For decades, Germany was broken into two smaller countries, East and West Germany. The Berlin Wall split the capital city in half, even separating families. So, why were they divided and how did they reunify?
The Division of Germany
In the aftermath of World War Two, Germany was a little bit of a mess. In an attempt to start repairing the country, the Potsdam Agreement of 1945 gave each of the Allied powers (the UK, USA, and France) and the Soviet Union a quarter of the country. Technically, Berlin was in the Soviet region, but as it was the capital, they also split it between the four. The goal, of course, was to eventually reunite Germany as a whole.
However, over the next few years, political divisions between the Allies and the Soviet Union increased, as the latter resisted reuniting the country. The USA wanted Germany to be capitalist, while the Soviet Union favoured communism. This conflict led to the Cold War, which continued through the rest of the 20th century – the division of Korea arose from a similar situation! West Berlin, especially, was in a tricky situation, a capitalist city in a communist territory. In 1948, a Soviet blockade even tried to starve the Allies out of the city. Instead, the USA simply airlifted supplies into the city, until the blockade was called off.
In 1949, Germany officially became two separate countries. West Germany (FGR) was allied to the Western nations, and East Germany (DGR) remained allied to the Soviet Union. Many East Germans tried to move into West Germany, seeking a democratic rather than communist nation. Until 1952 that is, when East Germany closed the border – except in Berlin. Over the next decade, 3 million more fled from East to West through the city.
Building the Berlin Wall
After a while, East Germany decided they’d had enough of their people trying to leave. It was even starting to threaten the country’s economy, with so many skilled workers going! So, on 12th August 1961, they announced that the border was going to close. Thousands more fled that day, but then, that night, East Germany built a makeshift barbed wire and cinder block wall around West Berlin. Overnight, neighbourhoods were divided, and West Berlin was isolated.
There were three main checkpoints to cross the border, Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie, though more were added later. East German officers had to approve entry to the country, ending the free, easy movement that had existed before. They enforced strict rules, and it meant that most East Germans could never cross, so many lost their jobs and were separated from family. East Germany then set about strengthening the wall. They replaced the early version with a 12ft concrete wall, with over 300 watchtowers and a smooth pipe on the top, making it harder to scale. They also built a second fence, about 100m further into the East, and demolished all the houses between them.
Life with the Wall
Despite this big old wall blocking the way, East Germans continued trying to flee. It was no easy task though. The stretch of land between the two walls was known as the Death Strip. Yes, it was as bad as it sounds. They spread sand on the ground, to make it easier to see footprints, and installed floodlights, beds of nails, and trip-wire machine guns. Armed soldiers and vicious dogs patrolled, with orders to shoot on sight. There was no cover.
At least 100 people were killed trying to cross the wall during its history, though the exact number varies. Thousands more were captured in their attempts. Yet, somehow, at least 5,000 successfully defected to West Germany. They jumped from windows, crawled through sewers, or climbed the barbed wire to make it over the border.
Meanwhile, in West Berlin, despite being an isolated city within East Germany, its residents were free to travel to West Germany, and other countries not in the Eastern bloc. They could even travel into East Germany, especially to visit relatives, but had to abide by strict rules to do so. For most people there, life was far easier than in the East, with less oppressive laws, but they still had to watch helplessly as their country remained divided. Many other world leaders and notable figures were concerned by the situation – such as President Kennedy – but little could be done to help.
The Fall of the Berlin Wall
During the 1980s, more and more people spoke out against the Berlin Wall and the division of Germany. Then, in 1989, the Eastern bloc began to crumble. The Soviet Union lost control of many of those countries, as democracy swept over Eastern Europe. This sparked further protests and calls for change in Berlin. Finally, on 9th November, the East German government announced that its people were free to travel into West Berlin as of midnight.
However, originally, they only intended to change the regulations, but a failure in communication led to the announcement saying the border was fully open. Thousands flooded the checkpoints, overwhelming the officers there, so they had little choice but to let them through. An estimated 2 million visiting West Berlin that weekend, with both sides celebrating joyously. People took hammers and pick axes to the wall, chipping out pieces as souvenirs.
Yet while the wall no longer served as a political barrier, it still stood for a few more months. Bulldozers opened up ten new crossings though, to make it easier for the hordes of people to get through. They continued demolishing more and more sections over the following months, and repaired the roads that had once been severed. This was the first step towards the reunification of Germany, which was finally achieved on 3rd October 1990, less than a year later. East Germany was dissolved and rejoined the West, forming the united Germany we see today.
While the majority of the Berlin Wall has been demolished, there are various sections around the city that still stand today. You have several choices of which parts to see, some more intact than others. For example, in Potsdamer Platz, you will find a few graffitied, concrete blocks remaining in the square, alongside information posts about the wall. Checkpoint Charlie is also a popular site, an American controlled border crossing, where people can now pose for photos with ‘guards’ in costumes, and there’s a small museum nearby.
The Wall Memorial
To learn most about the Berlin Wall’s history, the Memorial shows you what life was like beside the it. The wall went right down the centre of Bernauer Straße, directly in front of East German homes. When it was built in 1961, hundreds tried to cross illegally. They built underground tunnels or jumped from their windows, and many lost their lives here. Many homes were also destroyed in order to build it, and the remains of some have now been excavated.
The Memorial includes a concrete section of the wall, as well as wooden posts installed to show where the rest used to stand. There are several open air exhibitions with information, photos, and audio recordings about its history. The visitor centre has more exhibitions about the history of the construction of the wall, and an observation tower to see the crossing points. Finally, there is the Chapel of Reconciliation, a modern looking church building that was constructed after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The original church was demolished in 1985, as it was on the border strip, but pieces of its rubble are embedded into the clay walls of the new building. Outside it, the Window of Memorial displays photographs of those who lost their lives attempting to cross.
East Side Gallery
Probably one of the most famous sections of the Berlin Wall still standing is the East Side Gallery. This 1.3km stretch of concrete is adorned with dozens of colourful murals, making it the longest open air gallery in the world. As demolition of the wall began, over 100 artists came from 21 different countries to paint this section. It was officially opened as a gallery in September 1990, and given memorial status a year later. Most of the paintings reflect the political changes of the time, and the city’s hopes for the future.
Many of the paintings have been damaged by the weather, erosion, and graffiti, being exposed to the open air all the time. Work to restore the paintings began in the 21st century, and by 2009, nearly all of it had been repainted. One of the most famous murals is Dmitri Vrubel’s ‘Fraternal Kiss’, showing Brezhnev (Soviet leader) and Honecker (East German leader) kissing passionately. Informative tours about this area are also available, or you can explore yourself. On the other side of the gallery, you can relax and walk along the banks of the River Spree.
Entry & opening hours: Most areas of the wall available to visit are free and outdoors. The exception is the visitor centre at the Memorial, which is closed on Mondays, and open 10.00am-6.00pm the rest of the week, with free entry.
Berlin is easy to navigate by public transport, and the various sites are all close to u-Bahn (underground train) stations. Postdamer Platz and Checkpoint Charlie are in the city centre. The Memorial is slightly further north, on Bernauer Straße, close to the station of the same name. The East Side Gallery is out to the east (funnily enough), on Mulhenstraße, next to the River Spree, and closest to Schlesisches Tor station.
Have you visited any part of the Berlin Wall before? Leave a comment about your experience!