The Berlin Wall was a barrier that divided Berlin from 1961 to 1989. Constructed by the German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany), starting on 13 August 1961, the Wall completely cut off West Berlin from surrounding East Germany and from East Berlin.
At the end of World War II, the Allied powers divided Germany into four zones, each occupied by the United States, Great Britain, France, or the Soviet Union (as agreed at the Potsdam Conference).
The same was done with Germany’s capital city, Berlin. As the relationship between the Soviet Union and the other three Allied powers quickly disintegrated, the cooperative atmosphere of the occupation of Germany turned competitive and aggressive.
Although an eventual reunification of Germany had been intended, the new relationship between the Allied powers turned Germany into West versus East, Capitalism versus Communism. In 1949, this new organization of Germany became official when the three zones occupied by the United States, Great Britain, and France combined to form West Germany (the Federal Republic of Germany).
The zone occupied by the Soviet Union quickly followed by forming East Germany (the German Democratic Republic). This same division into West and East occurred in Berlin. Since the city of Berlin had been situated within the Soviet zone, West Berlin became an island of democracy within Communist East Germany.
Shortly after the war, living conditions in East Germany and West Germany became entirely different. In East Germany since the Soviet Union had viewed their zone as a spoil of war, the Soviets stole factory equipment and other assets from their zone and shipped them back to the Soviet Union. When East Germany became its own country, it was under the direct influence of the Soviet Union and thus a Communist society was made.
In East Germany, the economy dragged and individual freedoms were restricted. West Germany set up a capitalist society and experienced such a rapid growth of their economy that it became known as the “economic miracle.” With hard work, individuals living in West Germany were able to live well, buy gadgets and appliances, and travel as they wished. By the late 1950s, many people living in East Germany wanted out. Hundreds of thousands made it across the border. Having already lost 2.5 million people by 1961, East Germany desperately needed to stop this mass exodus. The obvious leak was the easy access East Germans had to West Berlin. With East Germany desperate to keep its citizens they decided to build a wall.
On the night of August 12-13, 1961, trucks full of soldiers and construction workers rolled through East Berlin. These crews began tearing up streets that entered into West Berlin, dug holes to put up concrete posts, and strung barbed wire all across the border between East and West Berlin. Telephone wires between East and West Berlin were also cut.
East Berliners could no longer cross the border to see their families, friends, and lovers or go to their well-paying jobs. Whichever side of the border one went to sleep on during the night of August 12, they were stuck on that side for decades.
The fall of the Berlin Wall happened nearly as suddenly as its rise. There had been signs that the Communist alliance was weakening, but the East German Communist leaders insisted that East Germany just needed a moderate change rather than a drastic revolution.
As Communism began to die in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia in 1988 and 1989, new escape points were opened to East Germans who wanted to flee to the West. Then suddenly, on the evening of November 9, 1989, an announcement made by East German government official Günter Schabowski blundered by stating, “Permanent relocations can be done through all border checkpoints between the GDR (East Germany) into the FRG (West Germany) or West Berlin.”
Very quickly, the Berlin Wall was inundated with people from both sides. Some began chipping at the Berlin Wall with hammers and chisels. There was a huge celebration along the Berlin Wall, with people hugging, kissing, singing, cheering, and crying. The Berlin Wall was eventually chipped away, into smaller pieces. The pieces have become collectibles and are stored in both homes and museums. There is also now a Berlin Wall Memorial at the site. After the Berlin Wall came down, East and West Germany reunified into a single German state on October 3, 1990.
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