The Berlin Wall: Dividing West & East Berlin … Epitome of the Cold War

Compiled by Retd SLAF Group Captain Kumar Kirinde, with this title “Berlin Wall: The Guarded Concrete Barrier That Once Encircled  A Part of the German Capital”



The Berlin Wall was a guarded concrete barrier that encircled West Berlin of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG and referred to as West Germany), from 1961 to 1989, separating it from East Berlin and the German Democratic Republic (GDR and referred to as East Germany). FRG belonged to the post war USA led Western Bloc of countries and GDR to the USSR led Eastern Bloc.

After the end of World War II in Europe, what remained of pre-war Germany west of the Oder-Neisse line was divided into four occupation zones (as per the Potsdam Agreement), each one controlled by one of the four occupying Allied powers: the United States, the United Kingdom, France and the Soviet Union. The capital of Berlin, as the seat of the Allied Control Council, was similarly subdivided into four sectors despite the city’s location, which was fully within the Soviet zone.

Construction of the Berlin Wall was commenced by the government of the GDR in August 1961. It included guard towers placed along large concrete walls, accompanied by a wide area (later known as the “death strip”) that contained anti-vehicle trenches, beds of nails and other defenses. The primary intention for the Wall’s construction was to prevent East German citizens from fleeing to the West.

Before the Wall’s erection, 3.5 million East Germans circumvented Eastern Bloc emigration restrictions and defected from the GDR, many by crossing over the border from East Berlin into West Berlin; from there they could then travel to West Germany and to other Western European countries. Between 1961 and 1989, the Wall prevented almost all such emigration. During this period, over 100,000 people attempted to escape, and over 5,000 people succeeded in escaping over the Wall, with an estimated death toll of those murdered by East German authorities ranging from 136 to more than 200 in and around Berlin.

In 1989, a series of revolutions in nearby Eastern Bloc countries—in Poland and Hungary in particular—caused a chain reaction in East Germany. In particular, the Pan-European Picnic in August 1989 set in motion a peaceful development during which the Iron Curtain largely broke, the rulers in the East came under pressure to cease their repressive policies, the Berlin Wall fell and finally the Eastern Bloc collapsed.

After several weeks of civil unrest, the East German government announced in November 1989 that all GDR citizens could visit the FRG and West Berlin. Crowds of East Germans crossed and climbed onto the Wall, joined by West Germans on the other side in a celebratory atmosphere. Over the next few weeks, souvenir hunters chipped away parts of the Wall. The Brandenburg Gate, a few meters from the Berlin Wall, was opened in December 1989. The demolition of the Wall officially began on 13 June 1990 and was completed in 1994. The fall of the Berlin Wall paved the way for German reunification, which formally took place on 3 October 1990.

The wall

Structure of the Berlin Wall (left to right) Border Outer strip Concrete wall with rounded top Anti vehicle ditch “Death strip” sand bank Guard road Lighting Observation towers Spikes or tank traps Electrified fence with alarms







Defection attempts

During the years of the Wall, around 5,000 people successfully defected to West Berlin. The number of people who died trying to cross the Wall, or as a result of the Wall’s existence, has been disputed. The most vocal claims by Alexandra Hildebrandt, Director of the Checkpoint Charlie Museum and widow of the Museum’s founder, estimated the death toll to be well above 200. A historic research group at the Centre for Contemporary History (ZZF) in Potsdam has confirmed at least 140 deaths. Prior official figures listed 98 as being killed.

The East German government issued shooting orders to border guards dealing with defectors, though such orders are not the same as “shoot to kill” orders. GDR officials denied issuing the latter. In an October 1973 order later discovered by researchers, guards were instructed that people attempting to cross the Wall were criminals and needed to be shot:

Do not hesitate to use your firearm, not even when the border is breached in the company of women and children, which is a tactic the traitors have often used.

Early successful escapes involved people jumping the initial barbed wire or leaping out of apartment windows along the line, but these ended as the Wall was fortified. East German authorities no longer permitted apartments near the Wall to be occupied, and any building near the Wall had its windows boarded and later bricked up. In August 1961, Conrad Schumann was the first East German border guard to escape by jumping the barbed wire to West Berlin.

Then in August 1961, Ida Siekmann was the first casualty at the Berlin Wall: she died after she jumped out of her third floor apartment. The first person to be shot and killed while trying to cross to West Berlin was Günter Litfin, a twenty-four-year-old tailor. He attempted to swim across the Spree to West Berlin also in August 1961, the same day that East German police had received shoot-to-kill orders to prevent anyone from escaping.

  October 7, 1961. Four-year-old Michael Finder of East Germany is tossed by his father into a net held by residents across the border in West Berlin. The father, Willy Finder, then prepares to make the jump himself.

Memorial to the Victims of the Wall, with graffiti, 1982.


Not all segments of the Wall were ground up as the Wall was being torn down. Many segments have been given to various institutions in the world. They can be found, for instance, in presidential and historical museums, lobbies of hotels and corporations, at universities and government buildings, and in public spaces in different countries of the world.

On 13 August 2011, Germany marked the 50th anniversary of East Germany beginning the erection of the Berlin Wall. Chancellor Angela Merkel joined with President Christian Wulff and Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit at the Bernauer Straße memorial park to remember lives and liberty. Speeches extolled freedom and a minute of silence at noon honored those who died trying to flee to the West. “It is our shared responsibility to keep the memory alive and to pass it on to the coming generations as a reminder to stand up for freedom and democracy to ensure that such injustice may never happen again.” entreated Mayor Wowereit. “It has been shown once again: Freedom is invincible at the end. No wall can permanently withstand the desire for freedom”, proclaimed President Wulff.

 The Day the Wall Came Down (1996), a statue depicting horses leaping over actual pieces of the Berlin Wall





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3 responses to “The Berlin Wall: Dividing West & East Berlin … Epitome of the Cold War

  1. Lam Seneviratne

    In 1972 I had the opportunity to go through Checkpoint Charlie at Freidrichstrase to East Berlin. The contrast was stark, everything was drab and depressing.

  2. Pingback: East Berlin & Check-Point Charlie, 1976 …. The Depth of the Cold War | Thuppahi's Blog

  3. Piero Perondi

    Hi Mr. Michael
    very interesting, for the first time I understood how this checkpoint was organised! Thank you

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