Skip to content

Fun With History: The Berlin Wall

As I said in my Berlin recap, I was really surprised at the impact the Berlin Wall had on me. I was fascinated by it and the indelible mark it has left on Berlin. I thought it might interest some of you to know a little bit more about the history behind the wall. Warning: I am an early modern historian, so this is a bit out of my realm of expertise!

So what is the Berlin Wall? Well the wall was the physical representation of the social, political, and economic division on Germany following the Second World War. After WWII Germany was divided into four occupation zones, one for each Allied power (the U.S., the U.K., France, and the Soviet Union). The capital, Berlin, was also divided into four zones. Shortly after the war, however, it was clear that the ideological division between the Soviet Union and the other Allied powers – France, the U.K., and the U.S. – was deepening. Eventually it devolved into the Soviet Union verses the other Allied powers (aka the start of the Cold War).

Under Soviet influence, Eastern Germany (and East Berlin) set up a socialist government known as the GDR (German Democratic Republic). By 1961 the GDR began constructing a wall to prevent East Germans from fleeing to West Berlin, which as a part of West Germany, offered escape to democratic Western Germany or other European countries.

The closing of the border between East and West Berlin brutally divided the city and instantly separated families, friends, and neighbors. Some families even leapt from their apartments in an attempt to flee, until eventually all of the apartments near the border were walled up and armed soldiers patrolled the wall. Over the next twenty-eight years, over a hundred people died (shot by soldiers) trying to cross the wall.

By 1989 the Soviet influence on the GDR had waned and the government found itself powerless to prevent East Germans from consuming western goods and watching western media. Eventually the GDR was forced to open its borders. Immediately Berliners began crossing the wall and tearing it down, and by 1990, were demanding a unified Germany.

Since 1990, the new unified German government (seated in the Reichstag on the border of East and West Berlin) has spent millions trying to integrate the two halves of the city. Although the history and the physical divide remain clear today. Socialist style architecture, abandoned pre-war buildings, and streets named after Communist leaders clearly denote what was once East Berlin.

My very own piece of history!

I guess my fascination stemmed from the relative recentness of these events. The wall came down just twenty five years ago (in my lifetime!). It’s hard to image as you walk Berlin that so many of its famous sights – museums, churches, etc. – were once part of East Berlin and pretty much inaccessible to the rest of the world. I was also fascinated to learn what life was like inside the GDR. The DDR museum did a fabulous job of not only recreating daily life in the GDR, but also giving a pretty unbiased account of socialism versus capitalism.

If you ever find yourself visiting Berlin, the Berlin Wall Memorial, East Side Gallery, and DDR Museum are all must-sees!

Hope you enjoyed this little history break!