History Brief: The Berlin Wall Explained

The Berlin Wall was one of the most intimidating
symbols of the Cold War era. Who built the Berlin Wall? Why did they build it? At the conclusion of World War II, Germany
was divided into two separate nations, East Germany and West Germany. The western portion was assisted by the United
States and the United Kingdom, whereas, the eastern portion was assisted by the Soviet
Union. Berlin, the capital city, was also divided
into West Berlin and East Berlin, in a similar fashion. For the first several years that the two nations
existed, people were allowed to travel in between the two sides. However, as time progressed and conditions
worsened in communist East Germany, many people began escaping to the Western side. The East Germans were determined to put an
end to these defections. In August of 1961, the East Germans ordered
that the border between East and West Germany be closed. This included cutting the city of Berlin in
half and erecting a border between the two. East German soldiers began demolishing the
streets between the two halves and established a temporary barbwire fence. With the splitting of Berlin, many lives were
thrown into chaos. Families were no longer able to visit their
relatives, and in some cases, East Berliners were cut off from their jobs on the West Berlin
side. The East Germans then erected a permanent
wall made of concrete, which came to be known as the Berlin Wall. The wall was an 87-mile-long fortified structure
featuring 116 watch towers, dogs, additional chain link fences, barbwire, and trenches
to prevent vehicles from driving across. It also included a secondary wall on the East
Berlin side. The space between the two walls became known
as “the Death Strip” as East German guards were instructed to shoot anyone attempting
to escape. The border between the two halves of Berlin
wasn’t completely closed, however. There were several checkpoints where visitors
could pass into East Berlin (although, very few East Berliners were allowed to travel
into West Berlin). The most well-known of these crossings was
“Checkpoint Charlie”, and it was the only crossing where Americans and many other foreigners
were allowed to pass. The wall stood without contest for 26 years. But, in the late 1980s, many Germans began
openly criticizing the wall’s presence. In 1987, US President Ronald Reagan delivered
a speech in front of the wall, in honor of Berlin’s 750th anniversary. In this speech, President Reagan made a bold
appeal to the Premier of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, when he said, “Mr. Gorbachev,
tear down this wall!” Finally, two years later, in 1989, the people
of East Berlin could bear it no longer. They began protesting the wall’s existence
in September of that year. On November 9th, 1989, crowds of people approached
the wall with hammers, chisels, and other tools, and began destroying the wall by hand. The Berlin Wall had endured for 28 years,
but it was finally torn down. To this day, the towering and divisive structure
remains one of the most chilling and powerful memories of those who lived through the Cold

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