The Berlin Wall, sometimes referred to it as the ‘Wall of Shame’, was the name of a guarded concrete barrier that divided Berlin from 1961 to 1989. It was built by East Germany to stop exodus of the East Germans to the West.
After the end of the WW II, the United States and the Soviet Union had begun to emerge as two ideologically opposed superpowers and the defeated Germany became the focus of Cold War politics. Finally, in 1949, Germany was formally bifurcated into two independent states. While the Russians took control of the German Democratic Republic or East Germany, the West Germany or the Federal Republic of Germany became allied to the Western democracies. Though the city of Berlin was located entirely within the Soviet part, according to the Yalta and Potsdam agreements, the city was also divided into similar sectors. The Soviets took the control of the eastern part, while the other Allies took the western. However, in 1952, the East German government closed the border with West Germany, but the border between East and West Berlin remained open. East Germans could still take the opportunity to escape through the city to the less oppressive and more affluent West.
However, the Russians detested the presence of the western forces in Berlin. In an attempt to drive them out, the Russians started a blockade of West Berlin in 1948, aiming to starve the Western Allies out of the city. But, the Russians failed in their attempt as the United States and its allies supplied their sectors of the city from the air. This effort on the part of the western block, known as the Berlin Airlift, lasted for more than a year, after which the Soviets called off the blockade.
Russia was embarrassed by the regular flow of people from the East to the West Germany, which included young and skilled workers and professionals, like the scientists, engineers, doctors and teachers. About 19,000 people left the GDR through Berlin in 1961 and in the following month the number increased to 30, 000. On 12 August, in the same year, around 2,400 East Germans crossed the border into West Berlin, making the largest number of defectors ever to leave East Germany in a single day. That night, Nikita Khrushchev, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964, and the Chairman of the Council of Ministers, or Premier, from 1958 to 1964, instructed the East German government to stop the flow of emigrants by closing its border for good.
Immediately, a wire barrier was constructed around West Berlin. Established crossing points between the Western and Soviet sectors were closed, dividing the city and separating families overnight. Gradually, the makeshift wall was replaced with a sturdier and more difficult to scale massive wall. The12 feet tall and 4feet wide mass of reinforced concrete was topped with an enormous pipe. The Berlin Wall was actually, a double wall. The two 155 km (96 miles) long walls were separated by a heavily guarded, mined corridor of land known as the 'death strip'. It was equipped with floodlights and was under the constant surveillance of vicious dogs and armed East German border guards who were authorised to shoot anyone attempting to escape into West Berlin. The number of watchtowers increased to 302 by 1989.
Before the construction of the Berlin wall, Berliners on both sides of the city could move around freely and cross the East-West border to work, to shop or to go to the theater and the movies. Trains and subway lines also used to carry passengers back and forth. But, after the construction of the wall, it became impossible to exit from East Berlin except through one of three checkpoints - at Helmstedt or Checkpoint Alpha, at Dreilinden or Checkpoint Bravo and in the centre of Berlin at Friedrichstrasse alias Checkpoint Charlie. Subsequently, the GDR built 12 checkpoints along the wall. At each of the checkpoints, East German soldiers used to screen the diplomats and other officials before they were allowed to enter or leave. Except under special circumstances, travelers from East and West Berlin were seldom allowed across the border.
The construction of the Berlin Wall did stop the flood of refugees from East to West, but the imposed restrictions made the people of the East Germany desperate. Between 1961 and 1989 over 100,000 people attempted to escape and over 5,000 people, which include around 600 border guards, succeeded in escaping over the Wall by jumping out of the windows adjacent to the wall, climbing over the barbed wire, flying in hot air balloons, crawling through the sewers or driving through unfortified parts of the wall at breakneck speed. Unfortunately, more than 200 people lost their lives in and around Berlin, while trying to cross the wall.
In 1989 a series of revolutions in nearby Eastern Bloc countries, particularly in Poland and Hungary, caused several weeks of civil unrest in East Germany. On November 9, 1989, a spokesman for East Berlin’s Communist Party announced that all the citizens of the East Germany are free to visit West Germany and West Berlin. That night, ecstatic crowds of the East and the West Germany swarmed the wall. Some crossed the wall freely into West Berlin, while others brought hammers and picks and crazily began to chip away at the wall itself. Later, they came to be known as ‘mauerspechte,’ or the wall woodpeckers. The celebration continued for several weeks, till the government engaged cranes and bulldozers to pull down the remaining sections of the infamous wall.
The fall of the Berlin Wall signaled the unification of Germany, which came true on 3 October 1990.
The Wall was a symbol of oppression and inhumanity in the 20th century. It was obliterated from the face of the world. However, few pieces of the wall were shifted to different spots, where they still remain standing as popular attractions. The longest extant section of the Wall runs for 1.3 km along the River Spree. In 1990, the eastern side of the wall was painted by 118 artists from 21 countries, resulting in the longest open air gallery in the world.