeded by up to five years. An amendment to the law on June 28, 1979, set the maximum penalty at eight years.
On the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the erection of the Wall in 1966, Ulbricht demanded from the West German government a 30-billion-DM loan for the GDR to make up for “at least part of the damage” it had suffered before the Wall was erected through “plundering” on the part of the West. The Bonn government had intended “to begin an open attack on the GDR, civil war and military provocations after the elections (in September 1961).” The building of the Wall had saved the peace of the world.
The construction of the Wall soon turned Berlin from the easiest place for unauthorized crossing from East to West Germany into the most difficult. West Berliners had not been allowed to enter the GDR freely since June 1, 1952, and after the Wall was erected, they could not visit East Berlin from August 26, 1961. After long negotiations, the Passierschein Agreement was reached in 1963, allowing several hundred thousand West Berliners to reunite with their relatives in the eastern part of the city at the end of the year. In 1964, 1965 and 1966, temporary passes were again issued. A fifth pass agreement did not follow. From 1966 onward, the GDR issued passes to West Berliners for visiting relatives in the eastern sector only in “hardship cases.”
Beginning on April 13, 1968, the GDR banned ministers and officials of the Federal Republic from transit to West Berlin through its territory. On April 19, 1968, the three Western powers protested against this order. On June 12, 1968, the GDR introduced passport and visa requirements for transit traffic between West Berlin and the Federal Republic of Germany. In response to the visa fees introduced by the GDR for Berlin traffic, the NATO Council decided to charge a fee in the future for travel permits for GDR officials to NATO countries. On February 8, 1969, the GDR government issued a transit ban, effective February 15, for members of the Federal Assembly summoned to West Berlin, as well as for members of the Bundeswehr and members of the Defense Committee of the German Bundestag. The Soviet government protested against the election of the Federal President in West Berlin. Nevertheless, Gustav Heinemann was elected Federal President on March 5, 1969.
On December 15, 1969, the three Western powers proposed to the Soviet Union four-power talks on improving the situation in Berlin and on the access routes to Berlin. In 1971, the Four-Power Agreement on Berlin secured the accessibility of West Berlin and ended the economic threat by closing the access routes. Furthermore, all four powers reaffirmed joint responsibility for all of Berlin and made clear that West Berlin was not part of the Federal Republic and should not be governed by it. However, while the Soviet Union referred to the four-power status as applying only to West Berlin, the Western Allies underscored their view of the four-power status over all of Berlin in a 1975 note to the United Nations.
From the early 1970s, the policy of rapprochement between the GDR and the Federal Republic of Germany initiated by Willy Brandt and Erich Honecker (→ New Ostpolitik) made the border between the two states somewhat more permeable. The GDR now granted travel facilities, primarily for “unproductive” population groups such as pensioners, and made it easier for German citizens from regions near the border to visit the GDR. The GDR made more comprehensive freedom of travel dependent on recognition of its status as a sovereign state and demanded the extradition of GDR travelers not willing to return. The Federal Republic did not comply with these demands because of the Basic Law.
Between August 13, 1961 and November 9, 1989, there were 5075 successful escapes to West Berlin, 574 of them desertions.
The Berlin Wall was opened on the night of Thursday, November 9, to Friday, November 10, 1989, after more than 28 years of its existence. Preparations for an opening controlled by the GDR government began as early as October 1989: Walter Momper, then governing mayor of West Berlin, knew about this since October 29 from a conversation with East Berlin”s SED leader Günter Schabowski and East Berlin”s mayor Erhard Krack, and for his part made corresponding preparations for an opening of the Wall in December 1989.
The opening of the Wall was led by mass rallies at the time of the fall of communism and the demand for freedom of travel. Another important motive beforehand had been the ongoing flight of large parts of the GDR”s population to the Federal Republic of Germany via foreign countries, partly via embassies in various capitals of then Eastern bloc countries (including Prague and Warsaw), alternatively via the border with Austria, which had already been open in Hungary at the Pan-European Picnic on August 19, 1989, and comprehensively since September 11, 1989, and directly via Czechoslovakia since the beginning of November; stays in Prague”s Palais Lobkowitz and departures by refugee trains were only a temporary solution.
After the draft of a new travel law published on November 6, 1989, met with emphatic criticism and the Czechoslovak leadership protested increasingly strongly through diplomatic channels against GDR citizens leaving the country through their country, the Politburo of the SED Central Committee decided on November 7 to bring forward a regulation on permanent departure.
On the morning of November 9, Colonel Gerhard Lauter, head of the passport and registration department in the Ministry of the Interior, was given the task of drafting a new travel law. The corresponding draft, which also contained a passage on visiting trips, was approved by the Politburo on November 9 and forwarded to the Council of Ministers. In the further course of business, a draft was submitted to the Council of Ministers, which was approved by 6 p.m. on the same day, but was not to be published until 4 a.m. on November 10 as a transitional regulation via the state news agency ADN.
