Communists Raise the Berlin Wall Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Berlin Wall, built to halt the debilitating exodus of East Germans to West Germany and to assert definitively the permanence and legitimacy of the East German regime, in fact attested to the failure of that regime.

Summary of Event

Berlin became a focal point for East-West tensions after the breakdown of cooperation between the former World War II Allies. As the Western occupying powers, led by the United States, amalgamated their zones of occupation and began the process of organizing an indigenous government for West Germany, the Soviets responded with their blockade of West Berlin from June, 1948, until May, 1949. A strong response by the Americans and the British preserved the liberty of West Berlin, and the Federal Republic of Germany was proclaimed in the western portion of Germany. The Soviets responded by organizing the German Democratic Republic in the eastern sector, which was under their control. The regime was imposed upon the East German population, whose distaste for the repressiveness and relative material deprivation that characterized it was borne out in desperate uprisings in East Berlin and other cities of East Germany in June, 1953. Berlin Wall Cold War;Germany Immigration;West Germany East Germany West Germany [kw]Communists Raise the Berlin Wall (Aug. 13, 1961) [kw]Berlin Wall, Communists Raise the (Aug. 13, 1961) Berlin Wall Cold War;Germany Immigration;West Germany East Germany West Germany [g]Europe;Aug. 13, 1961: Communists Raise the Berlin Wall[07000] [g]Germany;Aug. 13, 1961: Communists Raise the Berlin Wall[07000] [g]East Germany;Aug. 13, 1961: Communists Raise the Berlin Wall[07000] [c]Cold War;Aug. 13, 1961: Communists Raise the Berlin Wall[07000] [c]Colonialism and occupation;Aug. 13, 1961: Communists Raise the Berlin Wall[07000] [c]Government and politics;Aug. 13, 1961: Communists Raise the Berlin Wall[07000] [c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;Aug. 13, 1961: Communists Raise the Berlin Wall[07000] Adenauer, Konrad Brandt, Willy Kennedy, John F. [p]Kennedy, John F.;Cold War Khrushchev, Nikita S. [p]Khrushchev, Nikita S.;Cold War Ulbricht, Walter





Although the Soviets lifted the blockade of Berlin, they continued to exert pressure on the city during the Cold War crisis. The Soviets were concerned by the linkage of a rearmed West Germany to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1955. In 1958, the Soviets applied pressure on Berlin in an effort to obtain a European security agreement that would recognize the status quo in Germany. On November 10, 1958, Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev announced that the Soviet Union was reconsidering its position on the four-power control of Berlin and might hand over control of East Berlin to the East Germans. On November 27, he called for West Berlin to be transformed into a demilitarized free city and for the two German states to be united in a confederation. He threatened to turn over all Soviet rights to the East German regime if the Western powers had not worked out an agreement within six months.

West Berlin, linked to the West, was both an embarrassing symbol of freedom and prosperity and a breach through which the disaffected people of East Germany could escape to the West. By 1958, approximately 2.3 million East Germans, 15 percent of the East German population, had fled to the West. The majority were of working age, and their emigration constituted a serious drain on the talent and skill of the German Democratic Republic. Unless the hemorrhage could be stopped, the stability and even viability of the East German regime would be threatened. The Soviet Union was concerned not to lose its control of East Germany, which, in addition to having great military importance, was vital economically to the Soviet Union and to the Eastern bloc. The economy of East Germany, with a level of technological quality superior to that of the rest of the Soviet bloc, had been structured to provide for the needs of the Soviet Union rather than its own people.

At Geneva meetings of the foreign ministers of the four occupying powers in May and July, 1959, the Soviets repeated their demands that the occupation of West Berlin be ended and the city transformed into a “free city.” Rebuffed by the West, the Soviets allowed the East Germans to seize the initiative. This tactic was geared to reinforce the sovereignty of the German Democratic Republic and add a new source of pressure. The Soviet Union’s principal concern was to gain definitive recognition of the division of Germany. When the East Germans and the Soviets began harassing communications with the city in August, Willy Brandt, the mayor of West Berlin, vigorously defended the rights of the city’s inhabitants. In response to suggestions that West Berlin was untenable as a Western enclave, he prophetically asserted that a free West Berlin was indispensable if hope for freedom was to be nurtured in Eastern Europe.

