One of the first things people think of when they think of Germany, and specifically of Berlin, is the Berlin Wall. Originally erected in 1961, the wall effectively split the city of Berlin into two separate worlds, separating families and creating an international outcry.
The wall stood for almost thirty years as the most visible symbol of the Cold War and the Iron Curtain.
History of the Berlin Wall
Following World War II, the major axis powers took over responsibility for Germany; the Potsdam Agreement split the western area of the country into four bases of power between the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and the Soviet Union, with four correlating zones of power controlling the city of Berlin.
Although all parties were in agreement, the following two years yielded political disagreements, with the Soviets objecting to the western plans to rebuild the country. As political enmity and envy increased and the Soviets increased the socialist indoctrination of the zones they controlled, animosity grew.
A Soviet blockade of food to West Berlin was countered by an airlift of food in by the western powers; people in the east began to emigrate to the west to escape the rigors of the socialist regime.
By 1961, the “brain drain” of East Germans leaving the Soviet-controlled territory and heading west through West Berlin inspired the German Democratic Republic to erect what they called an “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart” a wall that effectively separated Berlin into two separate entities, with one side run by the socialist government, the other under western sway.
The East German government insisted that the wall was erected to protect its population from leftover Nazi aggression, while West Berlin mayor Willy Brandt called it the “Wall of Shame” and western leaders begged the socialists to reconsider.
The wall did what it was designed to do; the mass emigration stopped, and for 28 years it effectively separated the two worlds. West Berlin became a cosmopolitan world city, while East Berlin was an industrial Soviet-bloc country, characterized by strict laws and a longing for independence among its people.
As Soviet powers began faltering in the late 1980s, more pressure was brought to bear on the East German government to allow free traffic between the two sides of the city.
In 1987, U.S. President Ronald Reagan gave a famous, impassioned speech at Berlin’s Brandenberg Gate that ended with the words, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
By 1989, the East German government provided permission for families to visit from East Berlin into West Berlin. The celebrations that followed created enormous crowds, pressing and chipping away at the walls.
The wall was finally officially demolished by construction equipment brought in by the government.
Pieces of the original Berlin Wall have been preserved and displayed across the world, symbolizing the fall of the Iron Curtain and the victory of freedom, as well as countless smaller pieces being salvaged and sold as souvenirs.
Interesting & Fascinating Facts about the Berlin Wall
Let’s get into some of our favorite fun facts about the Berlin Wall.
The Berlin wall wasn’t the first physical barrier between East & West Germany
While it’s the only one that will readily spring to mind, the Berlin Wall wasn’t the first barrier put in place between the two new “Germanies” that dubious honor goes to the Inner German Border (or Innerdeutsche Grenze or Deutsche-deutsche Grenze) that ran 866 miles from the Baltic coast to Czechoslovakia.
Established on July 1 1945 as a series of barbed-wire fences and guard posts, the border saw its first major upgrade in 1952, ostensibly to prevent Western spies and agitators from crossing into the East, but most likely to help prevent defectors heading West.
The upgrades included more fencing, bridge demolitions or closures, and a beefed-up garrison. The second upgrade in 1967 turned the border into one of the most protected in the world with the addition of double barbed-wire fences, sensors, anti-vehicle ditches, land mines, concrete guard towers, bunkers, and searchlights.
We don’t want a wall…jk
The first person to mention the idea of a physical barrier separating East and West Berlin was Walter Ulbricht, then First Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party and chairman of the East German Government.
Strangely enough, Ulbrict (at least publicly) decried the idea of a barrier between the Western and Eastern sectors, stating at an international press conference: â€œNiemand hat die Absicht, eine Mauer zu errichten!â€ (“No one has the intention to erect a wall!”).
History tells us a different story, however, as by the time of this announcement, plans for a wall were in their final stages, and two months later, East German troops began constructing a barricade.
Barbed Wire Sunday
Construction of the wall began on Sunday, August 13, a day that became known to Berliners as Barbed Wire Sunday.
The construction began in the dead of night and by early morning, Berliners from both sides of the city knew something was up, with police from each side having to hold back crowds of civilians who tried to impede the construction of the barrier.
This first iteration of the Berlin Wall was anything but, rather a collection of cinderblocks, barbed wire, and rubble from destroyed homes. Paramilitary guards on the Eastern side, in the form of the Combat Groups of the Working Class, were ordered to shoot any East Berliner who tried to cross the barricade unlawfully.
See Related: Interesting Facts About Germany
Initially being made from cinderblocks (some of which had been sourced from Great Britain to avoid Allied suspicions of a wall being built at all) and wire, the Berlin Wall saw several improvements over the years.
A lot of these upgrades mirrored the sort of improvements found along the Inner German Border. By 1989, the â€œwallâ€ was more akin to a fortress, consisting of (from East to West);
A restricted zone (where trespassers could be arrested), a concrete inner wall, an electrified fence that would also trigger alarms, caltrops/spike strips or tank traps (depending on the stretch of wall), concrete watchtowers, spotlights, a road for regular foot patrols, a wide bank of sand or gravel that would show footprints easily, anti-vehicle ditches and the actual 12 ft high wall itself, which was made from concrete and topped with smooth iron pipes to make climbing more difficult.
In a grim sidenote, the sandbank in the middle of the “wall” was colloquially known as the Death Strip as anyone caught trying to cross it could be shot in the act. Many potential defectors lost their lives there.
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Wall of Shame vs Fascist deterrent
The reputation of the Berlin Wall differed based on which side you were on. In East Berlin, the wall was (at least officially) regarded as a means of keeping out fascists, with the East German Government coming up with the catchy name Antifaschistischer Schutzwall (or Anti-fascist protection wall).