However, the GDR Ministry of Justice lodged an objection on November 9. Parallel to the circulation procedure, the Council of Ministers draft was discussed and slightly amended in the Central Committee on the afternoon of November 9. Egon Krenz handed the handwritten, appropriately amended Council of Ministers draft to SED Politburo member Günter Schabowski before the latter went to the scheduled press conference on the results of the Central Committee meeting, without explicitly informing him of the 4 a.m. cut-off time that had been decided. Schabowski had not been present at the preceding Politburo and Central Committee deliberations.
This press conference with Schabowski in the Press Office International Press Center at Mohrenstrasse 38 in East Berlin (now: part of the Federal Ministry of Justice), which was broadcast live on television and radio and could therefore be followed simultaneously by many citizens, became the trigger for the opening of the Wall. At the end of the press conference at 6:53 p.m., the correspondent of the Italian agency ANSA, Riccardo Ehrman, asked a question about the travel law. In April 2009, Ehrman stated that he had previously received a phone call in which a member of the Central Committee asked him to ask a question about the travel law. Ehrman later qualified this statement, stating that he had indeed been called by Günter Pötschke, then head of the GDR news agency ADN, but that the latter had ultimately only asked him if he would attend the press conference. Ehrman”s question read in somewhat broken German according to the minutes of the press conference:
To this question, Schabowski answered in a very long-winded and verbose manner. Finally, he remembered that he should also present the new travel rules at the press conference and said:
In response to a journalist”s interposed question, “When does this take effect? As of now?” Schabowski then answered at 6:57 p.m. by reading out the paper handed to him earlier by Krenz:
To the renewed interposed question of the Hamburg Bild newspaper reporter Peter Brinkmann: “When does this come into force?” Schabowski answered verbatim:
After two interjections by a journalist, “Does that also apply to West Berlin?” Schabowski finally found the relevant passage in the bill:
West German and West Berlin radio and television stations immediately broadcast that the Wall was “open” (which had not yet been put into practice at that point). Several thousand East Berliners marched to the border crossings and demanded that they be opened immediately. At this point, neither the border troops nor the passport control units (PKE) of the Ministry for State Security responsible for the actual clearance, nor the Soviet army in Berlin had been informed, which meant a certain risk of – possibly armed – intervention.
At 9:15 p.m., GDR citizens Annemarie Reffert and her 16-year-old daughter were the first to pass the Helmstedt-Marienborn border crossing with their car and identity cards. Since the border guards were not informed, they were passed from one checkpoint to the next with repeated references to Schabowski”s proclamation and were able to pass. Deutschlandfunk reported on this immediately afterwards in a short news item.
In order to relieve the great pressure of the crowds, the first East Germans there were allowed to leave for West Berlin at the Bornholmer Strasse border crossing at 9:20 p.m.. At the same time, those leaving the country were checked and their identity cards were initially stamped as invalid, meaning that the holders were to be expatriated.
At 9:30 p.m., the radio station RIAS also broadcast the first reports from open border crossings.
Hanns Joachim Friedrichs, who was hosting Tagesthemen that day, opened the show at 10:42 p.m. like this:
Gradually, dense crowds gathered at all crossings, and in some cases the situation became tense or appeared threatening. At the Bornholmer Strasse border crossing, the chief on duty feared that people wanting to leave the country could also get hold of weapons carried by his employees. Therefore, at around 11:30 p.m., Lieutenant Colonel Harald Jäger gave an unauthorized order to open the border crossing and to stop passport controls. Under the pressure of the masses and in view of the lack of support from his superiors, Jäger saw only this way out. Jäger said about this in the ARD documentary Schabowskis Zettel from November 2, 2009:
Between 11:30 p.m. and 0:15 a.m., an estimated 20,000 people crossed into West Berlin via this border crossing.
Contrary to what most historians portray, a documentary broadcast on ZDF in 2009 claims that the Waltersdorfer Chaussee border crossing was the first open border crossing. The commander, Lieutenant Colonel Heinz Schäfer, drove to “his” border crossing immediately after Schabowski”s press conference, had the security systems switched off and ordered his border guards to actually let those who wanted to leave the country through. He also immediately removed all live ammunition from his soldiers. At around 8:30 p.m., he opened the checkpoint located between Rudow and Schönefeld. GDR citizens reported that they had ridden their bicycles to the nearby border crossing at Waltersdorfer Chaussee at around 8:30 p.m. on November 9. With an exit stamp in their passports, both were allowed to leave for West Berlin; curiously, they had to leave their bicycles behind at the border. On the west side, several eyewitnesses also claim to have observed increasing border traffic to West Berlin from 8:30 p.m. onward. In the opposite direction, as a returnee returning from an authorized day”s stay in West Berlin, a GDR citizen says that he was waved through by the unarmed border guards. When he asked for a counting card for his next exit, he was told that he would not need one. This account is challenged by other historians, who point to shortcomings in the scientific approach and the presentation of contradictory Stasi documents.
By midnight, all border crossings in the Berlin city area were open. The border crossings on the outer border of West Berlin and on the inner-German border were also opened that night. Already in the late evening, many people watched the opening of the border crossings on television, and some of them then made their way across. The big rush began in the morning of November 10, 1989, as many people “slept through” the border opening at midnight.
