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View series: The Cold War and Confrontation between East and West 1947-1991

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The construction of the Berlin Wall

This map is part of a series of 9 animated maps showing the history of The Cold War and Confrontation between East and West 1947-1991.

During the post-World War II period, many East Germans moved to the Federal Republic of Germany because of severe economic difficulties and to escape the new Communist Regime.

With the frontier between the two Germanies closed by an ‘iron curtain’ that prevented the movement of goods and persons, the only way to escape to the Free World was through West Berlin, a tiny territory of West Germany at the heart of East Germany.

It is estimated that 3.5 million people moved to West Germany between 1949 and 1961. The German Democratic Republic and Moscow wanted to stop this hemorrhage and counter its negative impact for the rest of the Communist bloc.

During the night of 13 August 1961, thousands of soldiers were deployed to supervise the installation of fences and barbed wire around the Western perimeter of Berlin. In the weeks that followed, a 155 kilometer-long wall was built out of cinder blocks, cutting the city in two and totally isolating West Berlin from the rest of the German Democratic Republic.

Normal possibilities for travelling between the east and west were now blocked, leaving only 8 crossing points, which were strictly controlled by military guards.  

For many Berliners, this was a tragic disaster: 75,000 lost their jobs, and many families were divided by the Wall.

Because this happened during the summer, international governments were slow to react.

The first to protest was the Mayor of West Berlin, Willy Brandt, who organized a huge demonstration with 300,000 protesters in West Berlin’s Rathausplatz on 16 August 1961.

In June 1963, the American President John Kennedy went to Berlin to denounce a regime that builds a wall to prevent its people from freedom of movement and to proclaim his solidarity with the city’s inhabitants by repeating the famous phrase “Ich bin ein Berliner”.

Far from disappearing, the Wall was made more solid by a series of additional features.  By 1974, it was composed of a reinforced concrete wall standing 3.6 meters high, a wide no-man’s-land lined by watchtowers and parapets for guard patrols, and an electrified wire fence equipped with alarm systems. This zone was then enclosed by a second wall on the GDR side.  

Despite the risks involved, many East Germans tried to escape to the West between 1961 and 1989, when the Wall finally fell.  

It is not known how many people died in these attempts, but it is believed that at least 136 were killed. During the same period, nearly 75,000 people were accused as ‘deserters of the Republic’ and sentenced to prison terms in the GDR.