To the West German Government and many West Germans resentful of the restrictions enforced on their freedom of movement throughout the city, the 93 mile Wall became known as The Wall of Shame.
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Over the years of its existence, the East German Government and the Soviet Union constantly tried to justify the Berlin Wall to the rest of the world.
One of the more notable examples was an effort to compare the wall to the draconian immigration policies of the United States, the Soviets claiming the policies of the US were no different than a wall.
This was refuted by pro-immigration President Ronald Regan, who on a visit to Germany in 1982 made the following rejection; â€œThe Iron Curtain wasn’t woven to keep people out; it’s there to keep people in. The most obvious symbol of this is the Berlin Wall.â€
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While the Wall halted the mass exodus of East Germans to West Berlin, thousands of people attempted to cross it to stay in the west.
Some were simple, such as the first defector, East German Army Corporal Conrad Schuman, who hopped over one of the first wire fences, on August 15, 1961 (3 days after the barrier was first laid). His escape has since been memorialized at the site of his hop.
Others were more creative, such as Horst Klein who escaped via tightrope, or Michael Becker, and Holger Bethke who escaped via zipline.
Some just used sheer audacity, like Heinz Meixner who removed the windshield from his convertible, and sped under a checkpoint barrier with his wife and mother-in-law, making sure that he and his passengers ducked as he floored it!
100 Miles Berlin
Since 2011, the painful legacy of the Berlin Wall has been remembered in Germany by the ultramarathon known as 100 Miles Berlin. The marathon runs the approximate route around the former patrol road used by East German border guards and passes many intact remnants of the Wall that still stand.
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Memorials and intact sections
For those who want to learn the history of the Berlin Wall up close, without having to slog through a 100-mile marathon, many walking and bike tours run around key sections of the Wall and memorials to those who perished in their attempts to cross.
The largest intact section of the Berlin Wall is the East Side Gallery, which is also regarded as the world’s largest open-air gallery. Other hotspots include the section at Mauer Park, home to a world-famous flea market and outdoor karaoke, and of course, the infamous Checkpoint Charlie.
Join a Skip-the-Line Berlin Wall Museum at Checkpoint Charlie tour and Berlin Wall Greatest Escapes Exploration Game on your visit.
The lost piece of wall
Believe it or not, a section of the Berlin Wall went missing without anyone noticing â€“ and not a small piece either!
In 2018, a mixture of locals and tourists on a Wall Walk in Berlin discovered a 20ft long intact section of the Wall that had been concealed by overgrown bushes, daubed with Cold War graffiti.
A prime music venue?
While a hideous scar that shamed Berlin and Germany as a whole, the Berlin Wall was something of a draw for some of the ’80s most famous musicians â€“ albeit musicians who wished to see the Wall demolished.
The first was David Bowie in 1987, whose Glass Spider Tour took him to the western outside of the Berlin Wall, where the music was heard by thousands of East Berliners who had either secured tickets or were camped out on the East side of the wall.
Riots followed and many have speculated that it was this riot that spawned others that lead to the fall of the wall in 1989.
Other famous acts included Bruce Springsteen and his Rocking the Wall concert in East Berlin in 1988 and David Hasselhoff as part of the Freedom Tour Live concert in 1989, admittedly performed after the wall was opened, but left a lasting impact on German culture.
Hasselhoff remains a popular figure in Germany to this day.
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The end of the Cold War
While not the first instance of the weakening grip of communism, the fall of the Berlin Wall was seen as the symbolic fracture of the communist hold on Eastern Europe and a pulling down of the Iron Curtain.
Unrest in Eastern-bloc nations, which had been building up over years of communist oppression, finally reached a boiling point across en-masse in the late 1980s, with the first truly revolutionary activity taking place in Poland in 1988.
With unrest taking hold in other Soviet satellite nations in Europe and riots continuing in East Germany, it was only a matter of time for the people to rise and the system to crumble.
The Berlin Wall was breached just before 7 pm local time, November 9, 1989, after East German border guards abandoned their posts.
Three weeks later at the Malta Conference held between the United States and the USSR, the Cold War was declared over, and less than a year later, Germany was once again reunified â€“ a nation whole again.
Walls don’t really work
A lesson that certain governments don’t seem to have learned about immigration is that walls are not an effective means of keeping people out, the Berlin Wall being proof of this.
It is estimated that between 1961-1989, around 5000 East Germans successfully got over, under, or around the Berlin Wall and found their freedom on the other side.
While approximately 5,000 managed to escape, it is estimated just as many were caught and several hundred were killed in the attempt, with figures ranging from 100-330 fatalities.
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Buy your own piece of history!
After the Wall fell, a majority of the materials were repurposed to create new structures in Germany, while other pieces of the Berlin Wall have found their way to museums, memorials and exhibits across the globe (including a Las Vegas Casino men’s room) as symbols of the triumph of democracy over communism and painful reminders of a dark chapter in German (and human) history.
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Chris Pratt is a LIAR!
While you can own a piece of history by purchasing your own piece of the Berlin Wall online, it turns out that actor Chris Pratt’s high school German teacher, Frau (Mrs) Novak, owns a piece of junk!
In a 2018 episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live! Chris Pratt admitted to gifting his German teacher a piece of concrete he’d been kicking around, his reason being to get out of trouble for tardiness, and told her on the fly that the piece of rubble was actually a gift from his cousin who had seen the Wall come down in November 1989!
By all accounts he avoided detention, well, so far he has anyway!
What are your favorite fun, interesting facts about the Berlin Wall?