The GDR citizens received an enthusiastic welcome from the people of West Berlin. Most of the pubs near the Wall spontaneously gave out free beer, and on Kurfürstendamm there was a huge crowd with a motorcade honking its horns and complete strangers in each other”s arms. In the euphoria of that night, the Wall was also scaled by many West Berliners. That very night, the governing mayor, Walter Momper, ordered the creation of additional reception facilities for resettlers as an immediate measure, as well as the payment of welcome money of DM 100, also by West Berlin”s savings bank. Some time after the news of Schabowski”s press conference became known, the Bundestag in Bonn interrupted its current session that evening. After a break, Chancellor”s Office Minister Rudolf Seiters made a statement from the federal government, and representatives of all Bundestag factions welcomed the events in their contributions. Afterwards, the members of parliament present spontaneously rose from their seats and sang the national anthem.
According to West Berlin State Secretary Jörg Rommerskirchen and Bild journalist Peter Brinkmann, they were already aware of the fall of the Wall on the morning of November 9. Rommerskirchen had received a confidential tip from Brinkmann that the Wall would be opened that very day. As a result, preparations were made in West Berlin in a hurry.
Development after the fall of the Berlin Wall
The Wall initially continued to be guarded after November 9, 1989, and uncontrolled border crossings through the Wall strip were mostly prevented. In the first few weeks, border troops tried to repair the holes made by the Wall”s woodpeckers, while restrictions on residents in the hinterland went out of effect.
By November 14, the GDR had already opened ten new border crossings; including some at particularly symbolic locations such as Potsdamer Platz, Glienicker Brücke and Bernauer Strasse. Crowds gathered at these crossings, waiting for the opening and cheering each concrete element that was lifted out. On December 22, the section of the Wall at the Brandenburg Gate was removed in the presence of Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Prime Minister Hans Modrow.
German citizens and West Berliners were allowed to enter the GDR without a visa for the first time on December 24, 1989, starting at 0:00 a.m.; until that time, the regulations regarding visa requirements and minimum exchange rates had still applied. In the weeks between November 9 and December 23, GDR citizens therefore had, in a sense, “greater freedom to travel” than West Germans.
Guarding of the Wall became increasingly relaxed over time; uncontrolled crossing of the border through the ever-widening holes was increasingly tolerated. In parallel, the practice at the crossings changed to only random checks of the flow of traffic. The process intensified especially after the election to the People”s Chamber on March 18, 1990. By June 30, 1990, additional new border crossings to West Berlin had been opened.
On July 1, 1990, the day monetary union came into effect, guarding of the Wall and all border controls were discontinued. Official demolition had already begun on Bernauer Strasse on June 13, 1990. Unofficially, Wall demolition began at Bornholmer Strasse because of construction work on the railroad. A total of 300 GDR border guards and – after October 3, 1990 – 600 pioneers from the Bundeswehr were involved. These were equipped with 175 trucks, 65 cranes, 55 excavators and 13 bulldozers. Demolition of the inner-city Wall officially ended on November 30, 1990, by which time a total of about 1.7 million tons of construction debris had accumulated, according to Border Guard estimates. In Berlin alone, 184 km of Wall, 154 km of border fence, 144 km of signal installations and 87 km of barrier trenches were removed. What remained were six sections that were to be preserved as memorials. The rest of the Wall, especially along the Berlin-Brandenburg border, disappeared by November 1991. Painted Wall segments with artistically valuable motifs were sold at auctions in Berlin and Monte Carlo in 1990.
Some of the wall segments can now be found in various places around the world. For example, the US secret service CIA secured some artistically decorated wall segments for its new building in Langley (Virginia). In the Vatican Gardens, some wall segments with Saint Michael”s painted on them were installed in August 1994. Another segment of the wall can be seen in the House of History in Bonn. One segment can be found in Königinstraße near the English Garden in Munich, one at the staff building of Panzer Brigade 21 “Lipperland” in Augustdorf, others in a new housing development in Weiden in the Upper Palatinate, at the Max-Mannheimer-Gymnasium in Grafing and in a front garden in Essen-Rüttenscheid. Others are exhibited by the Peace Museum in the French town of Caen in Normandy and the Imperial War Museum in London.
There are also three pieces of the Berlin Wall at the Deutsches Eck in Koblenz. Since 2009, a one-meter wide piece of the Wall has been standing on Berliner Straße in Herford.
The wall segment opposite the European Information Center in Schengen in the immediate vicinity of the border triangle Luxembourg-Germany-France is a reminder that freedom of movement should be the norm within Europe. All locations in the three states that can be seen from this segment can be visited spontaneously unhindered by border controls due to the Schengen Agreement.
Historical significance of the fall of the Berlin Wall
The fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989 marked the end of an epoch by being the most visible phenomenon in the fall of the whole “Iron Curtain” and the communist system in Eastern Europe, which made possible the reunification of Germany and the overcoming of the division of Europe.
The Berlin Wall was supplemented by extensive fortifications of the border with the Federal Republic and – to a lesser extent – other western borders of the Warsaw Pact states, giving material form to the so-called Iron Curtain.
