Between 1945 and 1961, around 3.6 million people left the Soviet zone of Germany and East Berlin, causing increasing difficulties for the leadership of the East German communist regime. Half of this steady stream of refugees went via West Berlin. About half a million people crossed the sector borders each day in both directions, enabling them to compare living conditions on both sides.
In 1960 alone, around 360,000 people made a permanent move to the West. The GDR was on the brink of social and economic collapse.
On 13 August 1961, the Berlin Wall was erected by the ruling powers in East Berlin and Moscow, thereby closing the last gap in the Iron Curtain that divided all of Europe. The communist regime had failed and was no longer able or willing to watch its citizens continue to “vote with their feet.” Families and friends were torn apart, and lives and hopes were destroyed.
Over the years, well over 100,000 citizens of the GDR tried to escape across the inner-German border or the Berlin Wall and displayed great ingenuity in their attempts to surmount the Wall, sometimes tunneling under it or even flying over it. Several hundred paid with their lives for their desire to be free, were shot and killed by GDR border guards or died in other ways during their escape attempt.
In the course of the Cold War, both Great Powers, the USA and the USSR, were more and more enmeshed in an armament race, which made Europe a powder keg. But above all, this armament race cost a great deal. The expenditures on defense had increased to the very limit of what was possible, especially in the Eastern bloc.
At the Gdansk shipyard in Poland workers went on strike led by Lech Walesa. Pope John Paul II mediated. In Moscow, the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was weakening the policy. Tough negotiations on disarmement had produced visible results. US President Ronald Reagan urged Gorbatchev at the Brandenburg Gate to tear down the Wall. Hungary opened its borders and allowed East Germans to pass unhindered. Thousands of others occupied the German Embassy in Prague and forced their departure.
Symptoms of a breakdown in the communist power structure – not least through the engagement of the United States of America and, above all, through the courageous, peaceful actions of dissident civil rights groups – gave Berliners and Germans a second chance. On 9 November 1989, Berliners from east and west fell into each others arms, sobbing with joy. Thousands celebrated the fall of the Wall at the crossing points and on top of the Wall itself. Pictures of this night went around the world.
Just under a year later, on 3 October 1990, German unity became a reality also under international law. The desire for freedom and self-determination had won out. Berlin – for decades the center of confrontation and of the Cold War – was now a symbol of German unification and of the future of Europe. (Text: Bundeswehr)
© Bundesarchiv, Bild 173-1321. Photo: Wolf, Helmut J. | August 1961