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  • Writer's pictureHester Vaizey, PhD

A Brief History of the Berlin Wall Memorial

What is the Berlin Wall Memorial?

The Berlin Wall Memorial is a 1.4-kilometre section of the Berlin Wall, preserved as a memorial to the 20th-century barrier that for 28 years divided East and West Berlin.

Berlin Wall Memorial

Berlin Wall Memorial History

The Berlin Wall became a visual symbol of the ideological and political divisions that emerged at the end of the Second World War. The Cold War was a battle between Western values and socialist principles, and Germany was at the heart of this conflict.

The defeated country was divided into zones (Russian, American, British and French), with Berlin located deep within the Russian zone. The city was, however, considered too important to be assigned to one ally only, and was itself divided into four sectors. Relations between the occupying forces broke down irretrievably from June 1948, following the Soviet blockade of the city – an attempt to bring the whole of Berlin under their control. The Western Allies responded with the so-called Berlin Airlift, flying in supplies to West Berliners instead of using road and rail. This tense stand-off ultimately paved the way for the division of Germany into two separate states in 1949.

Over the next twelve years, 2.5 million people moved from East Germany, which was rapidly transforming itself into a socialist society and state, to West Germany (where capitalism was being restored), because living standards and job opportunities were seen as better there. Most of these people fled via West Berlin. In the hostile climate between East and West, this state of affairs troubled communist leaders: East Germans were voting with their feet. If they continued to leave at the same rate, the standing of the German Democratic Republic (or GDR) would be diminished. The perceived solution to this alarming prospect was to strengthen further the border between East and West Berlin.

Berlin Wall Memorial wall section

On the night of the 12th of August 1961, Berliners went to bed in a city that was largely accessible to all. When they woke up the following morning, this was no longer the case. Overnight the East German authorities had erected a temporary security fence, guarded by border police, to prevent people from crossing into West Berlin. Over time, this fence became permanent and was strengthened with concrete. For 28 years, Germans living in East Berlin could not cross into the western part of the city except with official sanction. Those who tried to escape over the wall were shot at and, if they survived, were imprisoned. Despite this, East Germans continued to attempt the perilous crossing. At least 5,000 people successfully escaped over the Berlin Wall, but 138 died trying.

Unlike other surviving parts of the barrier, this 1.4-kilometre memorial contains the last piece of the Berlin Wall that has the preserved grounds behind it, giving an authentic sense of what the border would have looked like at the end of the 1980s. As you’ll see, the barrier was actually formed of two concrete walls between which was a ‘death strip’ of up to 160 yards wide that once contained watchtowers, floodlights, and trip-wire machine guns. The division of the city by a concrete barrier turned the lives of millions of people upside down, ripping families and friends apart. The residents of Bernauer Strasse, where the memorial is located, felt the sudden physical division of Berlin particularly keenly, as the wall literally cut their street in two. The buildings on the East Berlin side of the street were directly in front of the border. Before the East German authorities evacuated the buildings and forced the residents to move elsewhere, a number of the people living there decided to flee to the West. Some slid down a rope slung out of their window, while others jumped into nets held out to catch them by the West German fire brigade.

Bernauer Strasse was also home to the start of the ‘peaceful revolution’, which began the road towards Germany’s reunification. Following a press conference held by an East German party spokesperson, Günter Schabowski, in which he mistakenly announced that travel restrictions to the West would be lifted with immediate effect, East Berliners flocked to the border crossing points across the city. It was here at Bernauer Strasse that the first sections of the wall were dismantled, creating a new crossing between East and West Berlin. In June 1990, after the East German people had voted overwhelmingly in favour of reunification with West Germany, the official demolition of the border began.

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