Like the rest of the inner-German border, the Berlin Wall was equipped over long stretches with extensive systems of barbed wire obstacles, ditches, armored obstacles, control routes and post towers. About 1000 service dogs alone were deployed in dog runs until the early 1980s. This system was constantly expanded over the decades. This included demolishing houses close to the Wall whose residents had been forcibly relocated. As late as January 28, 1985, even the Church of Reconciliation on Bernauer Strasse was blown up. This ultimately led to a wide aisle, illuminated as bright as day at night, running through the once densely built-up city.
Of the 167.8 kilometers of border around West Berlin, 45.1 kilometers lay directly in East Berlin and 112.7 kilometers in the East German district of Potsdam. This partly includes the openings of the border crossings. 63.8 km of the border lay in built-up areas, 32 km in wooded areas, and 22.65 km in open terrain. 37.95 km of the border lay in or along rivers, lakes, and canals. The absolute length of the frontier installations in the direction of West Berlin was 267.3 km and that of the rear border installations in the direction of the GDR 297.64 km.
For the East German border guards, Article 27 of the 1982 border law applied, according to which the use of firearms to prevent a border breach was the ultimate measure of the use of force against persons. This is usually referred to as a shoot-to-kill order. Before high holidays or state visits, the use of the firearm was expressly prohibited to avoid negative Western press. From West Berlin, the border was observed by West Berlin police and Allied military patrols. Conspicuous activities were documented; also to prevent the infiltration of spies and agents into West Berlin. It later turned out that there were nevertheless hidden passages through the Wall that were used by the MfS.
Construction of the border installations
The border fortifications were built in several stages. On August 13, 1961, barbed wire and guards prevented people from easily crossing to or from the western sectors of Greater Berlin. From August 15, the first wall was built with concrete elements and hollow blocks. In June 1962, the so-called “Hinterland wall” was added. In 1965, concrete slabs embedded between steel or concrete posts replaced the previous components. A concrete tube was placed on top as its upper finish. Finally, in 1975, the “third generation” of the “Border Wall 75” was installed, which gradually replaced the previous border structure. The more modern reinforced concrete elements of the type “retaining wall element UL 12.41” with a height of 3.60 meters were manufactured by VEB Baustoffkombinat Neubrandenburg based in Malchin. They were easy to erect and more resistant to environmental influences and border breaches.
In their final stage of development – in some places as late as the late 1980s – the border installations located entirely on the territory of the GDR or East Berlin – starting from the direction of the GDR or East Berlin – consisted of:
The total width of these border fortifications depended on the housing development in the border area and ranged from about 30 meters to about 500 meters (at Potsdamer Platz). Minefields and self-shooting devices were not set up at the Berlin Wall (but this was not generally known in the GDR), but they were at the inner-German border with the Federal Republic.
The construction of the border, internally called the Handlungsstreifen by the border troops, was treated as a military secret and was therefore not exactly known to most GDR citizens. Border guards were sworn to secrecy. Any civilian who showed conspicuous interest in border installations ran at least the risk of being temporarily arrested and taken to the nearest police station or border command for identification. A sentence of imprisonment for planning an escape attempt could follow.
In places that were more difficult to secure because of buildings or traffic routing – or because of the terrain – the “border area” on the GDR and East Berlin side began even before the Hinterland wall and was then a restricted area. This area could only be entered with a special permit. For residents, this meant a severe restriction of their quality of life. Structural measures (walls, fences, bars, barbed wire, passage barriers, anti-climbing devices), visual aids (lights, white contrasting surfaces) and warnings were intended to prevent unauthorized (or unnoticed) entry into or driving through this area. Viewing opportunities for unauthorized persons were obstructed by sight barriers.
In the area of East Berlin near the border, close to the Brandenburg Gate, covert so-called “deep security” was regularly carried out by civilian forces of the Ministry of State Security in order to detect and prevent potential border breaches and special situations (demonstrations or other undesirable gatherings of people) as early as possible and out of sight of the western part. A building north of the Brandenburg Gate was used by Department 1 of the MfS, the department responsible for monitoring the GDR”s border troops. It was later demolished to make way for the Jakob Kaiser House.
Personnel structure and equipment of the Central Border Command
In the GDR, the Central Border Command of the GDR”s border troops was responsible for protecting the border with West Berlin. According to information provided by the MfS in the spring of 1989, it comprised 11,500 soldiers and 500 civilian employees. In addition to the staff in Berlin-Karlshorst, it consisted of seven border regiments stationed in Treptow, Pankow, Rummelsburg, Hennigsdorf, Groß-Glienicke, Babelsberg and Kleinmachnow, as well as the border training regiments GAR-39 in Wilhelmshagen and GAR-40 in Oranienburg.
Each border regiment had five directly led border companies, as well as an engineer company, an intelligence company, a transport company, a grenade launcher battery, an artillery battery, a reconnaissance platoon, a flamethrower platoon, a service dog squadron, and possibly a boat company and security platoons or companies for the border crossing points.
