Six things you need to know about the Berlin Wall

We look at the history behind the barrier that split communist East Germany from the West until its fall 30 years ago.

Six things you need to know about the Berlin Wall
Soldiers stand on the West Berlin side of the Wall at Brandenburg Gate two days after its opening on November 11, 1989. Photo: DPA

For nearly three decades the forbidding Berlin Wall separated East and West, becoming the emblem of the post-World War II split of Europe into Soviet and Western spheres. Here is what you need to know.

155 km of concrete and wire

The foundations of the Berlin Wall are laid out on August 18, 1961. Photo: DPA

The Soviet-allied East German authorities built the Berlin Wall from August 1961 to stop a flood of defections to the democratic West through the city.

The 155-kilometre barrier essentially surrounded West Berlin, which was an enclave within East Germany. The portion that split Berlin from north to south was 43km long.

READ ALSO: Why and how was the Berlin Wall built?

Concrete panels 3.6 metres high made up 106 km of the wall; the rest was composed of barbed wire.

7,000 guards

Thousands of soldiers stand in front of the Berlin Wall after its opening on November 9th, 1989. Photo: DPA

A heavily guarded no-man's land known as the “death strip” ran along the
Eastern side of the Wall.

More than 7,000 East German soldiers manned 302 watchtowers and 20 bunkers. At night, with lamp posts every 30 metres, it was the best-lit part of Berlin.

There were also alarms, ditches, barbed wire, guard dogs and devices that automatically fired shots at would-be escapers.

West Berlin like an island

West Berlin was seen as an island in a red sea of communism. As the map below shows, the wall divided the city but also travelled round West Berlin which was on the border to Brandenburg in East Germany.

The Wall cut across streets and squares. In urban districts such as Kreuzberg, the Wall ran directly on the streets or along rows of houses.

It also stood directly behind the Reichstag and then went in an arc around the Brandenburg Gate, which was marooned in the middle of no-man’s land.

Waterways such as the River Spree were off limits because they also belonged to the territory of the GDR.

A total of 5,075 people escaped across the wall (with more than 100,000 attempts). There were 302 watchtowers.


Checkpoint Charlie

Today Checkpoint Charlie is a large tourist stop, in which visitors – like these two British tourists – have the chance to pose with “guards”. Photo: DPA

The Wall had seven official crossing points, the most famous being Checkpoint C, called Checkpoint Charlie by Western troops.

It was located in the heart of Berlin in a sector secured by American

In a high-stakes standoff at the checkpoint in October 1961, the US and Soviet militaries stared each other down for several hours in a dispute over an attempt by US diplomat Allan Lightner to visit East Berlin.

A year later East border guards at the checkpoint shot 18-year-old Peter Fechter as he was trying to flee to the West. He was left to bleed to death under the barbed wire, in view of onlookers and journalists.

Tunnel 57

The bust of the GDR border guard Egon Schultz, who was accidentally shot by another GDR border guard in Tunnel 57 during an exchange of fire with escape helpers, lies on a shelf at the Berlin Wall Foundation. Photo: DPA

About 140 people died attempting to make the crossing between 1961 and 1989, according to the Berlin Wall Memorial.

The most successful escape route was Tunnel 57, dug by students from the
West from the basement of a disused bakery into the East. In October 1964, 57 East Germans used the 140-metre tunnel to defect.

One of the more extraordinary escapes came in August 1988 when a family of
four made it over the Wall aboard a small crop-duster plane.

Electronics engineer Winfried Freudenberg was the last to die, crashing in March 1989 in West Berlin having made it over using a self-built inflatable balloon.

'Ich bin ein Berliner'

Kennedy gave his famous speech at Berlin-Schöneberg's Rathaus on June 6th, 1963. Photo: DPA

US President John F. Kennedy's stirring declaration, “I am a Berliner,” issued just metres from the barrier in 1963, has become its most celebrated condemnation in a message of solidarity with the East Germans.

In another famous speech by a US president at the Brandenburg Gate, Ronald
Reagan challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 to “tear down this

Just two years later, as Eastern Europe's communist regimes began falling, the embattled East German authorities unexpectedly ceded to weeks of mass demonstrations and allowed the checkpoints to be opened on November 9th, 1989.

