On This Day: Building starts on Berlin Wall

Julian Gavaghan
On This Day: Building starts on Berlin Wall

AUGUST 13, 1961: East Germany began building the Berlin Wall on this day in 1961, in a bid to stem the tide of millions of its people leaving the Soviet-backed police state.

It took three months to erect the 96-mile concrete barrier between the communist eastern and capitalist western halves of the city.

A German-language newsreel in the British Pathé film shows the temporary fences that were put up before the more permanent solid structure was built.

It also showed people in the West helping family members and neighbours escape from a block of flats in the East.

The wall meant West Berlin –which was occupied by U.S., British and French forces after World War II – was further sealed off from surrounding East German territory.

The Soviet Union, which had occupied East Berlin and East Germany, had long tried to force the Western Allies out of the city because of the undermining effect they had.

Notably, in 1948 they tried to starve the West out with an 11-month blockade, which only ended following a highly successful airlift of food, fuel and medicine.

In the mean time, West Germany and West Berlin became noticeably more prosperous – causing an increasing flood of defections.

By 1961, 3.5million mostly well-educated residents of the communist state – 20% of its population – had fled to West Germany, known as the Federal Republic.

They were able to escape through Berlin because, despite being in the heart of East Germany, it had been relatively easy to cross from eastern to western sectors.

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And, although the land border was closed between the two German states, people in West Berlin could fly to the Federal Republic.

The wall, which for propaganda purposes the communists called the Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart, slowed the number to a trickle.

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The barrier, which divided families and neighbours, was seen as a tragic calamity in West Berlin and prompted many protests and vigils over the years.

Between 1961 and 1989, when the wall fell, more than 1,000 East Germans died trying to escape, both in Berlin and across the main German border.