The Berlin Wall began as a simple fence but evolved over time into a complex deterrent system. By the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, there was a 300-foot No-Man's-Land, an additional inner wall, soldiers patrolling with dogs, a raked ground that showed footprints, anti-vehicle trenches, electric fences, massive light systems, watchtowers, bunkers, and minefields.
CheckpointsAlthough most of the border between East and West consisted of layers of preventative measures, there were little more than a handful of official openings along the Berlin Wall. These openings, called checkpoints, were for the infrequent use of officials and others with special permission to cross the border.
The most famous of these was Checkpoint Charlie, located on the border between East and West Berlin at Friedrichstrasse. Checkpoint Charlie was the main access point for Allied personnel and Westerners to cross the border. (Soon after the Berlin Wall was built, Checkpoint Charlie became an icon of the Cold War and was frequently featured in movies and books set during this time period.)
Escape AttemptsThe Berlin Wall did prevent the majority of East Germans from emigrating to the West, but it did not prevent them all. During the history of the Berlin Wall, it is estimated that about 5,000 people made it safely across.
Some early successful attempts were simple, like throwing a rope over the Berlin Wall and climbing up. Others were brash, like ramming a truck or bus into the Berlin Wall and making a run for it. Still others were suicidal, like jumping from the not-yet-boarded-up, upper-story windows of apartment buildings that bordered the Berlin Wall.
As the Berlin Wall became stronger and larger, the escape attempts became more planned and more complex. Some people dug tunnels from the basements of buildings in East Berlin, under the Berlin Wall, and into West Berlin. Another group saved scraps of cloth and built a hot air balloon and flew over the Wall.
Unfortunately, not all escape attempts were successful. Since the East German guards were allowed to shoot anyone nearing the eastern side of the Berlin Wall without warning, there was always a chance of death in any and all escape plots. It is estimated that somewhere between 100 and 200 East Germans died while attempting to cross the Berlin Wall.
One of the most infamous cases of a failed attempt occurred on August 17, 1962. In the early afternoon, two 18-year-old young men ran toward the Wall with the intention on scaling it. The first of the young men to reach the Berlin Wall successfully scaled it. The second one, Peter Fechter, was not so lucky. As he was about to scale the Wall, a border guard opened fire. Peter continued to climb the Wall, but ran out of energy just as he reached the top. He then tumbled back onto the East German side of the Berlin Wall. To the shock of the world, Peter was just left there. The East German guards did not shoot him again nor did they go to his aid. Peter shouted in agony for nearly an hour. Once he had bled to death, East German guards carried off his body. He became the 50th person to die at the Berlin Wall and a symbol of the struggle for freedom.
The Fall of the Berlin WallThe fall of the Berlin Wall happened nearly as suddenly as its rise. There had been signs that the Communist bloc was weakening, but the East German Communist leaders insisted that East Germany just needed a moderate change rather than a drastic revolution. East German citizens did not agree.
As Communism began to falter in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia in 1988 and 1989, new exodus points were opened to East Germans who wanted to flee to the West. Then suddenly, on the evening of November 9, 1989, an announcement made by East German government official Günter Schabowski stated, "Permanent relocations can be done through all border checkpoints between the GDR (East Germany) into the FRG (West Germany) or West Berlin."
People were in shock. Were the borders really open? East Germans tentatively approached the border and indeed found that the border guards were letting people cross. Very quickly, the Berlin Wall was inundated with people from both sides. Some began chipping at the Berlin Wall with hammers and chisels. There was an impromptu huge celebration along the Berlin Wall, with people hugging, kissing, singing, cheering, and crying.
The Berlin Wall was eventually chipped away, into smaller pieces (some the size of a coin and others in big slabs). The pieces have become collectibles and are stored in both homes and museums.
After the Berlin Wall came down, East and West Germany reunified into a single German state on October 3, 1990.