The hidden history of the Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall split the city of Berlin in two for 28 years, dividing East and West Germany in a stark and unforgiving way. From August 1961 to November 1989, the imposing barrier cut off East Germany from the areas of Berlin that the Allies occupied, isolating inhabitants on both sides of the barrier and creating two distinct cities. When the East German regime granted citizens the right to leave East Berlin, nearly 30 years after tearing the city in two, Berliners were left to reunite two different cultures.

While the construction and demolition of the Wall are well-known events in history, many of the smaller stories behind the Berlin Wall have fallen to the wayside. Travel to Berlin today, and you'll see a city transformed, reunited, and rapidly healing. While many scars from the Wall are now invisible, others remain as a testament to the decades of conflict, brave acts of defiance, and ultimate triumph that made Berlin the city that it is today.

The wall that appeared overnight

Today, the existence of the Berlin Wall is a historical fact that's easily taken for granted. For Berliners in 1961, it was a shocking construction that sprang up literally overnight. Just after 1:00 in the morning on August 13, 1961, convoys shattered the quiet night and began erecting the imposing barbed wire fence.[1]

There's a six-hour time difference between Berlin and Washington, D.C. In Washington, it was still late at night the evening before when the East German troops in Berlin and Soviet troops silently surrounding it went to work. Whether this was purposeful or not, the extra care wasn't needed. A journalist from the West Berlin newspaper, Der Tagesspiegel, later said "some members of the United States Mission were furious, as I was furious, that it was impossible to get the message through to Washington. We waited from day to day for something to happen."[2]

The USA and other allies offered no significant response. Overseas in America, many officials had the impression that Berlin operated as two cities even before the barrier. They were unaware of activities such as daily flag-showing missions that the American, British, and French military vehicles performed. The Western media had long portrayed Berlin as having two separate sectors—one Soviet and one Western. To foreigners, little had changed. To Berliners, however, many of their daily activities were abruptly put to a halt. Many lived and worked on opposite sides of the city. Others had family now severed by the fence.

Days passed with no reaction from Western powers. Though the silence stunned some, Soviet premier Nikita S. Khrushchev saw his plan play out exactly as anticipated. At a small dinner party on August 12, he predicted just such an outcome, saying "We're going to close Berlin. We'll just put up serpentine barbed wire and the West will stand there, like dumb sheep."[3] On August 16, East German construction teams began building the concrete barriers that would become the imposing and terrifying Berlin Wall.[4]

A world halved

Over the coming years, East Berlin fortified its wall, slicing through both the city and the surrounding countryside. Strange divisions sprang up, underscoring the fact that Berlin was once a united city. In Rohringshof, the Berlin Wall cut through a cement plant, halving it. The complex went about producing nearly identical products on opposite sides with twin smokestacks and conveyor belts. In Wanfried, the Berlin Wall cut through the local train station.

A baroque church in Wanfried sat in the security zone between East and West Berlin. Its fortuitous location meant that friends and relatives could occasionally glimpse one another at a wedding or funeral. A farmer in West Germany commented on the situation, saying that when he sees relatives at such occasions, "I wave, but we have not talked in twenty years."[5]

Others held their loyalties more closely. One local power plant in West Berlin continued to provide electricity to East Germany, though the owner did so at a loss. Remembering friends and family on the other side of the Wall, he couldn't bring himself to cut off the power.[5] The Berlin Wall cut a wide swath through the city, but within a few years, it was less an eyesore and more an unquestioned part of everyday life, blending seamlessly into the backdrop of Berlin.

When unification seemed irrelevant

It's hard to imagine getting used to the macabre image of a city cut in two by a wall lined with machine-gun emplacements and watchtowers, but this is precisely what happened in Berlin. The Wall was simply a part of life. Forty-three percent of West German students under the age of 21 saw their East German counterparts as foreigners by 1983. A survey in 1985 asked how long people expected the Wall to stand. The average response was 30 to 40 years.[6]


A member of Berlin parliament summed up the prevailing attitude in West Berlin neatly, saying "We may talk about reunification, but that doesn't mean we want it."[6] A musician in East Germany echoed the sentiment, commenting "We don't have feelings of nationalism. Why not two nations? It works fine."[7]


In the early days, when the Berlin Wall was still a barbed-wire fence, East Berliners were frantic to escape. Throughout August 1961, many did just that. A massive 45,000 new refugees registered at Marienfelde that month alone.[8] By the mid to late 1980s, however, much of the fervour had died, and reunification was no longer a pressing issue.

The picnic that set Berliners on fire

Those unfamiliar with the story may assume that pressure to open the Berlin Wall built from within, but the tipping point actually came in the form of a carefully planned picnic. While Berlin sat comfortably with the Wall running through its midst, turmoil was stirring in other parts of Europe. By the summer of 1989, communism was gasping out its last breaths in Poland and Hungary.

The Iron Curtain still stood everywhere but in Hungary. Activist Ferenc Meszaros jokingly put forth the idea of celebrating this fact with an Austrian-Hungarian picnic. What he suggested in jest soon took on real life. Maria Filep was organising the Common Fate Camp, a political retreat for students around the Soviet bloc. She partnered with Meszaros to make the border picnic a reality. The idea quickly grew and become something much more than a shared meal across countries.

