Big walls are back in the news. There's now one separating Israel from the Palestinian West Bank, justified as a way of excluding suicide bombers and terrorists from the Jewish state's threatened cities. There's another being built to keep illegal immigrants from Mexico out of the United States.
One thing is clear: Such controversial emergency barriers signal problems that governments can't (or won't) solve by other means. The notorious Berlin Wall was no different—except it was built not to shut people out but to keep them in.
Shortly before midnight on Aug. 12, 1961, thousands of East German workers, guarded by troops, began to construct concrete-block and wood barriers and barbed wire fences blocking boulevards, parks, streets, and alleys in the heart of the city of Berlin, as well as the perimeter adjoining the surrounding Communist state of East Germany.
By dawn on August 13, the labor gangs' work was done. Berlin had been physically divided into a western, capitalist part, connected to democratic West Germany by a handful of transit highways and air routes, and an eastern, impoverished, Communist part whose citizens were now effectively imprisoned. This "Berlin Wall" survived for 28 years, 2 months, and 26 days.
Of course, though it appeared overnight, the wall was no instant phenomenon.
At the end of World War II, defeated Germany was divided by the victors into four zones—American, British, French, and Soviet Russian. The German capital, a city of 4 million that was 105 miles inside the Russian zone, was likewise divided into four parts or "sectors."
The future of Germany, and especially of Berlin, became a bone of contention in the Cold War that followed as relations between the Western powers and their erstwhile Communist ally deteriorated.
In this contest, the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin had one great advantage. He possessed a reserve of trusted German Communist agents. Walter Ulbricht, a dour fanatic with a goatee, was flown to Berlin within hours of its fall in May 1945 at the head of a group of these activists. His task: to take command not just of the zone but of the entire city. His cynical motto: "It must look democratic, but we must have everything in our hands."
Ulbricht's plans were thwarted by the Western allies and a courageous new breed of truly democratic German politicians. In June 1948, the Soviets—unable to gain control by free elections—tried to force the western sectors of Berlin into submission by closing off land access.
Led by the American military governor, Lucius D. Clay, the West defiantly mounted a massive airlift to fly supplies into their beleaguered sectors. After a year, the Russians called off the "Berlin Blockade."
Soon, Germany split into a western democratic and an eastern communist state—and Berlin definitively into East and West Berlin.
By the early 1950s, West Germany was rapidly becoming a postwar industrial powerhouse. Ulbricht's Communist domain languished economically. It began to leak skilled workers. The main border between East and West Germany was sealed. However, because of its four-power status, Berlin remained open. East Germans seeking a better life could still leave for West Berlin and, from there, fly to West Germany. Of 17 million East Germans, 2.2 million fled westward between 1949 and 1961, most via the Berlin "escape hatch."
By mid-1961, this exodus threatened the Communist state's very existence. Hence, the Berlin Wall.
Snaking for almost a hundred miles around West Berlin, the Wall became the Cold War's most potent symbol. It began 50 yards deep on the East Berlin side, with a high wall greeting potential escapers. Next came an alarmed fence, then dog-runs patrolled by vicious German shepherds. Towers stood every hundred yards, manned by guards with orders to shoot on sight. At the edge of West Berlin stood a final "marker" barrier (the part tourists wrongly assumed to be "the Berlin Wall").
Up to 250 East Germans died trying to flee. Thousands more suffered arrest and imprisonment. About 5,000 succeeded—by using false papers, by braving the fortified wall, by swimming waterways, by glider, by reinforced truck, or by digging tunnels beneath Berlin's sandy terrain.