2019 marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The event was the beginning of the end for the Cold War, as Warsaw Pact nations began to abandon communism and West Germany became the clear victor in the “conflict” over the East. By 1991, even the Soviet Union would dissolve.
The images in this article are stories unto themselves — each represents a different facet, a separate tale to be told, about the Berlin Wall and the way it came to symbolize oppression. After three decades, the legacy of the wall is still remembered, but its destruction is celebrated as a win for freedom.
A Map Of Berlin, Post-World War II
At the end of World War II, Germany was split into four sectors, with the main Allied powers taking control of them. France, the U.K., the Soviet Union, and the U.S. each took control of a sector. Within the city of Berlin, all four nations controlled a sector, too, with the three capitalist nations controlling the west, and the U.S.S.R. controlling the east.
The map above shows the three sectors in the west and the one sector in the east, and where the wall was built around the western side of Berlin. The red dot in the middle represents the area known as “Checkpoint Charlie” — the best-known area where transportation between the two cities took place, if it was allowed.
In August of 1961, East Berlin, with the help of Soviet Authorities, began making plans to build a wall separating the western portions of the city from the rest of Berlin (and other parts of Germany itself). In that same month, barbed wire, which had previously separated the east from the west, was quickly replaced in a swift manner by a barrier.
The wall was seen as necessary by Eastern authorities because West Berlin offered a sanctuary for dissidents to escape to. From 1949 to the construction of the wall, about 2.5 million escaped from Eastern Germany and East Berlin to West Berlin.
The Brandenburg Gate
This image shows the initial construction of the Berlin Wall in August of 1961. In the foreground, construction equipment and workers survey the area where the wall will eventually be built. In the background sits the Brandenburg Gate, which was constructed in 1730 and has been a symbol of Germany at many points in its history (even though it was built before the idea of a German state ever existed).
The Brandenburg Gate has been the site of many important speeches denouncing the construction of the wall, including two iconic ones from two American presidents — John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.
Soldiers On Guard
The construction of the wall was swift and organized. It began without much warning at all, in the early morning of August 13th, 1961. East Germans and East Berliners didn’t have much time to react, and any last-ditch attempts to enter West Berlin were prevented by a heavy military presence.
In this image from August 1961, we see East Berlin residents watch on as soldiers from the German Democratic Republic (GDR) keep guard in an area where the wall has yet to be put up. Roads were blocked with barbed wire to help deter citizens from making any last-minute efforts to leave the East.
Looking Over The Wall
The wall separated families and friends between both sides of the city. It must have been equal parts fascinating and dreadful to have lived in the city at that time (mostly the latter, of course). Seeing the wall daily and having that symbol of the Cold War and division of the world in your backyard likely placed a heavy toll on the minds of residents.
Some found creative ways to see others on the opposite side. This image shows West Berliners overlooking the wall into East Berlin near a church in the early 1960s, when the wall was still in its infancy. Others looked out of windows that were right next to the wall — and sometimes, jumped from East to West through them!
A Heavy Military Presence
Construction of the wall was quick and simple, but effective. These workers placed a block with metal spikes at the top of the wall, to prevent East Berliners from climbing over (barbed wire would later be added, too). A guard or supervisor walks at the top of the wall.
After the wall was built, guards would monitor the wall constantly to ensure that any escape plans that were attempted by East Berliners would be prevented. The wall itself was a huge deterrent, but the military presence at the wall would remain in Berlin even after its construction…and not just at the checkpoints.
Protests Were A Common Thing
Protests were a regular occurrence in the West following construction of the wall. This image shows an overturned vehicle in the middle of the road in 1962. At the time, a contingent of Soviet military personnel came to West Berlin to visit a memorial inside a zoological garden — but citizens tried to prevent its return to East Berlin by standing in the streets.
But the protests on that date were primarily dealing with a separate incident, where a GDR refugee had attempted to cross the wall but was killed by soldiers on guard. The refugee, Peter Fechter, died from blood loss on the strip of the border.
Protest At The Reichstag
This is another image of a protest, from May of 1962. Thousands, if not millions, regularly poured out into the streets to demonstrate against the East’s oppressive ways.
This protest took place in front of the Reichstag building, where Germany (when it wasn’t split between East and West), had its legislative meetings and laws passed. The building was technically in West Berlin, but the border between the two sides was just a few feet from the back side of the building. When reunification of Germany officially happened in 1990, the year after the wall fell, it was held at the Reichstag. The words “Freiheit Kennt Keine Mauer,” placed on the outside of the building in this photograph, translate to “Freedom knows no wall.”
By the time the 1980s came around, the wall had been up for more than two decades. That didn’t stop demonstrations from happening throughout that time, and many protests took place in sometimes creative ways.
This image shows protester John Running, atop the Berlin Wall. Running, an American citizen, climbed atop it and walked a good distance on the wall. He even had a sledgehammer at the top, and broke off a piece of the wall with it. He was eventually captured by East German guards, then subsequently returned to the West. He was the first person to enter East Berlin and go back to West Berlin without a passport since the wall’s construction.
The Cold War Thaws, And Rules Get Relaxed
Tensions in the Cold War began to thaw significantly by the end of the 1980s. Many eastern European nations, who had been loyal to the Soviet Union before, were leaving the Warsaw Pact, effectively abandoning communist rule.
