On August 13, 1961, the window in the “Iron Curtain” was shut. In a
single night, the border between the two parts of Berlin was closed.
Thousands of people were cut off from their families, work, and homes.
The Berlin Wall stood for 20,315 days. For 28 years it separated the
city into two. More importantly, it divided the world.
For a long time the wall not only separated East Berlin from West
Berlin, but also was a symbol of two worlds: the one that was free and
the one behind the “Iron Curtain.”
But how did the wall appear?
Berlin was divided after World War II. In 1949, East Berlin - the
Soviet-occupied zone - became the capital of the newly-created German
Democratic Republic. West Berlin was controlled by the United States,
Great Britain and France.
It was common at the time for Berliners to live in the East but work in
the West, and vice versa. Every day, half-a-million people traveled
freely from “socialism to capitalism” and back.
That all came to an end on August 13, 1961. In one night, the border
between the two parts of Berlin was closed. The next morning thousands
of people could not get around the city: the roads were closed off with
barbed wire; the streets were dug up; the military was out in force. But
the most striking difference was a long wall now dividing one part of
Berlin from the other.
Why did it happen? Because West Berlin was a “headache” for the Soviet
Union and the East German regime. People and resources were leaving the
communist side through the transparent border; free-market ideology was
seeping through it from the West. For East Germany, it was a deeply
destabilizing factor. After consulting with Moscow, the East German
government decided to close off the border.
At first, people crowded on both sides of the division line. But any
attempts to cross it were stopped by the East German military and
The West was infuriated. Tension in the city was growing. It all
resulted in the so-called “Berlin crisis” - one of the most critical
confrontations between the Soviet Union and the United States.
On October 28, US military jeeps, bulldozers and tanks began moving from
the Western sector to the Brandenburg Gate - planning to destroy the
barriers. But toward them came Soviet tanks. This was the peak of the
crisis. All night the tanks stood facing one another. In the morning the
machines retreated, and the immediate crisis was over. It became clear -
the wall was there to stay.
The Berlin Wall became a symbol of the Cold War. At first it was mostly
barbed wire. The division line lay across squares, bridges, streets,
even buildings. In 1962, a parallel wall was erected along the so-called
“alienation zone.” It later became known as the “death strip” - full of
trenches, booby traps and other defenses. In 1975, a new wall was built,
using 45 thousand cement blocks.
The Wall stood for 20,315 days. Several hundred people died trying to
cross from East Berlin to the western side. The West kept fighting for
the right to free movement. Almost 50 years later, people still remember
U.S. President John Kennedy’s words during a visit to Berlin in 1963:
"In the world of freedom, the proudest boast is, ‘Ich bin ein
And in 1987, also in Berlin, the world heard another famous speech, as
President Ronald Reagan appealed to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Gorbachev, open this gate,” said Reagan.
In 1989, the wall fell, as the East German government suddenly re-opened
Twenty years later, at a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the
fall, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin made this observation to a VOA
correspondent: “The Berlin Wall not only divided the city and the state,
it divided the continent. It was a symbol of division; it was a symbol
of totalitarian government of repression of human rights. People lost
their lives trying to get across the wall. When it came down 20 years
ago, I think it showed the future for the hope for all people in this
world. To me, it’s a symbol that we should never forget.”
The idea that the world changed after the Wall fell is never disputed.
The symbol of separation was annihilated by the will of the people.