Following the end of the Second World War and the division of post war Germany among the victorious allies, the areas of occupation gradually began to adopt the ideological policies of their governing authorities. Josef Stalin, premier of the Soviet Union revealed his intention to communist allies in eastern Germany by 1946 that he planned to undermine western efforts to democratize Germany first by undermining British authority in it's zone and he expected the Americans to withdraw from its zone of occupation within a span of two years which would lead the way for Soviet invasion and the domination of Germany under a purely communist regime. With the war over and a semblance of normalcy beginning to return to the land, the majority of the populations living in the newly acquired areas of the Eastern Bloc aspired for national independence and wanted the Soviets to leave their homelands. This was not to be. The East German government was closely modeled on it's Soviet overseer complete with an extensive network of often redundant organizations and security apparatuses installed to suppress the population to which it claimed to represent. Property and industry were largely nationalized in the East German zone along the lines of the Soviet collectivization ideology under communism. In 1950, the number of East Germans leaving for the West numbered 187,000. This number rose to 165,000 in 1951, 182,000 in 1952 and 331,000 in 1953. Fears of further Sovietization of eastern Germany led to a sharp spike in the number of people fleeing West, this was reflected by the fact that in the first six months of 1953, some 226,000 Germans packed up and moved West.
The East German security services and Soviet secret police began clamping down on the daily activities of those under the Soviet sphere of influence in Germany. If statements or decisions deviated from the prescribed party line, reprimands and in the case of persons beyond the scope of public attention, punishment would ensue, including not only detainment and imprisonment but also the systematic use of torture and even death could be the end result. The mandatory indoctrination into the Marxist-Leninist philosophy sent many citizens particularly the educated class of teachers and students in the Soviet Zone of Occupation fleeing for freedom from persecution in the western zones. Having largely grown distrustful of the Soviets following the period of brutal reprisals and vengeance as Soviet forces occupied eastern Germany in the immediate aftermath of the war, any chance to escape to the West was a welcomed change. West Germany soon became known for it's new Soziale Marktwirtschaft 'Social Market Economy' which embraced capitalist ideas which soon led to a much enjoyed twenty year period of prosperity known as the Wirtschaftswunder or Economic Miracle. As the situation improved in post war West Germany, the standard of living and economic situation also improved and many East Germans began seeking ways to reach the western zones to better themselves and further provide for their families.
With the German people beginning to flock in mass towards the West from the East, the Soviet authorities in eastern Germany soon installed a system of immigration restrictions and began closely monitoring the activities and movement of the population under its jurisdiction. A special pass was required to visit East Berlin from the West officially to prevent the movement of 'Western Agents' within East Germany's borders. Stalin advised the East Germans to begin building up their defensive network along the border area with West Germany. By 1952, this demarcation line officially known as the Inner German Border which separated the Federal Republic of Germany in the West, from the German Democratic Republic in the East was closed and barbed wire fences erected in an effort to restrict the movement between the two parts of the nation. The Berlin Airlift only a few years earlier had embarrassed the Soviets to no end and now they seeked other ways to spite the western Allied. In contrast to the Inner German Border Zone, in divided Berlin the border zone continued to remain open, in effect a severe miscalculation by the Soviets and the East Germans. Berlin soon became a hotbed for defection activities as many East German cities found it to be the only route of escape into the West. As a result of this, and West Berlin's status as a free city deep in the heart of East Germany, it became the epicenter for rising tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.
In 1955, the Soviets turned authority over civilian movement in Berlin over to the East German government. This transfer of power was not recognized by allied powers in the West who saw East Berlin as an illegitimate entity. With the increased movement of people westward, the new East German state move to restrict all travel to the West in 1956. With the Inner German Border closed, East Germany's government attempted to further restrict movement into West Berlin by introducing a new passport system in 1957. Those caught trying to leave were heavily fined, however with no physical barriers and a subway system running between the two halves of the city these measures were for the most part ineffective in preventing those persons from leaving the country. By 1961, nearly 20% of East Germany's population or roughly 3.5 million East Germans had escaped to freedom in the West. The majority of these immigrants fleeing from the Communist system were young, well educated individuals who sought the freedoms of democracy embraced in the West. This mass exodus from the Soviet sphere of influence was quickly referred to by the communist regime as a 'brain drain'. Most immigrants officially stated their reasons for leaving were political more than materialistic.
