The rise and fall of the Berlin Wall

Fifty years ago today the Berlin Wall was hastily constructed dividing East Germany from West Germany as Cold War tensions rose.

Sanctioned by the communist leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, the wall served as a physical reminder of the division between superpowers USA and the Soviet Union [USSR]- former allies during the Second World War. From its construction in 1961 to final collapse in 1989 it kept millions of Berliners apart from family and friends and more than 136 people were killed attempting to flee from one side to the other.

Foundations of the wall

Ideological foundations of the Berlin Wall had been planted well before even a stone had been laid 50 years ago. Although together in the fight against Hitler and the Nazi Party during WW2, USA and the Soviet Union had entered into a ‘marriage of convenience’ whereby a common enemy had united two vastly different states. Both were deeply suspicious of each other and scrambled for power after the collapse of the Third Reich, eager to impose their ‘superpower’ status on the fractioned state.

Germany’s eventual fate was decided at the Potsdam Conference, held in July 1945- eight weeks after the unconditional surrender of the nation under Nazi control. The German state was split into four occupied zones to be governed by the US, Soviet Union, France and Great Britain. Berlin, though located in the Soviet north-eastern zone, was also fragmented between the four nations to maintain parity.

Foundations of the wall

After the failed attempt to block western food supplies to Berlin in 1949, USSR’s ideological reputation was in tatters. By 1961, more than 2.6 million East Germans had fled to the west due to the economic depression that had hit the communist state. Fearing the loss of vital skilled workers, the East German state decided to close Berlin’s borders and erect what became the Berlin Wall on 13 August.

Originally constructing a rudimentary barrier from barbed wire and fencing, the concrete structure began to be built a week later. East German military oversaw the building of the structure, with orders to shoot any attempting to defect to the west. By blocking subways, stopping railway services and imposing a large military presence Ulbricht managed to cut every tie to West Berlin- hoping to quell the exodus from the east.

[Slideshow: The rise and fall of the Berlin wall]

Walter Ulbricht strengthened the division a year later, adding a second wall 100 yards into the eastern zone.  The space between the two structures was fully cleared and turned into a perilous area known as the ‘death strip’. Strewn with mines, booby-trapped with trip-wires and offering no cover from armed guards, many died on the strip attempting the cross to the other side.

‘Ich bin ein Berliner’

Unsurprisingly the Berlin Wall construction was met with widespread condemnation from the west. In reaction US President John F. Kennedy travelled to West Berlin in 1962 - a trip most famously known for his indignant speech delivered to disillusioned Berliners.

“Two thousand years ago,” he proclaimed, “the proudest boast in the world was 'civis Romanus sum'.

“Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’.

“Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect,” he continued. “But we never had to put up a wall to keep our people in."

Escaping the wall

During the 28-year existence of the Berlin Wall, more than 5,000 people successfully fled from the east to the west of Berlin. Not long after the borders were closed a man driving a convertible car managed to evade East German patrols by darting under crossing barriers, prompting the communist military to reinforce patrol checkpoints.

Escape attempts ranged from tunneling under the wall to scaling its 3.6 meters but certainly the most audacious effort came from two families living in East Berlin who built a hot air balloon from nylon, managing to float safely over the divide. The East German government made nylon almost impossible to purchase after the ambitious escape.

Fall of the Berlin Wall

Amid the fracturing of the Soviet Union and with increasing political pressure on the wall, East Germany announced borders would be opened for “private trips abroad” in November 1989. Thousands of Germans expectantly arrived at checkpoints demanding to be let through and guards were forced to yield. The Berlin Wall had fallen. Germans took joy in physically breaking the wall to pieces as the city reunited for the first time in 28 years. The formal reunification of the German state followed a year later.  

The wall in numbers

Total length of the border to West Berlin                                      

96 miles

Inner-city border between East and West Berlin

26.7 miles

Border between East and West Berlin

69.5 miles

Observation towers




Dog runs


Anti-vehicle trenches       

65.5 miles

Contact or signal fences

79 miles

Killed crossing the wall

136 approximately