The Berlin Wall was a guarded concrete barrier in and around Berlin, Germany, that physically and ideologically divided Berlin (in East Berlin and West Berlin) from 1961 to 1989 during the era of the Cold War.
During the early years of the Cold War, West Berlin was a geographical loophole through which thousands of East Germans fled to the democratic West. In response, the Communist East German authorities built a wall that totally encircled West Berlin. It was thrown up overnight, on 13 August 1961.
The original wall, built of barbed wire and cinder blocks, was subsequently replaced by a series of concrete walls (up to 5 meters (15 feet) high) that were topped with barbed wire and guarded with watchtowers, gun emplacements, and mines.
By the 1980s that system of walls, electrified fences, and fortifications extended 45 kilometers (28 miles) through Berlin, dividing the two parts of the city, and extended a further 120 kilometers (75 miles) around West Berlin, separating it from the rest of East Germany.
There were 302 observation towers, 259 dog runs, 20 bunkers manned by more than 11,000 soldiers.
The Berlin Wall came to symbolize the Cold War’s division of East from West Germany and of eastern from western Europe.
During the Wall’s existence, more than 5,000 East Germans (including some 600 border guards) successfully defected to West Berlin.
Early successful escapes involved people jumping the initial barbed wire or leaping out of apartment windows along the line but these ended as the wall improved. Later successful escape attempts included long tunnels, sliding along aerial wires, flying in hot air balloons and ultralight aircraft, and even one man who drove a very low sports car underneath a barricade at Checkpoint Charlie.
The number of people who died trying to cross the Wall, or as a result of the Wall’s existence, has been disputed. The most vocal claims by Alexandra Hildebrandt, Director of the Checkpoint Charlie Museum and widow of the Museum’s founder, estimated the death toll to be well above 200. A historic research group at the Center for Contemporary Historical Research (ZZF) in Potsdam has confirmed 136 deaths. Prior official figures listed 98 as being killed.
The last person who died at the Berlin Wall attempted to escape in a hot air balloon but fell to his death on March 8, 1989.
West Germans and citizens of other Western countries could generally visit East Germany, often after applying for a visa at an East German embassy several weeks in advance.
On 6 June 1987, David Bowie, who earlier for several years lived and recorded in West Berlin, played a concert close to the Wall. This was attended by thousands of Eastern concertgoers across the Wall, followed by violent rioting in East Berlin. According to Tobias Ruther, these protests in East Berlin were the first in the sequence of riots that led to those of November 1989.
On 19 July 1988, 16 months before the Wall came down, Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band, played Rocking the Wall, a live concert in East Berlin, which was attended by 300,000 in person and broadcast delayed on television. Springsteen spoke to the crowd in German, saying: “I’m not here for or against any government. I’ve come to play rock ‘n’ roll for you in the hope that one day all the barriers will be torn down”
In 1989 a series of revolutions in nearby Eastern Bloc countries — Poland and Hungary in particular — caused a chain reaction in East Germany that ultimately resulted in the demise of the Wall. After several weeks of civil unrest, the East German government announced on 9 November 1989 that all East German citizens could visit West Germany and West Berlin.
Crowds of East Germans crossed and climbed onto the Wall, joined by West Germans on the other side in a celebratory atmosphere. Over the next few weeks, euphoric people and souvenir hunters chipped away parts of the Wall.
On December 25, 1989, Leonard Bernstein gave a concert in Berlin celebrating the end of the wall, including Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (Ode to Joy), with the chorus’ word “Joy” (Freude) changed to “Freedom” (Freiheit).
Roger Waters performed the Pink Floyd album The Wall in Potsdamer Platz on July 21, 1990, with guests including Bon Jovi, Scorpions, Bryan Adams, Sinéad O’Connor, Cyndi Lauper, Thomas Dolby, Joni Mitchell, Marianne Faithfull, Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Van Morrison.
Contrary to popular belief, the Wall’s actual demolition did not begin until the summer of 1990 and continued until 1992.
Little is left of the Wall at its original site, which was destroyed almost in its entirety. Three long sections are still standing: an 80-meter-long (260 ft) piece of the first (westernmost) wall at the Topography of Terror, site of the former Gestapo headquarters, halfway between Checkpoint Charlie and Potsdamer Platz; a longer section of the second (easternmost) wall along the Spree River near the Oberbaumbrücke, nicknamed East Side Gallery; and a third section that is partly reconstructed, in the north at Bernauer Straße, which was turned into a memorial in 1999. Other isolated fragments, lampposts, other elements, and a few watchtowers also remain in various parts of the city.
Not all segments of the Wall were ground up as the Wall was being torn down. Many segments have been given to various institutions around the world. They can be found, for instance, in presidential and historical museums, lobbies of hotels and corporations, at universities and government buildings, and in public spaces around the world.
Usain Bolt was honored by the city of Berlin by receiving an original segment of the Berlin Wall — nearly three tons of it.
On 9 November 2009, Berlin celebrated the 20th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall with a “Festival of Freedom” with dignitaries from around the world in attendance for an evening celebration around the Brandenburg Gate. A high point was when over 1,000 colourfully designed foam domino tiles, each over 2.4 meters (8 feet) tall, that were stacked along the former route of the Wall in the city center were toppled in stages, converging in front of the Brandenburg Gate.
A Berlin Twitter Wall was set up to allow Twitter users to post messages commemorating the 20th anniversary. The Chinese government quickly shut down access to the Twitter Wall after masses of Chinese users began using it to protest the Great Firewall of China.