It is a bit unfortunate that a city as amazing as Berlin has ended up being largely defined by the Berlin Wall. That said, this was a pretty stark division of a city in living memory and its traces are still everywhere, not just in the city’s architecture but also in the minds of its inhabitants. Astonishingly, even today Berlin votes as if it were two different cities. Those in West Berlin still support their traditional and somewhat conservative parties such as the CSU (or Christian Socialists) while those in the East are far more likely to support left-wing parties such as Die Linke (the left) or the Pirate Party.
When was the Berlin Wall Built?
The official start date of the construction of the Berlin was was 13 August 1961, but the truth is that the division of the city had started long before with an agreement between the victorious Allied forces (America, Britain. France and Russia) to divide the city into four sectors at a conference held in Potsdam in 1945. In May 1949 the Federal Republic of Germany (what we think of as West Germany) was established with Bonn as its capital city. It prospered whereas the German Democratic Republic, or GDR (East Germany), which was established later that year, struggled along. As the West grew richer, people crossed the borders as refugees, flowing in growing numbers from the east to the west. Finally in 1961 and literally overnight the East Germans set up barbed wire barriers across Berlin and started building the wall.
The wall initially went up overnight but was then continually strengthened and reinforced over the following 28 years
Facts About the Berlin Wall
How long is the Berlin Wall?
The wall running around West Berlin stretches 156.4 kilometres in length; the border between West and East Berlin accounted for 43.7 kilometres of it.
How long did it take to build?
The wall went up officially on 13th August 1961. On that day the main roads and traffic routes (including public transport) were cut. But it took several days before it was completely finished. In the first chaotic days people managed to wander across and escape.
How long did it take to destroy?
The demolition of the internal city wall started on 10th November 1989 with the opening up of new border crossing points. It was officially completed on 30th November 1990. In the surrounding area of Brandenburg the last sections disappeared in November 1991.
What is left of the Berlin Wall?
Some of the sections of the wall can be found today in different places throughout the world. The US Secret Service, the CIA, secured a few artistically decorated segments of the wall for its new building in Langley, Virginia. A few segments of the wall with St. Michael’s Church painted on them were erected in the Vatican Gardens in August 1994. Another piece of the wall is on view in the House of History (‘Haus der Geschichte’) in Bonn.
How many people were killed crossing the Berlin Wall?
The most definitive numbers are from the Centre for Research into Contemporary History (‘Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung’) – Potsdam and the Berlin Wall Memorial Site . They think that between 1961 and 1989 at least 136 people were killed on the Berlin Wall . Most of those killed were escapees trying to get across from East Germany to the west. More than half of the 136 casualties met their deaths in the first five years following the building of the Wall.
What is the best place to see the Berlin Wall?
The best place to see the Berlin Wall as it once stood is along the East Side Gallery. This is a 1.3km section of the Berlin Wall that runs alongside the Spree river. It has been transformed into an international memorial for freedom and has 106 works of art covering the old concrete of the wall.
Another site to visit is the Berlin Wall Memorial and Documentation Centre. This is much closer to the centre of Berlin and is situated on a part of the old wall where it cut right through neighbourhoods, separating friends and families. It gives a vantage point over the border strip that runs alongside Bernauer Strasse and conveniently runs right up towards the Mauerpark, which was also once part of the death strip alongside the wall. It also shows a section of memorial that has been constructed to show where the wall ran (pictured here).
Where can I see the Berlin Wall’s Ghost Stations?
An exhibition at the Nordbahnhof station displays some of what happened below ground when Berlin was divided by the wall. It talks about how some stations on the old underground rail network were closed where trains crossed between East and West Berlin. A friend of mine was there when one of these was first re-opened after the wall came down and told me how she found old train tickets with stamps dating back to 1961 lying on the platform. Many of these stations were considered security risks by the East German state, so it guarded them to prevent escapes. Many of the guards were themselves blocked off from the tunnels with only small viewing ports to look through to ensure that they too didn’t sneak out and try to escape.
Other parts of Berlin’s underground were also closed off to prevent escape. This included the sewers, where bars were inserted into the tunnels to prevent people from sneaking across the dividing line.
What is the Best Berlin Wall Documentary?
There are several really good documentaries on the Berlin Wall. A very good one that shows the extent of the fortifications is Walled In (shown here)
Another exceptional source is an interview of Thomas Hoepker, a photographer, on life behind the Berlin Wall.