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Building The Berlin Wall

Culture | April 14, 2022

The building of the wall. A girl watches an East-German bricklayer working at the border. - August 1961 (Photo by Hyzdal von Miserony/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

With the end of World War II, Germany was split into four “allied occupation zones,” with the eastern part of the country going to the Soviet Union. The remaining three zones, which comprised West Germany, went to the United States, Great Britain, and France. Berlin, although technically in East Germany, was also split, with the Soviet Union taking East Berlin. Prior to the building of the wall, about a half-million people moved between East and West Berlin every day, which caused problems because the East German residents could compare living situations. 

Source: (AP).

The East Germans Said They Weren't Planning To Build A Wall

In June 1948, an Allied airlift impeded a blockade of West Berlin by the Soviets, and over the next 12 years, millions had left East Germany, including about 1,000 skilled laborers, professionals, and intellectuals daily by 1961. However, on June 15, 1961, the East German head of state, Walter Ulbricht claimed that there was no intention to build a wall.

On August 12, 1961, the largest number of defectors left, 2,400, and the next day, the construction of the wall began. On that day, August 13, 1961, a Sunday, during the early morning hours, they set up temporary borders to separate east from west and tore up the asphalt and cobblestone on the connecting roads to construct the wall of barbed wire and concrete. They called this the “Antifascistischer Schutzwall,” reflecting what they claimed was the purpose of the wall: to keep the Western fascists out and stop them from undermining the socialist state. As they said, the wall was to “put a stop to the hostile activity of West Germany’s and West Berlin’s revanchist and militaristic forces, border controls of the kind generally found in every sovereign state will be set up at the border of the German Democratic Republic, including the border to the western sectors of Greater Berlin.” Of course, the real reason was to stop the defections.

Source: (YouTube).

They Modified Buildings As Well

They replaced the barbed wire with concrete slabs and hollow blocks over the next few weeks. To complete the wall, they had to integrate sidewalks and rows of houses into the wall. The East German government had the ground floor windows and front entrances to houses bricked up so that the only point of entry was the courtyards, which were in East Berlin. Many people were evicted in 1961 in the border areas. 

The Allied side of a checkpoint in 1963. Source: (Roger Wollstadt/Flickr/Wikipedia).

The Checkpoints At The Wall

With the construction of the wall, they had to set up several checkpoints, called Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie, which were the best known as it was located on the Friedrichstrasse and was the only gateway for foreign tourists and Western diplomats, and military personnel to enter East Berlin. Checkpoint Charlie was also the site of what one observer called “a nuclear-age equivalent of the Wild West Showdown at the O.K. Corral.” The incident, on October 22, 1961, was between an East German border guard and an American who was heading to the opera in East Berlin, and it led to a face-off between American and Soviet tanks for 16 hours.

The Allies also stationed military police at the checkpoints, but their goals were different: yes, they monitored traffic, but they were also there to provide information to travelers who were venturing beyond the wall. The Allied side was less threatening in other ways as well; on their side, the checkpoint was simply a small shack and a few sandbags. The East Germans, on the other hand, had guard towers, and cement barriers. They also had a shack where they did heat scans to make sure that vehicles were not transporting fugitives. They also confiscated any texts with information that might contradict communist beliefs. 

A group of West Germans peering over the wall in 1962. Source: (Library of Congress/Pinterest).

Successful Escape Attempts Led To Modifications

After the initial construction of the wall, it was modified and reinforced. They also perfected the system of controls as people attempted to leave East Berlin. In April 1962, Heinz Meixner, an Austrian, managed to outsmart the Berlin wall, smuggling his girlfriend and her mother out in a rented Austin-Healey convertible. He simply lowered the windshield on the car and sped under the vehicle barrier at Checkpoint Charlie. One other individual escaped this way, so the East Germans added steel bars. Another person, Horst Beyer hopped across while pretending to take pictures during a photoshoot. Between 1961 and the fall of the wall, more than 100,000 East Germans tried to escape; more than 600 were killed by border guards or died in other ways during their escape attempts. In addition to the wall itself, there was a wide area that had defenses including anti-vehicle trenches and beds of nails which was later known as the “death strip.”

Tags: Berlin Wall | East Germany | West Germany

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Linda Speckhals

Writer

When she’s not out walking her dog, or taking in a baseball game, Linda loves learning about history, science, and philosophy. She will travel wherever the wind may blow, and happily loses herself in a book, whenever she can. At heart, she is a music loving tree-hugger.