Berlin's Rude Awakening The Day the Berlin Wall Was Born

This week the German capital remembered a very different summer morning in 1961. On August 13 that year, the first barricades between the eastern and western halves of the city went up. Those barricades would eventually come to be known as the Berlin Wall.
Von Andrew Curry

At the time, no one knew that the rolls of barbed wire would become the ultimate symbol of the Cold War. But when the people of Berlin woke up on August 13, 1961, police and soldiers in the city's Soviet sector had already started blocking streets and barricading alleyways with trucks, tanks, bricks and wire. Bemused citizens watched helplessly as the city was cut in two

The reaction was more confusion than outrage. No one knew how long this new obstacle would last: Berliners had lived through a lot in the decade and a half since the war ended. They had no way of knowing how this latest surprise would come to dominate the city -- and the world's attention -- for the next 40 years. The Berlin Wall  was born not with a bang but with a frustrated sigh.

After almost 15 years of tension, the wall was seen as just one more in a long line of Soviet provocations. Berliners had lived through the traumatic Soviet occupation, desperate years of near-starvation after the war and, in 1948, a Soviet blockade of the city. In 1953, Soviet troops cracked down on a worker's revolt in Berlin and hundreds of smaller cities across East Germany, killing hundreds.

After all these traumas, Berliners had come to feel like pawns in the Cold War. The city was managed according to the treaty signed at the end of WWII, which divided it into four sectors. In effect, the American, French and British sectors were West Berlin, and the Soviet sector was East Berlin.

Preventing 'Criminals And Warmongers' From Entry

Beginning in 1958, Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Krushchev began pressuring the American, French and British governments to leave the city. They had formed an island in the middle of East Germany and become a thorn in the side of the Soviet bloc. American President John F. Kennedy pushed back, making it clear that the Western allies were committed to Berlin.

Aware of their precarious situation, Berliners made their way west in increasing numbers. Between 1949 and 1961, nearly 2.5 million East Germans left to start new lives in the west. The situation reached a head in 1961. That July alone, 30,000 East Germans made their way to West Berlin.

On August 12, the East German leadership had had enough. At 4 p.m., German Democratic Republic leader Walter Ulbricht signed the order to close the border. Within hours, the city was laced with barbed wire and crudely built brick walls, a 27-mile barrier snaking through the city. It was a reverse blockade: Instead of sealing West Berlin in, the GDR was keeping its own people from getting out. Officially, the wall was there to protect East Germans from the evils of capitalism, to prevent "criminals and warmongers" from victimizing the fledgling nation. Unofficially, it was a last-ditch attempt to save the East German state from collapse by emigration.

The effects were dramatic. For the next 38 years, East Berliners were forbidden from traveling to the west of what had once been their city. At the time, SPIEGEL, which began publishing in 1947, dubbed the barrier "Ulbricht's Chinese Wall," but it would later become notorious around the world as the Berlin Wall.

'Soviet Zone Transformed Into a Concentration Camp'

In hindsight, the construction of the Berlin Wall was one of the most momentous events of the 20th century, the physical expression of a bipolar world. But at the time, the barbed wire running along Brunnen Strasse and in front of the Brandenburg Gate seemed like just another gambit in a power play. At least, many said at the time, no shots had been fired -- the bloody 1956 invasion of Hungary was still a powerful memory. "As long as there's no Budapest," West Berlin politician Joachim Lipschitz told reporters as he surveyed the coiled lines of barbed wire.

Indeed, the strongest words were directed at Germany's Western allies. Days after the wall went up -- or, as SPIEGEL wrote at the time, "88 hours after the Soviet zone was transformed into a concentration camp" -- a quarter of a million people gathered in West Berlin to protest the "tepid" reaction of the Western powers. The British ambassador to West Germany toured the eastern sector of the city after the wall had gone up, taking advantage of the agreement dividing the city, which guaranteed citizens of the four allied powers the right to travel freely anywhere in the city. On his return, he was greeted with accusatory banners. "Betrayed by the West?" Where are our defending powers?" "Does the West not Have a Clue?"

Before it came down  nearly 20 years ago, the Berlin Wall would eventually form the backdrop for some of the Cold War's most dramatic speeches and emotional moments. It would also claim the lives of 136 people, killed trying to flee to the West.

But on August 13, 1961, all that was still far away. It would take another two years of diplomatic dithering before John F. Kennedy arrived to give his "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech. And by the time Reagan thundered, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this Wall!" in 1987, the Wall was hardly about Berlin at all -- it had become a metaphor for communism and the entire Soviet bloc.