Why Was the Berlin Wall Built? | History Hit

Why Was the Berlin Wall Built?

Mauerbau in Berlin, August 1961
Image Credit: Bundesarchiv / CC

When Germany surrendered to the Allied powers in 1945, it was essentially carved up into zones which were occupied by the USSR, UK, US and France. Whilst Berlin was firmly located in the Soviet-controlled zone, it was also subdivided so that each of the Allied powers had a quarter.

Overnight on 13 August 1961, the first stretches of the Berlin Wall appeared through the city. Nearly 200km of barbed wire entanglements and fences were erected, and some form of barricade would remain in place in the city until 1989. So just how did Berlin become such a divided city, and why was a wall erected through the middle of it?

How the beginning and end of the Berlin wall embodied the Cold War.
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Ideological differences

The US, UK and France had always had a somewhat uneasy coalition with the communist Soviet Union. Their leaders deeply distrusted Stalin, disliked his brutal policies and loathed communism. Following the end of the Second World War, the Soviet Union had installed Communist-friendly governments across much of Eastern Europe to form a block which would become known as the Comecon.

East Germany, controlled by the Soviets, formed the German Democratic Republic (GDR or DDR) in 1949. It officially described itself as a socialist “workers’ and peasants’ state”, although most of Western Europe described it as being communist in ideology and practicality. 

Contrasting ways of life

Whilst some in East Germany were extremely sympathetic towards the Soviets and communism, plenty more found their lives turned upside down by the introduction of a communist government. The economy was centrally planned and much of the country’s infrastructure and business was state-owned.

Freidrichstrasse, Berlin, 1950.

Image Credit: Bundesarchiv Bild / CC

In Western Germany, however, capitalism remained king. A democratic government was installed, and the new social market economy flourished. Although housing and utilities were regulated by the East German state, many felt that life there was oppressive, and longed for the freedom offered by West Germany.

By the early 1950s, people began emigrating – and later fleeing – East Germany in search of a new, better life. Many of those leaving were young and well-educated, making the government even more keen to stop them leaving. It’s been estimated that by 1960, the loss of manpower and intelligentsia had cost East Germany something around the mark of $8 billion. As the numbers leaving grew, tighter and tighter measures came into place to try and prevent them from doing so.

The first border defences

Prior to 1952, the border between East Germany and western occupied zones was easily crossable in almost all places. This changed as the numbers leaving grew: the Soviets suggested instigating a ‘pass’ system to stop free movement between East and West Germany. To make this effective, however, there would have to be something stopping people crossing the border at other places.

Barbed wire fencing was erected across the inner German border, and it was closely guarded. However, the border in Berlin remained open, if slightly more restricted than before, making it by far the easiest option for those who wanted to defect.

Having a semi-open border meant those who lived in the GDR had a clearly visible view of life under capitalism – and unsurprisingly, many thought life looked better. Even the Soviet ambassador to East German stated: “the presence in Berlin of an open and essentially uncontrolled border between the socialist and capitalist worlds unwittingly prompts the population to make a comparison between both parts of the city, which unfortunately does not always turn out in favour of Democratic [East] Berlin.”

In the aftermath of World War Two, amongst the shattered ruins of Berlin a new conflict was born, the Cold War. With the common purpose of defeating Nazi Germany gone the allied powers were soon no longer allies. Berlin had been divided before the end of the war at the Yalta Conference between the British, French, United States and Soviets. However, Berlin was deep in the Soviet-occupied zone of Germany and Stalin wished to wrest control of it from the other allied powers. The situation became so tense that it almost sparked another world war and the allies remained steadfast in their determination to hold onto their sectors of the city. This culminated in the Berlin Airlift where many thousands of tons of supplies were flown into the city daily to defy the Soviet blockade and keep its residents from starvation. The fantastic historian and writer Giles Milton discusses his new book 'Checkmate in Berlin' which explores the history of Berlin in the immediate post-war period. Giles and Dan discuss how tensions between the former allies flared, the flourishing black market in Berlin at the time, how the British and Americans were able to pull off the extraordinary feat of the airlift and its consequences.
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Hostilities escalate

In June 1961, the so-called Berlin Crisis began. The USSR gave an ultimatum, requiring all armed forces to be removed from Berlin, including those in West Berlin that were stationed there by the Allies. Many believe this was a deliberate test of President John F. Kennedy, by Khrushchev in order to see what he could or could not expect from this new leader.

Kennedy tacitly suggested the US would not oppose the building of a wall at a summit in Vienna – a catastrophic error he later admitted to. On 12 August 1961, top members of the GDR government signed an order to close the border in Berlin and start the construction of a wall.

The beginnings of the wall

Overnight on the 12th and 13th August, nearly 200km of barbed wire fencing was laid down in Berlin on what has come to be known as ‘Barbed Wire Sunday’. The barrier was built entirely on ground in East Berlin to ensure it did not encroach territorially on West Berlin in any places.

The Berlin Wall in 1983.

Image Credit: Siegbert Brey / CC

By 17 August, hard concrete blocs and barriers were being laid down, and the border was closely guarded. Land was cleared in the gap between the wall and West Berlin to ensure there was a no man’s land patrolled by dogs and full of landmines, in which defectors and escapees could be spotted and shot as they attempted to flee. There were orders to shoot those who tried to escape on sight.

Before long, 27 miles of concrete wall would divide the city. For the next 28 years, Berlin would remain a focal point for Cold War tensions and a microcosm of the ideological battles raging between socialism and capitalism in Europe.

Sarah Roller