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Building the Berlin Wall

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Building the Berlin Wall


On Sunday August 13 1961, the inhabitants of Berlin woke up to find the city alive with construction workers. Some 40,000 soldiers and East German police officers were busy building a fortified wall along the line demarcating the Soviet- occupied zone of Berlin, effectively walling the Allies into their zone.

The Wall stretched 155 kilometres in a circle around West Berlin, and had only 13 frontier posts including eight crossing points.

Unlike most walls on this scale however, this one was aimed at keeping the population in rather than keeping foreigners out. Since the end of World War Two, three million highly-skilled workers had fled the GDR and the authorities were determined to put an end to an exodus that was having a catastrophic effect on the economy.

Not that this was openly admitted. Only two months previously, East German leader Walter Ulbricht had declared that “no-one intends to build a wall!” And, after the wall’s construction, the authorities, backed up by Moscow, claimed that it was an “anti-fascist rampart”.

So the Brandenburg Gate, the centrepiece of Berlin, already in the Soviet sector, was surrounded by a three-metre thick wall and a military “security zone”.

Checkpoint Charlie, the frontier post between the Soviet and the American sectors, became an iconic symbol of the Cold War – an epic confrontation between two superpowers and two diametrically-opposed ideologies.

In 1963, US President JF Kennedy visited West Berlin, famously saying: “In a world of freedom, the proudest boast is: Ich bin ein Berliner”.

As the years went by, the wall was further fortified and guarded. In places, the west side of the fortifications was 3.6 metres tall. Behind that lay a series of obstacles, sandbeds and barbed wire, searchlights, patrol circuits for armed vehicles, electric alarm systems and 302 watchtowers.

By October 1 1973, the guards had orders to fire on anyone attempting to cross the wall, even women and children. But despite this, people continued to scale the wall in a desperate attempt to get to West Berlin – so near and yet so far.
Around 250 people were killed trying to make the crossing although the exact number may never be known.

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