The enduring symbol of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall divided the city for close to three decades, separating people and politics
It’s a basic but often devastatingly effective method of controlling the movement of people: a high wall patrolled by armed guards with limited access points and deadly consequences for anyone who tries to cross without the correct paperwork and permission.
Between 1961 and 1989, Berlin was divided by such a wall, designed to stop the flow of people from East Germany (GDR) into the western part of Berlin, an island of capitalism in the middle of communist-controlled GDR. Throughout these 28 years, the wall prevented the free movement of people from one side of the city to another, and although there are many stories of courageous escapes during this time, the wall’s memorial estimates at least 140 people died or were killed there during this time, including eight East German soldiers.
Legacy of war
At the end of World War II, Germany was occupied by the allies (France, US, UK and Russia) with Russia in control of East Germany. Berlin as the capital was the anomaly, with the city partitioned into four sections, each controlled by one of the allies. For East Germans wishing to leave the Soviet sector, moving to the west was a simple as jumping on a metro train and getting out at a station in West Berlin.
Despite tighter border controls, East Germans continued to leave the Russian zone in vast numbers, leading to the eventual creation of the wall in 1961. In the west, the wall became a symbol of the divide between communism and capitalism, stirring the imagination of writers and film directors who used real-life crossings and tales of espionage as the basis for atmospheric thrillers: think Richard Burton in the 1965 film of John Le Carre’s novel The Spy Who Came In From The Cold or Michael Caine in 1966’s Funeral in Berlin.
The end of the wall
Throughout the 1960s, ’70s and early ’80s the wall seemed as impenetrable as ever but by the mid-80s economic and political tensions were mounting. In November 1989, the pressure to allow a loosening of access to the west saw East Germans flood into West Berlin as Berliners from both sides climbed the wall, celebrating through the night as they began to tear down the bricks and mortar that had separated them for almost three decades.
The photographs and news footage of the opening of the borders remain some of the most iconic images of the twentieth century, marking an effective end to the Cold War and the possibility of a reunited Germany.
Today a visitor centre, exhibition and memorial stand at Bernauer Strasse, where the wall famously ran through the middle of a suburban street, a sight which became a symbol of the impact of the wall on ordinary lives.
Some of the most extraordinary stories of escape also occurred here, thanks to ingenious tunnels which ran under the wall. Fittingly, it was at this location that the borders were opened on the night of the 10th of November, 1989, after guards from both sides agreed to let the East Germans through.