Following a momentary thaw in relations between the Soviet Union and the United States, capped by the Camp David meeting between Khrushchev and President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Paris summit in May, 1960, fell apart after the Soviets shot down an American spy plane. Sensing Western irresolution on Berlin, Khrushchev tightened the screws on West Berlin to pressure the West and simultaneously to bolster his client regime. In August, the Soviet sector of the city was temporarily closed to West German citizens. On September 8, the East Germans insisted that West German visitors have visitor permits. On September 13, they announced that they would no longer recognize West German passports as legal documentation for West Berlin visitors. The trade agreement between the two parts of Germany was suspended by the East Germans on January 1, 1961.

Khrushchev met the new U.S. president, John F. Kennedy, in Vienna on June 3-4, 1961. Khrushchev threatened to sign a separate peace treaty with East Germany and give it control of Berlin communications if a general peace and an independent status for West Berlin had not been effected within six months. On June 15, Walter Ulbricht, the East German leader, stated that West Berlin would have to stop accepting refugees from the East and cease being a source of propaganda beamed to the East. Kennedy responded in a July 25 “Report to the Nation” "Report to the Nation" (Kennedy)[Report to the Nation] that he was determined to support West Berlin. Kennedy discouraged Khrushchev from additional pressure on West Berlin, but his report, by avoiding references to East Berlin, was interpreted as relinquishing any rights there to the Soviet Union. Konrad Adenauer, the chancellor of West Germany, was never overwhelmingly interested in East Berlin and also limited his concerns to maintaining the status of West Berlin.

Unable to pressure West Berlin, Khrushchev decided to take advantage of Western acquiescence to shore up his client state. Births exceeded deaths in East Germany by only 8,000 annually, and 250,000 East Germans were leaving each year. Many of the departing citizens were very difficult to replace. In the seven years before August, 1961, they included five thousand doctors, seventeen thousand teachers, and twenty thousand engineers and technicians. Nineteen thousand refugees crossed over to the West in June and more than thirty thousand emigrated in July. In early August, the rush turned into a flood. By August 11, sixteen thousand East Germans had crossed to West Berlin. On August 12, twenty-four hundred crossed, more than had ever done so in a single day.

Ulbricht had requested Khrushchev’s permission to block off West Berlin in March. Khrushchev had hesitated then, but now he gave his permission. Just after midnight on the morning of August 13, the Berlin Wall, in the form of barbed wire, began to go up, sealing West Berlin off from East Berlin. At 1:00 a.m., the East German press agency announced that the border had been closed. Thirty Soviet and East German divisions stood ready to counter any armed intervention by the West. Brandt demanded immediate diplomatic pressure to protest this violation of the four-power agreements on Berlin, but, to his great disappointment, the response of the West was too slow and too weak to deter the construction of the barrier. Adenauer, who was engaged in an electoral contest against Brandt, was particularly remiss in his tardy and ineffectual reaction.

The dispatch of fifteen hundred American reinforcements and the return of General Lucius Clay, the hero of the blockade, bolstered the morale of the West Berliners, as did visits by U.S. vice president Lyndon B. Johnson and President Kennedy. The Berlin Wall, however, continued to grow, as did the death and misery it brought. The Basic Treaty Basic Treaty (1972) between the Federal Republic and the German Democratic Republic, signed on December 21, 1972, and ratified in June, 1973, again granted West Germans the right to travel to East Germany and enter East Berlin, but the Berlin Wall was not genuinely open to free access until November 9, 1989.


Before the construction of the Berlin Wall, people could move fairly freely through both parts of Berlin. East Berliners could visit family and friends in the evening and on weekends in West Berlin. They had access to the Western press and entertainment. Nearly sixty thousand East Berliners daily took trains to work in factories and shops in West Berlin. The Berlin Wall put an end to this as well as to the permanent movement of East Germans to the West.

The Berlin Wall was eventually elaborated into an impenetrable barrier one hundred miles long, encircling all of West Berlin. Escape was relatively easy at first. Some jumped across barbed wire; others climbed out of second-story windows of buildings that formed part of the new frontier. Eventually the windows were bricked over and a genuine wall was erected, fortified by 238 watchtowers and 132 gun emplacements. It was set off by an exposed “death strip” and guarded by twenty thousand East German police. On the Friedrichstrasse, Checkpoint Charlie Checkpoint Charlie , the only crossing point open to the Allied occupation forces, was permanently guarded on both sides by armored vehicles facing a fifty-yard slalom-like barrier designed to thwart motorized escape attempts.

