The Berlin Wall

26th Anniversary of Berlin Wall Fall
26th Anniversary of Berlin Wall Fall. Getty Images

The Berlin Wall was a physical barrier which surrounded West Berlin, cutting it off from both East Berlin and the surrounding parts of East Germany. The wall was erected by the communist government of East Germany in 1961 to prevent disaffected people fleeing to the West and fell in 1989 after the collapse of Russian backing for the East German government and the opening of crossing points.


In the aftermath of the Second World War Germany was occupied by four liberating powers: Russia, France, Britain, and the United States.

Berlin, the capital of Germany, was in the Russian sector but was also split into four sections amongst the same powers. With the rise of the Cold War, which saw liberated western nations return to capitalism and democracy but eastern ones become communist satellites dominated by Russia, the divided Germany became a source of conflict between East and West.

Russia grew concerned that West Germany, which experienced freedoms, economic growth, and integration with Western states, was undermining both East Germany and the whole Soviet power bloc. After attempts to force a renegotiation of terms failed after the Berlin Blockade, overtures were made to reunite Germany under a truly neutral government. The West spurned such offers. By 1960 there was due to be further discussions, but Russia and East Germany pulled out after an American spy plane was shot down over Russia.

Immediate Cause

Between 1949 and 1961 2.7 million East Germans had fled to Western Germany, including considerable numbers of professionals which the home nation found hard to replace.

With talks on the future of the divided Germany stalled, and desperate to keep East Germans hemmed in, the East German government, with backing from an initially reluctant Russia, began a program of shutting the border between East and West Germany. On the night of August 12-13, 1961 barriers went up around the whole of West Berlin, despite a statement earlier that year that a wall would not go up.

The Berlin Wall

The barrier around West Berlin was first barbed wire and then cinder blocks, 96 miles long. In June 1962 this was improved and a parallel barrier was created up to 100 yards deeper into East German territory, creating a No Man's Land between the two colloquially known as the 'Death Strip'; it afforded no cover. In 1965 the old 'wall' was replaced by a concrete wall with a sewer pipe on the top and between 1975 and 1980 by the fourth generation of the wall built from concrete blocks twelve foot high with a smooth round top. There were also anti-vehicle measures, bunkers, watchtowers and electrified fences.


The wall divided the city, cutting people off from jobs and families. Although there were protests in West Berlin, and despite criticism from the US, ultimately the West could do nothing to stop the wall and by 1962 there was tacit agreement that the wall was a fact of life. US President Kennedy said, "It's not a very nice solution... but a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war". The jury is out on how successful the wall was in stopping the drain of people across to the West: Around 5000 managed to cross between 1961 and 1989 and over 100, perhaps over 200, people were killed as they tried to cross.

Fall of the Berlin Wall

In the late 1980s, Russian leader Gorbachev decided to abandon Russia’s satellite states to try and save his crumbling nation, allowing democracy to filter through, as it did in Poland. There were anti-government protests in East Germany and, after some initially stern words by East German leader Honecker which threatened violence, Russia refused to back him and he resigned. The new leader, Egon Krenz, decided against violence and instead ordered a relaxation of travel restrictions to the West in order to try and defuse rising tensions.

However, when a politburo member called Schabowski briefed the media on November 9th, 1989 on the swiftly written decree he misinterpreted what it said, announcing that East Germans could freely use all border crossings to "permanently exit" the nation.

Word soon spread and people gathered at the border crossings. Although the guards had no orders to do so, they reopened the borders with the rest of Germany, allowing people to cross freely. The wall ceased to function from that day forward, and people were soon chipping away at it, eventually knocking it down. The East German government withered away.

The Berlin Wall as a Symbol

The Berlin Wall soon became a truly physical symbol of both the Cold War and the Iron Curtain, the divisions made manifest. It was also hugely embarrassing for the cause of communism, the ideology which was supposed to be so attractive to workers now having to pen them in to stop defections to the capitalist West. Russian and other communist leaders realized this and were initially against the Wall, but Soviet leader Khrushchev, who called the wall a "hateful thing" felt they had no choice: "[T]he East German economy would have collapsed if we hadn’t done something soon against the mass flight…So the wall was the only remaining option." (John Lewis Gaddis, ​The Cold War, 2005, p. 115). The Berlin Wall also stabilized East Germany - and the Cold War - by stopping the drain of workers and relaxing pressure on a major fault line, allowing the situation in Germany to become much less of an issue in US/USSR foreign policy and allowing the focus to move elsewhere in the world.