The History of the Berlin Wall in Seven Questions & Answers

This post is a written version of our report from episode #46, which you can listen to from 9th November 2014.

Does the Berlin Wall still exist today? Does its impact affect Germany even today?

In Berlin, along Niederkirchnerstraße in the city centre, stands a remnant of the Wall which divided the city for 28 years. It is tall and imposing, but the holes through the reinforced concrete slabs and the fact that only a small stretch of it still exists at this site have removed its power. The Berlin Wall is now a tourist attraction where people gather to have their photos taken, mostly on this street, at the nearby former border crossing Checkpoint Charlie and at the East Side Gallery along the river Spree.

Despite the fall of the wall, some still talk of a ‘Wall in the Mind’, that is in the difference in mentality of the two sides of Germany, and the way they think of each other. Whether or not this really still exists, it is clear that, despite much investment and progress, the East still does not match up to the West in many factors - economy, unemployment, household income and so on.

How did the Wall come into existence?

When the GDR came into being in 1949, citizens were free to cross between the Western and Eastern sides of the city without a problem.

In 1961 that was to change. The person you just heard was Walter Ulbricht, the leader of East Germany, known as the German Democratic Republic or GDR. His famous words, “Niemand hat die Absicht eine Mauer zu errichten”, in English “Nobody has the intention of building a wall”, came just hours before troops sealed the border and a crude physical divide was erected.

This action formalised the gulf between the capitalist west and the communist, Soviet-aligned East, which was to dominate politics in the Cold War for years to come.

Was it difficult to cross the Wall?

The border within Berlin developed over time to make it more difficult and dangerous to cross. The famous tall, graffiti-covered wall people often have in their minds was from the view of the West. Beyond that was a patch of barren, empty land known as the death strip, which lay between the western wall and another eastern wall.  

Being caught planning or carrying out an escape attempt would lead to a hefty prison sentence but there was a worse fate for those sighted crossing the death strip.

The Todesstreifen was monitored by guards in watchtowers who were given the order to shoot on sight anyone who might try to escape into the West. Add to that signal fencing, barbed-wire, dog patrols and anti-vehicle trenches - an escape attempt meant there was a risk of death to anyone desperate enough to do so.

And people did die. 5,000 successfully crossed through various means including zip-lines, tunnels, swimming over canals and being smuggled in vehicles, but 136 people died.

Günther Litfin was the first of these to be killed while crossing the border illegally. Weeks after the wall was built, he tried to swim to the West in a canal but was spotted by police and shot dead. He was just 24 years old.

What caused the fall of the Wall?

While there were grand speeches from western leaders to associate themselves with the Berliners’ plight and calls to “tear down the wall”, messages which were symbolically important and impactful, in the end they were not responsible for the fall of the wall. That came down to the citizens of East Germany.

Berliners and Germans across the GDR increasingly protested for freedom of the press, an end to police violence and true democracy, instead of the dominance by ruling SED party, despite the fact that such demonstrations were banned by the regime.  

The protests swelled to include hundreds of thousands of people. The pressure on the government, to either forcefully contain the demonstrations or to allow more freedom, increased.

And what happened on November 9th 1989?

In the end, it was decided to relax slightly the previously strict rules governing travel into the West.

An odd turn of events, however, meant that the disintegration of the border 25 years ago on 9th November 1989 came about from a mistake at a press conference.

Günter Schabowski, a member of the SED party, was told that border rules would be relaxed. But the information that the opening was to take place in a controlled manner the next day did not reach him. When asked when the changes would take place, he spontaneously said “As far as I know it is from now, immediately”. These few words, a misunderstanding by one spokesperson of the GDR and the government, changed history.

They were the words that brought a wave of East Germans to move towards border checkpoints. The guards, who were supposed to be informed of the changes the next day, were taken by surprise.

Overwhelmed by the amount of people flooding the checkpoints, guards eventually decided to let the people through.

What affect did the decision to open up the checkpoints have?

Suddenly, with a few simple words, a border through which spontaneous crossing could have meant death, lost its power. The previously politically entrenched divide melted away and thousands of East Germans walked the few metres into the West for the first time in their lives, or for the first time in close to three decades.

The disintegration of the Berlin Wall led to the same at the Inner German Border and eventually the entire Iron Curtain separating the West and East of Europe fell entirely.

To some it seemed inevitable that, with a meaningless border, the two sides of Germany would reunite, and that’s what happened. On the 3rd October 1990, the country which was torn into two in the geopolitical wrangling which followed a horrific war, was united once again.