The Berlin Wall, now a vital piece of history

Today’s post comes from Gregory Marose, an intern in the National Archives Office of Strategy and Communications.

President Bush is presented with a piece of the Berlin Wall by West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher in the Oval Office, 11/21/1989 (Bush Library, ARC 186404)

Americans often associate the month of August with family vacations and the summer heat, but that was not the case in 1961. Fifty years ago this month, a Cold War chill filled the air as construction began on the Berlin Wall.

After the end of World War II, the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union each occupied a piece of postwar Germany. The four powers intended to jointly govern through the Allied Control Council until the country could be reunified under one government. But as relations between the West and the Soviet Union deteriorated in the late 1940s, Germany became a central part of the Cold War.

In 1949, the the three western zones merged to form the Federal Republic of Germany, and the Soviet Union responded by establishing the German Democratic Republic. Although the capital city of Berlin was located within Soviet-controlled East Germany, it remained divided as a multinational area.

Between 1949 and 1961, millions of East Germans defected from the German Democratic Republic by crossing into West Berlin. The mass exodus of young, well-educated individuals—which led to both economic stagnation and political turmoil—compelled Communist leaders to refortify East Germany’s borders.

On August 21, 1961, the Berlin Wall is just a shadowy tangle of barbed wire separating this couple. But they realize something more serious is happening. The child is being lifted over to his father, who was caught on the West Berlin side when the “wall” went up. (National Archives)

East German troops and workers began construction on the Berlin Wall on August 13, 1961. The first phase of the wall included 27 miles of barbed-wire fencing, covering the entire border between East and West Berlin. In addition, streets near the wall were ripped up in order to prevent cars and trucks from driving through.

Through the years, the wall was reinforced with concrete and extended to over 90 miles in length. The final version of the Wall was 12 feet high and almost 4 feet wide. The massive fortification was more than just a physical barrier. The Berlin Wall symbolized the ideological barriers that divided the United States and Soviet Union during the heart of the Cold War.

When demolition of the Wall began in November of 1989, it marked the end of an era of East-West hostilities. Germany reunified in 1990, and the Soviet Union dissolved the following year.

Do you want to learn more about the Berlin Wall’s impact on the Cold War? The National Declassification Center at the National Archives, in partnership with the Historical Review Program of the CIA, will be a hosting a one-day conference on October 27 at the Archives in downtown Washington, DC. For more information on this event, check out “Building the Wall, from Vienna to Checkpoint Charlie”.

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