Over the next days euphoric Berliners perched on the wall and used pickaxes
and hammers to knock out chunks. Its systematic demolition followed, with just
sections remaining today as historical monuments.

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‘Wall of Shame’: How the Berlin Wall went up 60 years ago

In the early hours of Sunday, August 13th, 1961, communist East Germany's authorities began building the Berlin Wall, cutting the city in two and plugging the last remaining gap in the Iron Curtain.

'Wall of Shame': How the Berlin Wall went up 60 years ago
A cyclist passes the Berlin Wall memorial on Bernauer Straße in Berlin. The wall was erected 60 years ago on August 13th, 1961. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jörg Carstensen

Rumours that the border between East and West Berlin was about to be closed had been swirling for 48 hours.

On Friday, the parliament or People’s Chamber of communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) had given the green light to take any measures necessary to halt the exodus of its population westwards.

READ ALSO: What it was like voting as an American in Germany right before the Berlin Wall fell

Over the preceding 12 years, more than three million citizens had fled the strict regime, opting for the freedom and prosperity offered by West Germany.

News flashes

At 4:01 am on that Sunday, a top-priority AFP flash dated Berlin hit the wire: “The army and Volkspolizei are massing at the edge of the Eastern and Western sectors of Berlin to block passage.”

In a second flash, the story was firmed up. “Berlin’s metropolitan trains have for the past two hours not been going from one sector to the other.”

Then one flash after another fell:
– 4:28 am:  “The GDR’s Council of Ministers has decided to put in place at its borders, even at those with the western sector of Berlin, the checks usual at borders of a sovereign state.”

– 4:36 am: “An order from the East German interior ministry forbids the country’s inhabitants to go to East Berlin if they do not work there.”

– 4:50 am: “Inhabitants of East Berlin are forbidden to work in West Berlin, according to a decision by the East Berlin city authorities.”

Barbed wire and guns

In the very early morning, AFP’s correspondent at the scene described the situation on the ground.

“Barbed wire fences and defensive spikes have been put in place overnight to hermetically seal the border between East Berlin and West Berlin.

READ ALSO: What happened during Germany’s ‘catastrophic winter’ of 78/79?

“The road is practically cut off for refugees.

“Most of the crossing points between the two sides of the city have been cut off since sunrise and are heavily guarded by the police patrolling with machine guns on their shoulders.

“Only 13 border crossings remain open between the two Berlins, controlled by numerous reinforced units of armed police.

A sign on the wall next to Brandenburg Gate reads: “The wall is coming down – not in 30, 50 or 100 years.” This photo was taken a year before the wall fell. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Wolfgang Kumm

Dramatic escape

“Germans from East Berlin can no longer go to the West without a special pass, the controls are excessively strict.

“As the net falls over the communist part of the city, a young Berliner from the East manages against all odds to ram with his car the barbed wire separating the two sectors of the city.

“Seeing the young man arriving at high speed in a Volkswagen, the police were too taken off guard to be able to stop the car, which carried the barbed wire placed across the street right to the French sector,” AFP wrote.

‘Death strip”

Little by little, the kilometres of barbed wire will give way to a 43-kilometre-long (27-mile-long) concrete wall cutting the city in two from north to south.

Another outer wall, 112 kilometres (70 miles) long, cuts off the enclave of West Berlin and its two million inhabitants from the GDR.

Constantly upgraded over its 28 years of existence, more than 100 kilometres (60 miles) of the wall is made up of slabs of reinforced concrete, 3.60 metres (12 feet) high, crowned with a cylinder without a grip making it almost impossible to climb.

The remainder is made of metal wire.

Along the eastern side of what is widely called the “wall of shame” stands a “no man’s land”, 300 metres (990 feet) deep in places.

Border soldiers from the DDR look over the wall in May 28th, 1988. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Wolfgang Kumm

At the foot of the wall a “death strip” made up of carefully raked ground to make it possible to spot footprints, is equipped with installations that set off automatic gunfire and mines.

However hermetic this formidable “anti-fascist protection rampart”, as it was officially known, would be, it would not prevent the escape of nearly 5,000 people until it fell on November 9th, 1989. Around 100 fugitives lost their lives trying to cross over.