Grenzkommando Mitte had 567 armored personnel carriers, 48 grenade launchers, 48 antitank guns, and 114 flamethrowers, as well as 156 armored vehicles or heavy engineer equipment and 2295 motor vehicles. The inventory also included 992 dogs.
On a normal day, about 2300 soldiers were deployed directly at the border and in the area near the border. During so-called “reinforced border security,” which was in effect for about 80 days in 1988, for example, due to political highlights or bad weather conditions, this amounted to about 2,500 border guards, whose number could be further increased in special situations.
The outer city border of West Berlin ran through navigable waters in several places. The course of the border was marked there by a chain of round, white buoys erected by the West Berlin Senate with the inscription “Sektorengrenze” (sector border) (which was not quite accurate at the city border). West Berlin passenger ships and pleasure boats had to take care to stay on the West Berlin side of the chain of buoys. On the GDR side of the border, these waters were patrolled by boats of the GDR border troops.
The border fortifications of the GDR were always located on the GDR-side bank, which sometimes forced large detours and “walled up” the banks of several Havel lakes. The largest detour was at Jungfernsee, where the wall was up to two kilometers away from the actual course of the border. In several places, the border strip ran through former waterfront properties, making them unusable for residents; for example, on the western shore of Lake Groß Glienicke and on the southern shore of Lake Griebnitz.
In the case of the water bodies on the inner-city border, the border ran directly along the western or eastern bank, so that there was no marking of the border in the water. Here, too, the actual Wall stood on the East Berlin bank. Nevertheless, the waters belonging to East Berlin were also monitored. On tributary canals and rivers, this made the situation confusing in some cases. Some swimmers and boats from West Berlin inadvertently or through carelessness strayed into East Berlin territory and were fired upon. This resulted in several deaths over the decades.
In some places in the Spree, there were underwater barriers against swimmers. For fugitives, it was not clear when they had reached West Berlin, so that they were still in danger of being seized after they had crossed the actual Wall.
There were 25 border crossing points (GÜSt) along the entire Berlin Wall, 13 road, four rail and eight waterway border crossing points. These were about 60 percent of all border crossings between the GDR and the Federal Republic or West Berlin. For road transit traffic, there were only two Berlin border crossings, in that Dreilinden, Staaken until 1987 and Heiligensee thereafter could be used.
The border crossing points were very strongly developed on the GDR side. There were sometimes very strict controls on entry and exit by the GDR border guards and GDR customs. The passport control units (PKE) of Department VI of the MfS, which performed their duties in the uniforms of the GDR border troops, were responsible for securing and monitoring travel, including searches and arrests at the border crossing points. They worked together with the units of the border troops responsible for external security and the prevention of border breaches and employees of the customs administration, who carried out checks on property and persons.
On the West Berlin side, the police and customs had posts. As a rule, there were no checks on passenger traffic there. Only at the transit crossings were the travelers recorded statistically (questioning about the destination), and occasionally checked if there was cause for prosecution (ring search). All freight traffic was subject to customs clearance, as was foreign traffic. In the case of road freight traffic, it was not possible to drive from East to West Berlin via border crossing points when delivering West German goods in East Berlin; instead, one had to go all the way around and use one of the two West Berlin transit crossings. These were Dreilinden (A 115) and, until 1987, Staaken (B 5), then Heiligensee via the A 111. Accordingly, it was then a so-called “exit from the GDR”; at the checkpoint, the West German was very thoroughly searched like a foreign truck. In passenger traffic with the Federal Republic, the West German side only made statistical inquiries. In the case of freight traffic, the truck had to be sealed and statistically recorded by customs via the goods accompanying certificate. At the Staaken crossing, the B 5 was the only way to drive through the GDR with vehicles that were not authorized for highway traffic (e.g., bicycles, mopeds, tractors, etc.). However, the 220-kilometer route to Lauenburg had to be completed in daylight without interruption (overnight stays, longer breaks). With the opening of the A 24 freeway in 1982, bicycle transit was no longer permitted.
At Checkpoint Bravo (Dreilinden) and Checkpoint Charlie (on Friedrichstrasse), the Allied occupation forces had set up checkpoints, although the latter could only be used by diplomats and foreign nationals, not by German citizens and West Berliners.
With the monetary union on July 1, 1990, all border crossings were abandoned. Some remains of the facilities were preserved as a memorial.
There is contradictory information about the number of deaths at the Wall. To this day, it has not been clearly established because the deaths at the border were systematically concealed by those responsible for the GDR”s state leadership. In 2000, the Berlin public prosecutor”s office put the number of victims proven to have died as a result of an act of violence at the Berlin Wall at 86. The difficulty of making accurate statements in this area is also illustrated by the fact that the August 13 Working Group has raised its figure for Wall deaths since 2000 from 238
Between October 2005 and December 2007, a research project sponsored by the ”Berlin Wall Association” and the Center for Contemporary Historical Research Potsdam worked with the goal of determining the exact number of Wall victims and also documenting the victims” stories in a way that was accessible to the public. The project was funded by the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media. In the balance sheet published on August 7, 2008, it was stated that of the 374 cases reviewed, 136 met the criteria of “Wall victims.” The victims were primarily citizens of the GDR who were willing to flee (98 of the 136 cases), under the age of 30 (112 cases), male (128 cases), and died in the first eight years of the Wall (90 cases). Furthermore, 48 cases were identified in which people died – mostly of heart attacks – in the vicinity of border crossing controls in Berlin. Among the 159 cases excluded are 19 cases listed as Wall victims in other publications.