By 1960, the 'Brain Drain' effect had left the German Democratic Republic with only roughly 61% of its population of working age, a steep drop compared to 70.5% before the Second World War. The loss of labor force was heaviest among professional services including engineers, technicians, physicians, teachers, lawyers and skilled laborers. The direct cost of manpower losses to East Germany (and the corresponding gain to the West) was estimated to have been anywhere between $7 billion to $9 billion, with East German SED communist leader Walter Ulbricht demanding that West Germany pay him $17 billion in compensation, including reparations as well as manpower losses. In addition to this, the draining of East Germany's youth population potentially cost the East German state over 22.5 billion marks in lost educational investment. The brain drain of professionals had become so damaging to the political credibility of the SED and economic viability of the German Democratic Republic that the re-securing of the German communist frontier was imperative lest the nation collapse.
Initially denying his intentions, East German communist party leader Walter Ulbricht along with support from the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev soon signed the initiative to close the borders and erect a wall around West Berlin. Khrushchev would succeed Josef Stalin following his sudden death in 1953. At exactly midnight on 13 August 1961, East German police and military units effectively sealed the border in Berlin and a force of construction units and laborers began the tedious task of tearing up the roads adjacent to the border making them impassable to vehicles and positioning obstacles along the border itself. Barbed wire fences and entanglements were installed surrounding the entire length of West Berlin effectively sealing it off from East Germany. These barriers were precisely positioned within East German territory to ensure it did not violate West Berlin's territorial sanctity at any time. On 17 August 1961, the first cement bricks were put into place to begin the construction of the physical barrier, the Berlin Wall itself. Soldiers of the Landstreitkräfte and members of the Kampfgruppen 'Combat Groups of the Working Class' were positioned along lengths of the border with orders to shoot anyone attempting to flee East Germany for West Berlin. In addition to the manpower, an assortment of chained fences, walls, minefields and other obstacles were installed along the length of East Germany's western border with West Germany. A huge no man's land was cleared to provide a clear line of fire for Grenztruppen and Volkspolizei units attempting to stop defecting refugees from reaching their intended destination.
In an instant almost overnight, entire families of Germans were separated and Republikflucht or Desertion of the Republic as it was declared was made a capital offense by the East German government. Hundreds were shot and killed trying to cross the new Berlin Wall, and estimates show that nearly 75,000 were caught and imprisoned for trying to escape into West Berlin between the construction of the Wall in 1961 and 1989. Officially East German government authorities declared the Wall to be an Antifaschistischer Schutzwall or Anti-Fascist Protective Rampart intended to dissuade aggressive or non productive influences of the West from corrupting the progressive ways of the Workers Paradise.The Wall was essentially a public relations disaster for the SED communist officials attempting to improve their image with the people of East Germany and the World, particularly in the West. There were nine authorized crossing points along the border where Berlin citizens could cross into West Berlin and these were closely monitored by Grenztruppen forces and agents of the Stasi. Several subsequent border crossing points were established for West Germany to use for crossing into East Germany and four autobahns were designated for this purpose, linking West Berlin to West Germany by road.
The East German government did not allow apartments along the length of the Wall to be occupied and thus windows and doors of many facilities were bricked up or barricaded. In many cases the only open windows and non barricaded areas were above the third or fourth floors in an attempt to guarantee any defection attempt involving leaping from these heights would ensure serious injury if not death. With the Wall effectively in place, the SED government issued what was known as the Schießbefehl or 'shooting orders' to members of the border guards when dealing with potential defectors. Under this order, the Guards were to first aim there weapons and order the defector to halt. If the person did not stop, a warning shot was fired and if this still did not prevent the person from stopping their activities, the Guard was to open fire with the intent on killing the fleeing person. The official stance from East German authorities was intended to encourage the Guards to shoot escapees stating, "Do not hesitate to use your firearm, not even when the border is breached in the company of women and children, which is a tactic the traitors have often used".
The most famous of the land based crossing points that linked West Germany to West Berlin, through East German territory was the Berlin-Helmstedt autobahn, which entered East German territory between the towns of Helmstedt and Marienborn. This crossing point into East Germany was designated as Checkpoint Alpha, and entered West Berlin at Dreilinden in southwestern Berlin. This entry point into West Berlin would be designated as Checkpoint Bravo for Allied forces. Access to West Berlin was also possible by railway in the four of four officially sanctioned routes and by boat for commercial shipping via canals and rivers. Westerners who were not German could cross the border at the Friedrichstraße station in East Berlin and at Checkpoint Charlie. Not even the areas underneath the city escaped division. Berlin's sewer system was even barricaded to prevent defection, and with the Wall erected, Berlin's complex public transit networks, the S-Bahn and U-Bahn, both a system of underground high speed railways were divided along with the city above it. Some lines were cut in half and as a result many of the subway stations were shut down. Three western lines traveled through brief sections of East Berlin. The trains would pass through eastern stations unrestricted as they were forbidden to stop at these stations which were known as Geisterbahnhöfe, or ghost stations. Both the eastern and western networks converged at Friedrichstraße, which became a major crossing point for those who had been granted permission to cross from East to West.
