August 13, 1961 – Border Closed Between East and West Berlin

On this day in history, the East German government (GDR) closed the border between East and West Berlin.

Germany had already been a divided country for sixteen years, since the end of WWII. But during the early years of the Cold War, West Berlin became a geographical loophole through which thousands of East Germans could flee to the democratic West. In response, the GDR decided a wall was necessary.

Having obtained the agreement of the Soviet Union a few days previously, and with the support of the Soviet troops in the GDR, the regime closed off the last route for escape. In the early morning of August 13, border police started ripping up streets in the middle of Berlin, and pieces of asphalt and paving stones were piled up to form barricades. Concrete posts were driven into the ground and barbed-wire barriers erected. A few days later, groups of construction workers stared replacing the barbed wire by a wall made of hollow blocks.

Construction of the Wall at Berlin's central Potsdamer Platz square on August 18, 1961, with GDR guards looking on

Construction of the Wall at Berlin’s central Potsdamer Platz square on August 18, 1961, with GDR guards looking on

The Eastern Bloc claimed that the wall was erected to protect its population from fascist elements conspiring to prevent the “will of the people” in building a socialist state in East Germany. (The Berlin Wall was officially referred to as the “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart.”) In practice, the Wall served to stem emigration and defection that marked East Germany and the communist Eastern Bloc during the post-World War II period.

On August 24, 1961, the first refugee, the 24-year-old tailor Günter Litfin, was shot by GDR border guards as he tried to escape from East Berlin into West Berlin. Hundreds of West Berliners standing on the Western banks of a narrow canal witnessed his death. The killing of Peter Fechter, 18, was actually filmed by Western media and broadcast live as he bled to death after being shot trying to cross the border zone near Checkpoint Charlie. East German guards shot and killed more than 100 people who were so desperate to escape communist control that they tried to climb the wall or tunnel beneath it.

Two and a half years after it was constructed, the Berlin Wall was temporarily opened during the Christmas season in 1963. From December 20 to January 5, 1964, an agreement between East and West Germany allowed West Berliners to obtain one-day passes to visit relatives in East Berlin. Thousands of people line up December 19, 1963, to apply for passage into East Berlin. An estimated 2 million residents of West Berlin applied for holiday passes to East Berlin, and about half were able to receive one. To be granted a pass, only those with close relatives in East Berlin, such as parents, children, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, were eligible.

1963, Two brothers meet after being separated by the wall

1963, Two brothers meet after being separated by the wall

In 1987, President Ronald Reagan famously implored Mikhail Gorbachev, the head of the Soviet Union, to “tear down this wall.”

Reagan speaking in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, June 12, 1987

Reagan speaking in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, June 12, 1987

After a series of radical political changes throughout the Soviet world, in November, 1989, the East German government announced that all GDR citizens could visit West Germany and West Berlin. Crowds of Germans from both sides climbed the wall and crossed over to celebrate in the streets. Over the next few weeks, souvenir hunters chipped away parts of the wall; the governments later used industrial equipment to remove most of what was left. The physical wall was primarily destroyed in 1990. The fall of the Berlin Wall paved the way for German reunification, which was formally concluded on 3 October 1990.

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