At the time, Imre Pozgay was fresh from rewriting Hungarian history by labeling the 1956 Hungarian revolution as a popular uprising rather than a counter-revolution. He agreed to sponsor the picnic and immediately sought out Hungarian Prime Minister Miklos Nemeth. Together, the two men transformed the event into a master plan that would ultimately lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

They named the event the Pan-European Picnic. Planning commenced with great subtlety. Not only was the border opened, but conspiring officials quietly sent border guards away from the immediate vicinity. Promoters encouraged East Germans enjoying a summer holiday in Hungary to attend the event. Organizers helpfully provided them with maps that clearly showed them how to cross the border into Austria under the pretense that the information would help them adhere to travel restrictions and stay on the Hungarian side of the border.

In reality, the Hungarians were hoping to encourage these East Germans to flee the country, thus beginning what could become a mass exodus. The Pan-European Picnic took place on August 19, 1989, just 400 miles from the Berlin Wall. Organisers expected several hundred attendees, but ten to twenty times as many people arrived. Though the response from East Germans wasn't as large as Nemeth had hoped, those who did arrive found a pleasant surprise.

The few Hungarian border guards present pointedly turned their backs to East Germans fleeing through the border, busying themselves instead with the comings and goings of Austrians. A fleet of buses waited nearby to transport East Germans to central West Germany that very day. More than 600 East Germans crossed the border during the picnic.[9]

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© Getyimages

The botched opening of the Wall

The exodus that began with the Pan-European Picnic continued through the following months. By November, the German Democratic Republic was all but defeated. On November 9, 1989, the Central Committee approved a new travel law that would allow East Germans to cross the border into West Germany, effectively opening the Berlin Wall. Gunter Schabowski, spokesman for the East German Communist Party, received the press release stating that the new law would take place the next day.

The two-page release, however, had a minor error in it. It simply stated that the law would go into effect "sofort," or immediately. Schabowski read the press release just after 6 p.m. Reporters questioned when the law would go into place, and lacking any other answer, he simply replied "sofort."

Chaos ensued as citizens mobbed the borders. Border police and checkpoint commanders didn't know what to do. Tens of thousands gathered at the checkpoints. Lacking instruction, commanders along the Berlin Wall finally concluded that they should simply let the people through. Checkpoint Charlie opened at 11:17 p.m. releasing a rush of people across the border.[10]


© Dennis Goedegebuure

The painful aftermath

The popular image of Berlin as the Wall opened is one of joy. Families reunited, and friends separated for decades could see one another again. West Berlin Mayor Walter Momper called Germans "the happiest people in the world."[11] While it was certainly a joyous occasion, the full ramifications of this event weren't immediately clear.


Marina, an East German citizen who was only a child when the Berlin Wall went up, felt the impact severely. Recounting her experience, she said, "I only realised after I was there what the economic and social system meant. I'd only romanticised before. And when I came back, I was sick for a week. I lay in bed, suffering from West-shock." She described losing eight pounds from the culture shock of breaking so many taboos.[13] Adjusting would not come easy to many who knew nothing outside the lives that they lived on the East side of the Wall.


© Dennis Goedegebuure

Healing Berlin

In the decades following the fall of the Berlin Wall, Berlin slowly began to heal. In many areas, citizens dismantled the Wall completely. In others, the remains are nearly unrecognisable. The longest remaining strip of the Berlin Wall is in Friedrichshain. Here, it now stands as a stunning piece of public art, brightly painted by international artists.

In Kieler Eck, Mitte, you can see one of only three watchtowers to survive. Here, it's dwarfed by flat towers. At Bernauer Straße, also in Mitte, visitors find the only section of the Berlin Wall that still retains its original fortifications. Both the inner and outer walls still stand, with the once-deadly no man's land between. Potsdamer Platz is centrally located as well, with small pieces of the Berlin Wall standing in stark contrast to an area filled with modern architecture.

Much has changed in Berlin, but some things remain reassuringly stable. West Berlin's Kreuzberg and Neukolln neighbourhoods are still havens for artists and musicians. Though undeniably aged, they wear the look well, offering a comfortable retreat for a late-night snack or an evening of bar-hopping.

Berlin today is a city finally reunited, with the Berlin Wall standing only in small pieces. These remain as a historical reminder of the past, but they carry none of the danger that they once held. While you'll certainly want to witness the Wall on a visit to the city, this structure no longer dominates the landscape. With the Berlin Wall's rich and fascinating history fresh in mind, it's impossible not to see this city for the astounding success that it is, having survived, thrived, and triumphed even in the face of once seemingly insurmountable challenges.


© Dennis Goedegebuure

  • Norman Gelb, The Berlin Wall. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.
  • Michael Meyer, The Year That Changed the World. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009.
  • W.R. Smyser, Kennedy and the Berlin Wall. Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2009.
  • John Borneman, After the Wall: East Meets West in the New Berlin. New York: Basic Books, 1991.

  1. Norman Gelb, The Berlin Wall. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988. p. 8
  2. Gelb, p. 212
  3. Michael Meyer, The Year That Changed the World. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009, p. 17
  4. W.R. Smyser, Kennedy and the Berlin Wall. Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2009, p. 110
  5. Meyer, p. 19
  6. Meyer, p. 24
  7. Meyer, p. 26
  8. Smyser, p. 110
  9. Meyer, p. 97
  10. Meyer, p. 101
  11. Meyer, p. 103
  12. John Borneman, After the Wall: East Meets West in the New Berlin. New York: Basic Books, 1991, p. 3
  13. Borneman, p. 48
  14. Borneman, p. 49