After the publication of the interim report, controversy arose over the number of victims and the methods used to research what happened at the Wall. The August 13 Working Group, which at the time again assumed 262 Wall victims, accused the research project of deliberately “underestimating” the number of victims for political reasons. The working group, on the other hand, whose research did not involve historians, was accused of including many cases on its lists that were unexplained, not demonstrably related to the border regime, or had even been disproven in the meantime.
The first fatality was Ida Siekmann, who died on August 22, 1961, while jumping from a window on Bernauer Strasse. The first fatal shots were fired on August 24, 1961, at 24-year-old Günter Litfin, who was shot by transport police officers at Humboldthafen while trying to escape. Peter Fechter bled to death in the death strip on Zimmerstrasse on August 17, 1962. In 1966, two children aged 10 and 13 were killed by a total of 40 shots in the border strip. The last victim of fatal shootings at the Wall was Chris Gueffroy on February 6, 1989. The last fatal incident at the border occurred on March 8, 1989, when Winfried Freudenberg fell to his death in a defective balloon during an escape attempt.
Some border guards also died in violent incidents at the Wall. The most famous case is the killing of soldier Reinhold Huhn, who was shot by an escape agent. These incidents were used by the GDR for propaganda purposes and as an after-the-fact justification for building the Wall.
It is estimated that around 75,000 people had to stand trial before GDR courts for “unlawful border crossing”. Under Section 213 of the GDR Criminal Code, this was punishable by prison sentences of up to eight years. Those who were armed, damaged border installations, or were caught as members of the army or as secret agents attempting to escape rarely got off with less than five years in prison. Those who assisted in an escape could be punished with life imprisonment.
Wall shooter trials
The legal reappraisal of the shooting order in so-called “Mauerschützenprozesse” lasted until the fall of 2004. Among those charged with responsibility were State Council Chairman Honecker, his successor Egon Krenz, members of the National Defense Council Erich Mielke, Willi Stoph, Heinz Keßler, Fritz Streletz and Hans Albrecht, the SED district chief of Suhl, as well as some generals such as the head of the border troops (1979-1990) Colonel General Klaus-Dieter Baumgarten.
In total, 112 cases were brought in Berlin against 246 people who had to stand trial as shooters or participants in the crime. Around half of the defendants were acquitted. 132 defendants were sentenced to prison or suspended sentences for their actions or involvement in the crime. Among them were 10 members of the SED leadership, 42 leading military officers and 80 former border guards. In addition, there were 19 trials with 31 defendants in Neuruppin, which ended with suspended sentences for 19 death row inmates. For the murder of Walter Kittel, the death shooter received the longest prison sentence of ten years. In general, the shooters received suspended sentences of between 6 and 24 months, while those in command received higher sentences as their responsibility increased.
In August 2004, Hans-Joachim Böhme and Siegfried Lorenz were given suspended sentences by the Berlin Regional Court as former Politburo members. The last trial of GDR border guards ended with a guilty verdict on November 9, 2004 – exactly 15 years after the fall of the Wall.
Very differently designed memorials were erected to commemorate the victims of the Berlin Wall. Smaller crosses or other signs of remembrance serve to commemorate refugees who were shot. They are located at various points along the former border and are mostly the result of private initiatives. One well-known memorial is the White Crosses on the banks of the Spree River next to the Reichstag building.
There have been repeated public disputes about the manner of commemoration; this was also the case at the end of the 1990s with regard to the memorial on Bernauer Strasse. The public debate reached a peak during the dispute over the Freedom Memorial, which was erected near Checkpoint Charlie and later vacated. The Berlin Senate countered the accusation of not having a memorial concept by convening a commission that presented the basic outlines of a memorial concept in spring 2005. On June 20, 2006, the Senate presented an integrated “Overall Concept for the Remembrance of the Berlin Wall” that was developed on the basis of this concept and includes an expansion of the memorial on Bernauer Strasse.
In the Invalidenpark, between the Federal Ministry of Transport, Building and Urban Development and Scharnhorststraße, a long wall was designed in the mid-1990s that sinks into a water basin. The garden architect Christoph Girot calls it the Sunken Wall, which is meant to remind us of the Gnadenkirche (Church of Grace) that used to be here, on the one hand, and the Berlin Wall, on the other.
