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Berlin Wall Memorial in Summer
Berlin Wall Memorial in Summer © visitBerlin, Foto: Dagmar Schwelle

The Berlin Wall and the “Cold War”

Building of the Berlin Wall

The building of the “Berlin Wall” was the East German regime’s response to the huge increase in the numbers of its citizens escaping to West Berlin. The unforgettable sentence uttered by the Chairman of the State Council and General Secretary of the East German Communist Party Walter Ulbricht in an international press conference in June 1961: “... nobody has any intention of building a wall”, turned the numbers escaping into a veritable flood – from almost 19,200 in June 1961 to 31,415 the next month. The erection of the Berlin Wall, starting on 13th August 1961, along the border of East Berlin to the western sectors, did, however, result in blocking this exodus and keeping its citizens in check until 8th November 1989.

Coming to terms with East Germany

It took ten years after the Berlin Wall was put up, before a total of ten direct telephone lines connected East and West Berlin. This followed several attempts at overtures as well as periods of confrontation in the divided city in the years preceding. On 26th June 1963, the President of the United States of America, John F. Kennedy, avowed the freedom of the Western Sectors of Berlin with the immortal words: “Ich bin ein Berliner”. The entry permit agreements in 1963, 1964, 1965 and 1966 enabled West Berliners to visit their families in East Berlin. A plenary session of the West German Parliament on 7th April 1965 in the Berlin Kongresshalle was interpreted in East Germany as a provocation, and the transit traffic was temporarily suspended, while Soviet fighter jets overflew the building at an extremely low height to disturb the proceedings. Following his election as West German Chancellor on 21st October 1969, the former Ruling Mayor of West Berlin, Willy Brandt (SPD) began to implement his “Neue Ostpolitik” (New Eastern Policy) of small rapprochement steps, for which he received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1971.


On 2nd June 1967, a policeman shot dead the student Benno Ohnesorg during a protest action against the visit to Berlin of the Shah of Persia. The hesitant investigation of the case by the police, the polarising reports in the Bild tabloid newspaper and the attempt on the life of Rudi Dutschke on 11th April 1968 radicalised parts of the student movement. The extra-parliamentary opposition created in 1966/1967 split up into SPD party members as well as founders of the new social movements plus splinter groups such as the terroristic Rote Armee Fraktion (Red Army Fraction - RAF).

East - West Rapprochement

With the signing of the Four-Power Agreement on Berlin on 3rd June 1972, the way was paved for the Follow-up Agreement on Facilitation of Transit Traffic (17th December), Tourist and Visitor Traffic (20th December) as well as the “agreement on regulating the issues of enclaves by exchanges of territory” to come into effect. Further improvements in neighbourly relations were provided by the Grundlagenvertrag (Basis Treaty) from 21st June 1973.

West-Berlin in the 1980s

In the 1980s, young people began to occupy apartments in the district of Kreuzberg that in many cases had stood empty for many years, perceiving themselves as “Instandbesetzer” (maintenance squatters) and try out alternative forms of living. Out of 160 occupied buildings in 1980/1981, 80 of them were transferred to the squatters on a legal basis following negotiations involving the building owners and the Berlin Senate. In the case of the other 80 occupied buildings, the squatters were evicted by the Senate, building by building, an action that was accompanied by street battles and the death of one of the squatters, Klaus-Jürgen Rattay, fatally injured when hit by a bus during one of the demonstrations How creative West Berlin was in the 80s, is illustrated by the Berlin pop group Ideal, who with their hit song “Wir stehn auf Berlin” and their legendary performance in the Waldbühne, provided the trigger for the “Neue Deutsche Welle” (New German Wave) in German music. At the final concert of their tour to promote their second album “Der Ernst des Lebens” (The Seriousness of Life), the band performed on behalf of the Berlin squatters.

Up to the fall of the Berlin Wall

Development of the city in East and West Berlin During their decades of parallel existence, impressive buildings sprang up on both sides of the Wall. The development of the centre of the “Hauptstadt der DDR” (Capital of East Germany) between Alexanderplatz and Marx-Engels-Platz, the Palast der Republik (Palace of the Republic) or even the ”Plattenbausiedlungen” (prefabricated housing estates) in Marzahn, Hohenschönhausen and Hellersdorf in East Berlin stand opposite the equivalents in West Berlin in the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) (Mies van der Rohe), the new Staatsbibliothek (State Library) (Hans Scharoun), the International Congress Centre (ICC) as well as the high-rise developments of Gropiusstadt, Märkisches Viertel and Falkenhagener Feld. Thirty years on after the Interbau exhibition in 1957, a new International Building Exhibition (1984/1987) took place with the aim of regaining the centre of West Berlin as a residential location by means of critical reconstruction and cautious urban renewal.

750th Anniversary celebrations

On the occasion of the ceremonies marking the 750th anniversary of the founding of Berlin, separate celebrations were held in East and West Berlin. In his speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate on 12th June 1987, US President Ronald Reagan demanded: “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Even at the “Concert for Berlin”, which took place on the Platz der Republik between 6th and 8th June, clandestine listeners on the East Berlin side had called out “The Wall must go!” and were met by brutal force on the part of the East German police for their sins. Urban development measures were undertaken in both parts of Berlin in advance of the 750th anniversary celebrations. In the West, these included the renovation of Breitscheidplatz and Rathenauplatz and the decision to build the Deutsches Historisches Museum (German Historical Museum), while in the East, the oldest residential area in Berlin around the Nikolai Church was reconstructed in its historical style, the Märkisches Museum and Klosterstraße U-Bahn stations were extensively modernised and Husemannstraße in Prenzlauer Berg was restored to match its appearance at the turn of the 20th century.

Fall of the Berlin Wall

Even before the celebrations accompanying the 40th anniversary of the founding of the East German state has commenced, the regime’s leadership had started to become destabilised by a growing movement demanding changes comparable to “Perestroika” and “Glasnost” in the Soviet Union. In his speech on 7th October 1989, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Michael Gorbachev, reminded the worried East German ruling elite on the need for reforms in their country. This sparked mass demonstrations, the founding of the “Neues Forum” (New Forum) popular movement and the resignation of Erich Honecker in favour of Egon Krenz. Following the declaration on the freedom to travel for East German citizens on 9th November, events happened with amazing speed. The media announced that the Berlin Wall had fallen, and the news spread like wildfire. East German border guards opened the border crossing at Bornholmer Straße and people in East and West Berlin alike celebrated that night as the end of the division between the two Germanys.

Historic places in nowadays Berlin