6 Things You Didn't Know About the Berlin Wall

Throughout the 1950s, East Germany had been hemorrhaging citizens to the West, and the East German government was worried. The young, educated and skilled were highly represented amongst those who were deciding that they wanted out, and the easiest exit route was through West Berlin. It was clear from both sides that the East would collapse if the exodus continued at the same rate, and some could see the writing on the wall: if the border stayed open people would continue to leave.

Thus, for the next 28 years the city was divided by the Berlin Wall, a concrete symbol of the Cold War the world over. As notorious as the Wall was, though, there are details about it which may surprise you.   

1. It Went Up Overnight

At a press conference on June 15th 1961 East German chancellor Walter Ulbricht stated categorically: “Nobody has any intention of building a wall.”

Eight weeks later, on Sunday 13th August, Berliners woke up to find that the West had been totally cut off from the East overnight. In the early hours of the morning, from midnight onwards, a fence made up of concrete posts and barbed wire had been put up along the border around the British, French and US zones of Berlin by East German soldiers. 

Over the next days and weeks the wire was replaced with bricks and mortar, forming a barrier which would stand for 28 years. 

2. It Completely Surrounded West Berlin

Although the Wall was built to contain East German citizens, it actually formed a circle all the way around West Berlin. 

At the end of the Second World War, Germany was split into four sectors – one each for the Soviet Union, the USA, Britain and France. The Soviet sector comprised the eastern half of Berlin and everything surrounding Berlin. The western half of Berlin was occupied by the other three powers, with their sectors of Germany lying almost 200km west of Berlin. In 1949 these occupied zones became two distinct states: the British, French and US occupied zones forming West Germany, and the Soviet zones becoming East Germany. This meant that West Berlin was an island surrounded on all sides by the GDR. 

The Wall went all the way through the middle of the city, cutting off East Berlin from West Berlin, but also all round the edge of West Berlin, cutting it off from the rest of East Germany. 

3. The Berlin Wall Was the Smaller of the Barriers Cutting East Germans Off From West Germany

If East Germany bordered West Germany elsewhere, why didn’t people try and escape elsewhere? By the time the Wall was built in 1961 there was already barrier, 1393km long and 3km deep, running down the entirety of the border between East and West Germany from the Baltic sea to the border with Czechoslovakia.  

This ‘Inner German Border’ (built in 1952) was in place longer than the Berlin wall, was much more extensive and far more violent – with automated machine gun posts and landmines incorporated into the defenses. It formed an integral part of the hard border between eastern and western Europe – what Winston Churchill called the ‘Iron Curtain’.

4. The Berlin Wall Was Actually Two Walls

Determined people were still able to climb the wall if they wanted to escape, so the government built a second wall roughly 100m into East Germany, circling the original barrier and stopping their citizens being able to get to near the Wall and the West. The area between the two walls was known as the “Death Strip”. This border area was filled with watchtowers, floodlights, dog and guard patrols, and “Stalin’s Lawn”: a bed of spikes placed at the bottom of the inner wall to deter or maim would-be escapees. 

5. It Came Down By Accident


On 9th November 1989, Politbüro spokesman Günter Schabowski was tasked with making an announcement at a press conference in East Berlin. Due to Gorbachev’s steady withdrawal of military and economic support from the GDR, it had become easier for people all over the Eastern Bloc to get to the West. The government had decided to make some concessions and tell people they could access the West freely if they applied for a visa.  Schabowski had not been present during the discussions in which this decision was made – he was only given a set of notes shortly before the press conference. 

With cameras rolling he read from the page that East Germans would now be free to travel to the West and, when challenged by a journalist, announced that the new controls were effective immediately.

Hearing the news, people crowded to the checkpoints, where the border guards had been given no warning of the revised border situation. Eventually, with more and more people joining the crowds, the guards decided to let them through peacefully to the other side of the city for the first time in nearly three decades.  

6. Its Fall Didn’t Improve Things For Everyone 

Seeing footage of people dancing on top of the wall and hugging strangers as they crossed through to the other side of the city for the first time, it can be easy to imagine that everything got better for everybody after the Wall fell. The reality for people from both East and West was much more complex. 

Reunification was followed by soaring unemployment and a feeling of being devalued in the East, and resentment of picking up the welfare bill for East Germans in the West. 

Although the physical wall is gone, Germans still talk about the “wall in the head”, the social and psychological barriers between people who were socialised under such different ideologies for 40 years.

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