Wall Museum in the House at Checkpoint Charlie
The Wall Museum at Checkpoint Charlie was opened in 1963 directly in front of the border by historian, author and resistance fighter against National Socialism Rainer Hildebrandt and is operated by the Working Group August 13. It is one of the most visited museums in Berlin. The Mauermuseum illustrates the border security system at the Berlin Wall and documents successful escape attempts and their means of escape, such as hot air balloons, escape cars, chairlifts and a mini-submarine. The house documents the worldwide nonviolent struggle for human rights. In addition, the museum researches people lost in the Soviet occupation zone. In cooperation with the German Red Cross, many unsolved cases are being reopened. For example, the Wall Museum is also part of a worldwide campaign to clarify the fate of Raoul Wallenberg, who saved hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Nazis and subsequently disappeared. More recently, the work of the Wall Museum led to the release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Today, Alexandra Hildebrandt directs the museum.
Berlin Wall Memorial Ensemble on Bernauer Strasse
Since August 13, 1998, the Berlin Wall Memorial has existed on Bernauer Strasse between the former districts of Wedding and Mitte. It includes a preserved section of the border fortifications, the Berlin Wall Documentation Center and the Chapel of Reconciliation.
The memorial emerged from a competition organized by the federal government in 1994 and was inaugurated on August 13, 1998, after long and heated discussions. It represents a newly constructed section of the Wall at the original site, supplemented by artistic and creative means. The Documentation Center, which is run by an association, was opened on November 9, 1999. In 2003, it was supplemented by an observation tower, from which the Wall installations of the memorial site can be easily viewed. In addition to a current exhibition (since 2001 under the title Berlin, August 13, 1961), there are various information opportunities on the history of the Wall. Seminars and other events are also offered. The Chapel of Reconciliation of the Evangelical Reconciliation Church was inaugurated on November 9, 2000. The structure is an oval rammed earth building and was erected over the foundations of the choir of the Church of Reconciliation, which was blown up in 1985.
The “Overall Concept for the Remembrance of the Berlin Wall” developed by Thomas Flierl plans to further expand the memorial on Bernauer Strasse and to include part of the former SSN on Gartenstrasse.
On September 11, 2008, the Berlin House of Representatives decided to commemorate the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 2008 by merging the Berlin Wall Memorial and the Marienfelde Refugee Center into the state-owned Berlin Wall Foundation.
Berlin Wall History Mile
The Berlin Wall History Mile is a permanent exhibition in four languages consisting of 21 information panels. These are distributed along the inner-city border and contain photographs and texts about events that took place at the location of the panels, for example, successful or unsuccessful escapes are referred to. This Berlin Wall History Mile, which had already existed in the city center for some time, was continued in 2006 with additional information panels outside.
On the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, 6880 white balloons marked part of the former course of the Wall as an art installation Lichtgrenze from November 7 to 9, 2014.
February 5, 2018 was the day when the Berlin Wall ceased to stand for the same length of time it divided the city from 1961 to 1989: 28 years, 2 months and 27 days. Berlin media, such as rbb and Berliner Morgenpost, called it “Circular Day” and commemorated the event with special broadcasts or supplements.
On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a variety of events and exhibitions were held in Berlin from November 4 to 10, 2019, focusing on the construction of the Berlin Wall, the division of Berlin, the Cold War, and the Peaceful Revolution of 1989. In the process, Korean artists pointed to the ongoing division of North and South Korea with the installation The Third Country.
The wide route between the two former Wall lines is called the “border strip” or “Wall strip” in today”s parlance. It is still clearly recognizable in many places, sometimes through large areas of wasteland, such as along parts of Bernauer Strasse and between the districts of Mitte and Kreuzberg along Kommandantenstrasse, Alte Jakobstrasse, Stallschreiberstrasse, Alexandrinenstrasse and Sebastianstrasse. Elsewhere in the merging city, however, the course of the border is difficult to discern. The entire brutality of the division can no longer be traced anywhere, not even in places where remnants of the Wall have been preserved.
In the otherwise densely built-up inner city of Berlin, the Wall strip was mostly quickly put to subsequent use for urban purposes through sale and development. In addition, however, there are also a variety of other forms: In the Prenzlauer Berg district, a section was transformed into Mauerpark. The inner-city section along the eastern Teltow Canal was built over with the route of the federal highway 113 from the Berlin city ring road to Schönefeld.
The dispute over the restitution of the Wall properties, however, has not yet been concluded. The owners of properties on what was later the Wall strip were forcibly expropriated after the Wall was built and the residents resettled. The question of restitution and compensation for those affected was not included in the Unification Treaty signed on August 31, 1990. It was not until the Act on the Sale of Wall and Border Property to the Former Owners (Wall Property Act) of July 15, 1996, that an expropriated owner receives his or her property back only if he or she pays 25 percent of the current market value for it and the federal government does not want to use it for urgent public purposes of its own or sell it to third parties in the public interest. In this case, the federal government compensates the former owners with 75 percent of the property value.
