Maps & Charts
Glossary: Berlin Wall
German BERLINER MAUER, barrier that surrounded West Berlin and prevented access
to it from East Berlin and adjacent areas of East Germany during the period from
1961 to 1989. In the years between 1949 and 1961, about 2.5 million East Germans
had fled from East to West Germany, including steadily rising numbers of skilled
workers, professionals, and intellectuals. Their loss threatened to destroy the economic
viability of the East German state. In response, East Germany built a barrier to close off
East Germans' access to West Berlin (and hence West Germany). This barrier, the
Berlin Wall, was first erected on the night of Aug. 12-13, 1961, as the result of a
decree passed on August 12 by the East German Volkskammer ("Peoples' Chamber").
The original wall, built of barbed wire and cinder blocks, was subsequently replaced
by a series of concrete walls (up to 15 feet [5 m] high) that were topped with barbed
wire and guarded with watchtowers, gun emplacements, and mines. By the 1980s this
system of walls, electrified fences, and fortifications extended 28 miles (45 km)
through Berlin, dividing the two parts of the city, and extended a further 75 miles (120
km) around West Berlin, separating it from the rest of East Germany.
The Berlin Wall came to symbolize the Cold War's division of East from West
Germany and of eastern from western Europe. About 5,000 East Germans managed to
cross the Berlin Wall (by various means) and reach West Berlin safely, while
another 5,000 were captured by East German authorities in the attempt and 191 more
were killed during the actual crossing of the wall.
East Germany's hard-line communist leadership was forced from power in October
1989 during the wave of democratization that swept through eastern Europe. On
November 9 the East German government opened the country's borders with West
Germany (including West Berlin), and openings were made in the Berlin Wall
through which East Germans could travel freely to the West. The wall henceforth
ceased to function as a political barrier between East and West Germany.
"Berlin Wall" Encyclopædia Britannica Online.