On November 9, 1989, communist party leaders from East Berlin officially announced a change in policy, reflective of changes happening elsewhere in the world: Berliners from the East would no longer need permission to cross over to the West, and could do so whenever they wanted, without restriction. In this image, a protester, a few nights after the announcement, burns a copy of the East German constitution, a portent of things to come.
Protests Beyond Berlin
The announcement in Berlin about the opening of borders reverberated across Germany. It wasn’t just limited to the city of Berlin — all across the country, protests erupted calling for the end of Soviet influence in the east. It seemed as if an end to communism in East Germany was inevitable, but some worried that reunification was still out of grasp.
This protest took place just after Berliners were given permission to travel throughout both the East and West sides without trouble. But this demonstration wasn’t in Berlin — instead, it took place in Leipzig, about 180 kilometers away, and also in the Eastern (communist) side of Germany.
Parts Of The Wall Come Tumbling Down
The image above shows a slab of the wall being demolished to make way for a new entry point between both sides of the city. On the near side, West Berliners watch as the wall comes down. On the other side of the wall, soldiers from East Berlin observe.
The image is actually from November 11, two days after parts of the wall had already been deconstructed, and after East Berlin’s Communist Party leader Gunter Schabowski had said East Berliners would have the right to enter and leave West Berlin without special permission to do so.
Perusing Controversial Media For The First Time
Media from the West side of Berlin was highly restricted in the East prior to the wall’s fall. From news reports to music, Easterners weren’t permitted to have anything that would encourage free thought or rebellious feelings toward the state. Some of the restrictions covered other forms of media, too…
The image above shows men from East Berlin, after the wall had fallen, perusing adult content at a shop in West Berlin. These types of publications were definitely not allowed in the Eastern parts of the city! Other publications, particularly those with expressions of free political thought, were also barred in the East.
Parts of the wall with graffiti on them are actual works of art you can see in many places throughout the world. This image of David Bowie and Iggy Pop was painted on the wall, which now stands in Bulgaria. Its two artists lived with each other in Western Berlin in the 1970s.
Bowie played a large part in the politics of the wall — and may have inspired many East Berliners to start protesting. He played a concert in 1987 on the Western side, near the wall, that was also “attended” by Easterners on the other side. Riots broke out in the East after the concert, which many say was the catalyst for protests that started two years later. Upon his death, the German Foreign Office tweeted “Good-bye, David Bowie. You are now among #Heroes. Thank you for helping to bring down the #wall.”
West Meets East
Even though changes to the rules came about, there was still a heavy military presence on the wall, guarded by East German soldiers. The reunification of Germany wouldn’t happen for almost another year after the wall was officially decommissioned. Still, in spite of the heavy military presence, as seen in this picture, violence didn’t erupt (it was typical for guards to use violent means, sometimes fatal, on anyone climbing the wall).
That’s evidenced by the image here. One individual, propped up by someone on the ground, attempts to speak to a pair of East German guards standing at the top. This person is not being attacked or harmed in any way — at most, they might be getting a stern talking to.
Big Changes Come About
The change in dynamics was felt immediately. Suddenly, people from the other side were accessible and conversation could take place in a peaceful way, without any political repercussions. This was even true of schoolchildren, who in their daily trek to school suddenly saw huge gaps in the wall they walked past every day.
This image shows two East German guards having a polite talk with three schoolchildren on their way to classes in the West. Ordinarily, where the german guards stood would have been off-limits — but this image, taken just days after the rules were relaxed and portions of the wall fell, shows that big changes were about to happen.
Ten days after the Berlin Wall rules were relaxed, and portions of it were torn down to allow for entrance from the east to the west, people were still chipping away at the wall to get “souvenirs” that could be given or sold away. Some of the portions of the wall, which had been painted in graffiti, also became art pieces, which can be seen at various places around the globe today.
People who chipped away at the wall used all sorts of tools to do so, and were called “wall woodpeckers” by locals. Here, a person uses a hammer and crowbar to collect a piece of the wall.
Smiling Through A Hole In The Wall
As portions of the wall began to disappear, different kinds of perspectives into how the “other side” lived came about. Both sides were particularly jovial about the outcome — for the West, it meant their isolation was finally at an end. For the East, it meant that the Cold War would possibly be finished, including an end to the repressive governments they lived under.
This image showcases two German guards on the East side of the wall, smiling through a hole that’s been carved out, as someone from the West snaps their picture.
Forging A New Path
This black and white photograph was actually taken in 1992, three years after the rules on the wall and movement from East to West were eased. This looks like an ordinary path that this man with a briefcase is walking along. Down the path, a woman and a child are also out for a walk.
This was actually an area where the wall once stood. The sidewalk symbolizes a portion of the area where Berliners were once separated from each other — a reality that the man and woman in the picture probably recall, but that the youngster might have a hard time remembering by this point.
Remembering Those Who Were Lost
The 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the relaxation of contact and travel between the two cities, and the beginning to the end of the Cold War will all be celebrated around the world. It’s important to remember during this time that the wall came to symbolize oppression for many. Hundreds died trying to flee to the West during the time the wall stood, from 1961 to 1989.
This image showcases German leaders, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, placing roses on a memorial of the wall in Berlin, on the 25th anniversary of the wall’s fall.