Berlin Wall Trail
The Berlin Wall Trail, whose creation was approved by the Berlin House of Representatives on October 11, 2001, runs along the Wall strip around the entire former West Berlin. This bike and pedestrian path along the 160-kilometer-long route of the former border fortifications is mostly well developed and has been almost complete since 2005. Except for smaller sections, the route is asphalted throughout. The Wall Trail mainly follows the former customs route (West Berlin) or the so-called Kolonnenweg, which the GDR border troops had laid out for their patrols. Where it was necessary due to new construction or property rights, it runs along newly constructed paths in the border area or over public traffic areas running parallel to the border. At the Dresdener Bahn in the community of Blankenfelde-Mahlow, the Wall Trail is currently interrupted. An underpass is to be built when the railroad line is extended. The Berlin Wall Trail marks the course of the former GDR border fortifications to West Berlin. It runs for about 160 kilometers around the former half-city. Historically interesting sections, where remains of the Wall or traces of the Wall can still be found, alternate with scenic routes.
The Berlin Wall Trail is signposted and equipped with overview maps for orientation at regular intervals. Multilingual information about the division of Germany and the Berlin Wall is provided at information pillars with photographs and texts, and events at the respective location are described or local Wall remains are pointed out. The dead of the Berlin Wall are commemorated at 29 locations along the path. Organizationally, the Berlin Wall Trail is divided into 14 individual sections ranging in length from seven to 21 kilometers. Mainly in the city center, the course of the Wall is also paved with a double row of cobblestones.
Remains of the wall installations after demolition
Until early 2018, only three sections of the boundary wall preserved at the original site were known. These can all be found in the district of Mitte:
In January 2018, local historian Christian Bormann reported a fourth, 80-meter-long section of the Berlin Wall to the State Monuments Office and the responsible district office, which he said he had already discovered in the summer of 1999. The pointed fragment of the Wall is located in a wooded area north of the Schönholz S-Bahn station. The initially paradoxical fact that the Wall fragment is located in Reinickendorf and thus in a West Berlin district is due to the fact that it is a former Pankow area that was added to the Reinickendorf district in the course of a border adjustment in 1988. The section dates from an early phase of the Wall”s construction. According to Gesine Beutin, a spokesperson for the Berlin Wall Foundation, this section of the Wall was “placed on top of an existing, much older wall. Presumably, the construction of this section of the Wall integrated two outer walls of houses that were destroyed at the end of World War II during the attack on the Pankow-Schönholz loading station. In February 2018, it was announced that the discovered piece of the wall would be listed as a historic monument. Berlin”s Senator for Culture Klaus Lederer attributed special historical significance to the structure, saying that it “documents how existing structures were used to quickly cordon off the border in the early days of the Wall”s construction,” and that this construction phase is not documented at any other site in Berlin.
Significantly more and often longer sections of the Hinterland wall, which closed off the border strip on the East Berlin side, have been preserved. They are mostly located away from streets and squares and therefore did not stand in the way of post-reunification construction projects. These remains of the wall are only partially protected as monuments.
Preserved sections where the otherwise lower Hinterland wall was the same height as the border wall (“front barrier element”) are often mistaken for remnants of the front barrier element. This is true not only of fragments of the Hinterland wall at Leipziger Platz and Stresemannstrasse, but also of the most extensive preserved section of the wall, which at 1.3 kilometers in length runs parallel to Mühlenstrasse and the Spree from Ostbahnhof to Oberbaumbrücke. This section – untypical of the Hinterland Wall – has concrete tubes attached to it, because there was no “enemy” border wall at this point, as the border ran on the opposite side of the Spree. In 1990, it was designed by international artists to become the East Side Gallery and was listed as a historical monument in 1991.
Other remains of the Hinterland Wall can be found, for example, at Mauerpark, along Bernauer Strasse, on the grounds of the former Szczecin train station and at the Invalidenfriedhof cemetery. A section of the Hinterland Wall with an original access gate to the border strip has been preserved on an undeveloped site near the former Chausseestraße border crossing. However, the wall and gate are in poor condition; they are not listed.
Of the former 302 border guard towers, five still stand today:
The Berlin Wall Trail also passes former water barriers. For example, on the border between GlienickeNordbahn and Schildow, just south of Alte Hermsdorfer Straße, you can still see the remains of the barrier on Kindelfließ. Likewise, there are still remains of the water barrier on the Tegeler Fließ between Schildow and Berlin-Lübars.
In the 1990s, a discussion developed in Berlin politics about how the former course of the Wall could be made visible in the cityscape. Suggestions included a double row of square paving stones embedded in the street pavement, a bronze band embedded in the pavement, and marking the border wall and the Hinterland wall with different colored stripes.
All three variants were executed on a short section at the House of Representatives for illustrative purposes. As a result of this discussion, about eight kilometers of the course of the border wall were marked by a double row of paving stones, especially in the inner city area. Bronze strips set at irregular intervals bear the simple inscription “Berlin Wall 1961-1989” that can be read from the former West Berlin side. At prominent points such as Leipziger Platz, the course of the Hinterland Wall is also marked in the same way.
History of the Wall 1961-1989 in general
Living with the wall
Day of the construction of the Wall August 13, 1961
Day of the fall of the wall November 9, 1989
Review and evaluation
The wall as a monument
Entries in the Berlin state list of monuments
52.51713.408Coordinates: 52° 31′ 1.2″ N, 13° 24′ 28.8″ E