Escape attempts dropped drastically with the construction of the Berlin Wall, however defections did still occur with one of the most famous being the defection of a young East German soldier named Conrad Schumann during the initial construction of the Berlin Wall. With merely a low barbed wire entanglement separating Berlin, West German citizens shouted to him, "Komme über!" or "Come over!". A West German police car pulled up to wait for him. With the motivation to defect Schumann jumped over the barbed wire fence and was promptly driven away from the scene by the West Berlin police. West German photographer Peter Leibing photographed Schumann's escape, and this picture has since become an iconic image of the Cold War. See the article on Conrad Schumann here.
Other escapes in the initial days of the constructing of the Wall simply involved people jumping the simple barbed wire fortifications or leaping out of apartment windows along the line, but these ended as the Wall was fortified and reinforced.
The first death to result from an attempt to defect into West Berlin occurred when a young woman named Ida Siekmann jumped from her third floor apartment window at 48 Bernauerstraße on 22 August 1961. The first shooting death would occur two days later on 24 August 1961, when a young twenty four year old tailor named Günter Litfin was shot by members of the Grenztruppen as he attempted to defect by swimming across the Spree Canal to West Germany. 24 August was also the day that the Schießbefehl officially went into effect. East German citizens still managed to best the East German fortifications and successfully defect by a variety of methods. These measures included not only digging long tunnels under the wall but also waiting for favorable winds and taking a hot air balloon, sliding along aerial wires, flying ultralight aircraft across the Wall, and in one instance, simply driving a sports car at full speed through the basic, initial fortifications. As a response to the motor vehicle traffic as a measures of defection, a metal beam was em-placed at checkpoints to further prevent this kind of defection. The people countered this by having up to four people, usually with two in the front seats and possibly two in the trunk of the vehicle drove under the bar in a sports car that had been specially modified to allow the roof and windscreen to sheer away when it made contact with the metal obstruction. The escapees would lay flat and keep driving forward until they were clear of East German territory and reached the safety of West Germany. The East Germans responded to this by constructing zig-zagging roads leading up to checkpoints. The sewer system although with it's own network of barricades served as a means of escape. Some people escaped through the sewers, and in a number of cases with assistance from a prominent student group from the western side of the city.
Another highly successful escape occurred in April 1963 on the eve of the annual May Day celebrations in East Germany when a nineteen year old civilian employee of the Nationale Volksarmee named Wolfgang Engels penetrated the Wall and escaped into the West. Engels having won the confidence of Soviet soldiers earlier and got them to demonstrate the operation of their vehicle, stole a Soviet armored personnel carrier from a nearby base where he was deployed and drove it right into the Wall. The vehicle did not fully penetrate the Wall and Engels was forced to exit the vehicle and became entangled in barbed wire. As a result of what was occurring he was shot at and hit twice, which seriously wounded him. A West German policeman intervened on Engel's behalf, firing his weapon at the East German border guards and removed Engels from the vehicle, which too was entangled in the barbed wire. He was removed from the scene to the safety of a West German bar and he would recover from his wounds in a West German hospital.
On another occasion, Thomas Krüger a member of the East German youth organization the Gesellschaft für Sport und Technik, made an airborne escape attempt and landed a Zlin Z 42M light aircraft at the British military airfield at RAF Gatow in West Berlin. His aircraft was returned to East Germany, but not without tongue in cheek slogans sprawled across it from Royal Air Force servicemen such as "Wish you were here" and "Come back soon".
Many potential escapees were wounded attempting to flee into the West and if they were within the 'death strip' area no matter their proximity to the western side, Westerners could not intervene to assist the wounded out of fear of provoking attack from East German military or security forces. East German Grenztruppen border guards notoriously left wounded would be defectors to bleed to death in this area such was the most infamous case regarding eighteen year old Peter Fechter on 17 August 1962. The negative attention garnered by the East German government as a result of the Fechter incident, prompted East German authorities to authorize and enforce stricter rules for the discharging of weapons in public view. Following the Fechtner incident, the policy of leaving wounded to die was reversed and medical care was to be offered to the wounded individual. The last shooting death along the Wall occurred in 1989 when twenty year old Christopher Gueffroy was hit in the chest by ten rounds from AK-47 assault rifles fired by Grenztruppen soldiers and left to die in the border strip. The widespread violence associated with the construction of the Wall led many in the East to develop feelings of desperation and feeling oppressed by the ruling regime.
Throughout the duration of its existence, it is estimated that 5,000 people successfully escaped through the Berlin Wall into West Germany. Almost 200 were confirmed killed attempting to escape and another 75,000 were wounded attempting to defect.
