The Berlin Wall’s story began in the early hours of August 13th, 1961, when the government of East Germany ordered the closure of all borders between East and West Berlin. As the sun rose that morning, Berliners were awoken by the sound of trucks, jackhammers, and other heavy machinery.
Watched by Soviet troops and East German police, workmen began breaking up roads, footpaths, and other structures, before laying thousands of meters of temporary but impassable fencing, barricades, and barbed wire. They worked for several days, completely surrounding the western zones of Berlin and cutting them off from the city’s eastern sectors.
Berliners were in shock. “A concentration camp barrier” has been stretched through the center of Berlin, said then mayor – and later chancellor – Willy Brandt a few hours later in front of the city’s parliament. The Berlin Wall would remain for exactly 10,315 days, becoming a symbol of the Cold War and dividing the world into two hostile blocs: the capitalist West and the communist East.
The wall became a stark and foreboding symbol of the Cold War. In the West, its presence was exploited as propaganda. The Berlin Wall, Western leaders said, was evidence that East Germany was a failing state, that thousands of its people did not want to live under communism. US Secretary of State Dean Rusk called the Wall “a monument to communist failure” while West German mayor Willy Brandt called it “the wall of shame”.
In Washington, there was considerable debate about how the US should respond to the erection of the Berlin Wall. Ever the realist, President Kennedy knew that threats or shows of aggression might provoke confrontation or lead to war. He instead focused his attention on West Berlin, hailing it as a small but determined bastion of freedom, locked inside an imprisoned state.
Kennedy visited West Berlin in June 1963 and was greeted by ecstatic crowds, which cheered wildly and showered his motorcade with flowers and confetti. In the Rudolph Wilde Platz (later renamed the John F. Kennedy Platz), the US president told a rapt audience: “There are many people in the world who really don’t understand, or say they don’t, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin. There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin. And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. ‘Lass sie nach Berlin kommen’: let them come to Berlin… Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all men are not free… All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words: ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ (I am a citizen of Berlin).”
Improvements on the Wall continued until 1980 when the entire wall had been converted to reinforced concrete sections which were 12 feet high and 4 feet wide each. On top of the wall was barbed wire in addition to watchtowers manned with soldiers having machine guns. By the 1980s, the wall had extended 28 miles through Berlin and covered 75 miles around West Berlin. There were extensive barriers along the border of East and West Germany that covered 850 miles.
The demolition of the Berlin Wall began on the evening of November 9, 1989. Over the following weeks, citizens of East Germany began using varied tools to demolish parts of the wall creating unofficial crossing points. Soon afterward the government of East Germany demolished sections of the wall to create ten official crossing points, and by December 22, 1989, it allowed visa-free travel on both sides of the wall.
On June 13, 1990, East Germany’s army began official demolition of the wall and completed the job in November 1991 signaling the official reunification of Germany. During the 28 years, it stood, only about 5,000 people managed to cross over the wall, escaping into West Berlin. More than 100 are believed to have been killed in the attempt, most shot by East German border guards.
(Photo credit: The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images / AP).