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At the end of World War Two Germany had been partitioned into four sectors controlled by America, Britain, France and Russia. Berlin had been similarly partitioned.

In 1949 the American, British and French sectors had been combined to form West Germany a capitalist country, while the Russian sector had become East Germany a communist country.


In 1952 the border between the two states was closed but the border between West and East Berlin remained open.

In 1961 the East German authorities decided to close the border between East and West Berlin to prevent the movement of people from to West Germany. In the early hours of August 13th 1961 barbed wire fences were erected along the border and roads along the border were destroyed making them impassable to vehicles.

The effect of the building of the wall, quickly and without notice, meant that many East Berliners were cut off from their families, were unable to continue working in the Western sector and were isolated from the West.

In 1962 a second parallel fence was erected 100 metres behind the first fence creating a no-man’s land in between. Armed guards with instructions to shoot anyone trying to reach West Berlin patrolled the area. In 1965 work began on a concrete wall and in 1975 work began on a final wall made of reinforced concrete sections, further reinforced with mesh fencing, topped with barbed wire. Around 300 watchtowers were built along the wall where armed guards were stationed. There were 8 border crossing points of which Checkpoint Charlie was the most famous. More than 200 people were killed trying to escape across the wall.

In 1985  Mikhail Gorbachev became head of the Soviet Union. He adopted a more moderate policy and was determined to reform the country and boost the failing economy. His programs of reform were popularly called glasnost (liberalisation, opening up) and perestroika (restructuring).

On 23rd August 1989, Hungary opened its borders to Austria. East Germans were allowed to freely visit Hungary which was part of the communist block and many escaped to Austria via Hungary. In September there were demonstrations in East Germany against confinement to the East. The protests continued through October and into November. The numbers of people leaving East Germany increased and many went through Communist Czechoslovakia.

On November 9th it was announced in a radio broadcast that the border between East and West Germany would be opened for “private trips abroad”. Thousands of people heard the broadcast and congregated at the checkpoints demanding to be let through. The border guards had been given no instructions regarding the opening of the border but faced with such huge numbers of people decided to let them pass. In the following days people began using chisels and pick axes to physically destroy the wall.

This article is part of our larger selection of posts about the Cold War. To learn more, click here for our comprehensive guide to the Cold War.

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