The beginning of the end of the Berlin Wall came on 12 June 1987, when American President Ronald Reagan visited West Berlin to commemorate the 750th anniversary of the city of Berlin. In a speech at the Brandenburg Gate, he openly challenged Soviet leader and General Secretary of the Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev. In a speech which would become famous, Reagan demanded that he open the Brandenburg Gate and tear down the Berlin Wall as a symbol of granting increasing freedom in the Eastern Bloc.
On 19 August 1989, the People's Republic of Hungary began dismantling its border defenses along its border with the Republic of Austria and in the following month some 13,000 East Germans traveled first to Hungary as tourists to defect to the West through Austria. With this in effect, the Hungarians began refusing East Germans access to the border areas and sent them to Budapest to await repatriation to the German Democratic Republic. Rather than go back to the oppression of East German, these people stormed the West German embassy seeking asylum in West Germany. When knowledge of this became widespread, the East German authorities forbid further travel to Hungary by its citizens and a small incident broke out in neighboring Czechoslovakia. Protests soon followed all across East Germany which led to the widespread Peaceful Revolution of 1989.
The longtime leader of the German Democratic Republic and SED Communist Party, Erich Honecker, effectively resigned on 18 October 1989 and was replaced by Egon Krenz a few days later. Honecker had announced in January, that the wall would stand for 50 or 100 more years if the conditions that had caused its construction did not change. The Peaceful Revolution would peak in November when half a million people gathered at the Alexanderplatz demonstration, to advocate change in East Germany. The amount of refugees continued to increase as they fled East Germany through Czechoslovakia and then into Hungary or through the West German embassy in Prague. On 9 November 1989, Günter Schabowski, the party boss in East Berlin and the spokesman for the SED Politburo, had the task of announcing new relaxed travel restrictions allowing refugees to exit directly through the authorized border crossing points between East Germany and West Germany, including those in West Berlin. On the same day, the ministerial administration modified the proposal to include private travel. The new regulations were to take effect the next day 10 November 1989.
He read the note authorizing the changes out loud at the end of a conference and one of the reporters, ANSA's Riccardo Ehrman, asked when the regulations would take effect. After a few seconds' pausing with hesitation, Schabowski having been given no further instructions on how to handle the situation assumed it would be the same day based on the wording of the note and replied, "As far as I know effective immediately, without delay". After further questions from journalists he confirmed that the regulations included the border crossings towards West Berlin, which he had not mentioned until then. With no one wanting to take personal responsibility for issuing orders to use force to subdue the growing crowds, Grenztruppen personnel were soon overwhelmed by the mass of East German citizens and at 10:45 pm on 9 November 1989, the border checkpoints were opened and people flooded in celebration into both parts of the city. Not everyone in East Germany or other Communist nations were enthused about the collapse of communism or the impending reunification of Germany. One prominent figure to oppose the reunification was British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whom in September 1989 pleaded with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to do what he could to prevent the fall of the Wall. Another person who opposed the reunification of Germany was French President François Mitterrand.
The Wall would begin to crumble almost immediately as "Mauerspechte" or wall woodpeckers began using sledgehammers, hammers and chisels to chip off pieces of the Wall as souvenirs, often destroying lengthy parts of it in the process and creating several unofficial border crossings. A week following the 9 November announcements ten new border checkpoints were announced. These new locations included Potsdamer Platz, Glienicker Brücke and Bernauer Straße with the historically significant Brandenburg Gate being officially opened on 22 December 1989. After subsequent policies and new restrictions, for a period of time East Germans could travel more freely than their West German counterparts. On 13 June 1990, the East German government began the official dismantling of the Wall at Bernauer Straße. On 1 July, the East German government officially adopted the West German Deutsche Mark as its standard currency and all border control checkpoints ceased to be manned and operated. The inter-German border had however become meaningless for some time before that point. The dismantling continued to be carried out by Nationale Volksarmee units and later by Bundeswehr units after the NVA was absorbed into the Bundeswehr. The removal of the border fortifications and obstacles lasted until November 1991. Only a few small sections of the Wall and its watchtowers were left to remain standing as memorials to the division of Germany.
The fall of the Berlin Wall was the first step towards complete German reunification, which was concluded on 3 October 1990 when for the first time since 1949, East and West ceased to exist and Germany became whole once again.
The Berlin Wall would run the entire length around West Berlin, effectively 96 miles. The length of the border between West Berlin and East Germany was 69.5 miles, with the length of the border between West and East Berlin being 26.8 miles. 23 miles of the border would run through residential areas and the concreted wall segments would reach a height of 12 feet tall. The length of the concrete segments of the Wall were 66 miles with 41.3 miles of the border being made up of wire mesh fencing. There were 65.6 miles of anti-vehicle trenches and 79.2 miles of signal and or contact fences strung along this area. There were 302 watch towers constructed around West Berlin and 20 bunkers placed in positions around the City.