The Berlin Wall was the brutal product of a regime willing to employ repression and deadly force against its own citizens. From 1961 until the wall was opened on November 9, 1989, seventy-seven people were killed trying to escape through it. Another 114 people were killed trying to cross the increasingly deadly fortified border that divided East Germany from the remainder of West Germany. Observers in the West saw the failed escape attempts and witnessed the refugees being dragged back, sometimes wounded, to the East. One young victim, Peter Fechter Fechter, Peter , was shot by the East German police in August, 1962, and allowed to lie in view of horrified West Berliners as he bled to death. In 1974, Erich Honecker Honecker, Erich , Ulbricht’s successor, in an effort to further intimidate the East German people, made his regime’s practice explicit by issuing a shoot-to-kill order.

The Berlin Wall, in the short term, was perhaps a success of sorts. It stopped the flow of East Germans to the West, and it also played a role in the formation of Brandt’s policy of Ostpolitik, which resulted in the recognition of East Germany by West Germany. Accepted as a legitimate entity, the German Democratic Republic became, along with the Federal Republic, a member of the United Nations United Nations;expansion in 1973. Brandt feared that, as a result of the Berlin Wall, the two German states and their people would grow progressively estranged. He also believed that the prospect of German reunification in the near future was remote. When he became chancellor in 1969, he presided over an effort to bring the two Germanies together through small steps. He was greatly concerned with lessening the burden on families created by the separation of the Berlin Wall.

The Basic Treaty of 1972, however, did not bring an end to the paranoia of the East German regime. In 1980, to discourage excessive contact between its people and Germans from the West, the East German regime increased the visa fee and the daily foreign exchange requirement for visitors to East Germany. This created a formidable impediment for elderly pensioners wishing to visit relatives in East Berlin.

In the long term, the Berlin Wall was a dismal failure. Psychologically, it further damaged the credibility of the East German regime, which was seen as having to wall in its own citizens. When Mikhail Gorbachev, who became president of the Soviet Union in 1985, lifted the threat of violence, the support of the East German regime disappeared. As East Germans in 1989 fled to West Germany through Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the demand for change in the German Democratic Republic became irrepressible. Honecker was forced from office and, on November 9, 1989, in a prelude to German reunification, the Berlin Wall was breached by the new East German government. Berlin Wall Cold War;Germany Immigration;West Germany East Germany West Germany

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gearson, John P. S., and Kori Schake, eds. The Berlin Wall Crisis: Perspectives on Cold War Alliances. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. Part of the Cold War History series, this work looks at the Berlin Wall as a fundamental part of the Cold War and Cold War alliances and relations in Europe. Includes a discussion of the origins of the Berlin crisis.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Griffith, William E. The Ostpolitik of the Federal Republic of Germany. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1978. Griffith provides an excellent survey of the development of West German policy toward the East and, in particular, toward East Germany. Griffith provides a very sound and clear analysis of the origins of Brandt’s Ostpolitik, an explanation of its substance, and a solid short-term evaluation of its results.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hilton, Christopher. The Wall: The People’s Story. Stroud, England: Sutton, 2001. First-person accounts of living in the shadows of the wall, as experienced by residents of East and West Berlin and others.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Levy, Pat. The Fall of the Berlin Wall, November 9, 1989. Austin, Tex.: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 2003. Written for young readers, this 47-page work from the Days that Shook the World series outlines not only the fall of the Berlin Wall but also events that led to its destruction. Also discusses how life changed dramatically for residents of Berlin and for Germans in general.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Merritt, Richard L., and Anna J. Merritt, eds. Living with the Wall: West Berlin, 1961-1985. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1985. A collection on the history of the wall and its impact on the inhabitants of Berlin.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ross, Corey. Constructing Socialism at the Grass Roots: The Transformation of East Germany, 1945-1965. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. The author looks at grassroots socialism in the context of the East German regime. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. East German Dictatorship. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Collects and analyzes the various scholarly interpretations of the legacy of the East German regime.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Waldenburg, Hermann. The Berlin Wall Book. London: Thames and Hudson, 1990. This book provides a pictorial history of the wall.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Whetten, Lawrence L. Germany East and West: Conflicts, Collaboration, and Confrontation. New York: New York University Press, 1980. Places the wall in the context of East-West German relations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wyden, Peter. Wall: The Inside Story of a Divided Berlin. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989. A detailed history of the wall from its construction to the year that it was finally breached. The book was completed before the events of November 9, 1989.

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Categories: History