Building and Tearing Down the Berlin Wall: History and Timeline

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  • 0:02 Fall of Berlin Wall
  • 0:35 Background
  • 3:46 Fall of Communism
  • 5:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the history of the Berlin Wall, from its beginnings as a makeshift barrier between East and West Berlin, to its final demise as communism fell across Eastern Europe in the late 1980s.

Fall of Berlin Wall

It seems people are always talking about figurative walls. Whether it's 'throwing up walls' in your personal life, at your job, or socially, cutting yourself off from the rest of society is generally considered a bad thing. This colloquialism is prevalent in modern language, possibly due to a very real wall which existed for a quarter century that divided one half of a German city from another. The Berlin Wall, which existed for nearly 30 years, was even more detrimental than your personal foibles, literally cutting off families and friends from one another.


Germany's defeat in World War II (WWII) presented a bit of a problem for the Allied nations. The Western allies had advanced from the west and south, with Russia advancing through German territory from the east, achieving the unconditional German surrender that Stalin demanded only through a prolonged siege of Berlin. As Hitler committed suicide and his generals surrendered, the Allied nations had to decide what to do with the defeated German nation.

At conferences at Yalta and Potsdam, the United States and the United Kingdom agreed to allow the Soviet Union to have direct control or influence over most of Eastern Europe, including the Eastern third of the German state. The Western two-thirds was split into zones and controlled by the U.S., the U.K., and France. However, the German capital, Berlin, presided smack in the middle of the proposed Soviet zone of occupation. The Western allies did not want the traditional German seat of power entirely in Soviet hands and, as a result, agreed to split the city of Berlin down the middle in a similar fashion as the rest of Germany.

The Soviets accepted this situation although they did not like having a partially capitalist city in the middle of the communist zone. As a result, they attempted to drive the Western allies out of West Berlin by blockading the city. The allies showed their resolve to hold on to West Berlin by conducting the Berlin Airlift in 1948, which flew millions of tons of food and supplies into the ailing West Berlin.

With the Soviet Union forced to live with the capitalist West Berlin, it had to face a far more serious problem in the city: the mass exodus of Berliners from the Eastern half. In the 1950s, thousands each month left East Berlin, permanently relocating in West Berlin. To make matters worse, these were largely young, highly-skilled professionals (doctors, lawyers, and engineers) who could make far more money and live a better life in West Berlin. The Soviets did not want an empty city to govern, and even worse, they feared the bad publicity for communism and the Soviet Union that this emigration would cause.

The Soviets met this problem in the bluntest way possible. To stem the flow of migration, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev ordered a barbed wire and concrete wall built to separate the two sides of the city. The army of workers shipped in to construct the wall took just two weeks to complete it in August 1961.

Over the following years, the wall would be built higher and fortified with concrete and steel until it rose to 12 feet in some areas. Eventually the wall stretched for over a hundred miles, as it not only divided the Western half of the city from the Eastern half, but wrapped around West Berlin to entirely isolate the capitalist enclave. There were only three checkpoints where people could cross from East to West, and these were heavily guarded and reserved only for military personnel and diplomats.

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