3 Reasons why the Berlin Wall was built

The fall of the Berlin Wall on the 9th of November 1989 did not only mark the end of the wall that had divided Germany into two parts. It also marked the end of the most visible symbol of the global division into West and East. Additionally, the fall of the Berlin Wall was also an important step in ending the Cold War.

But while the fall of the Berlin Wall and the impact that that event has until today are commonly known the reasons for why the Berlin Wall was built in the first place are much less known.

By building the Berlin Wall on 13 August 1961 the government of East Germany closed the last spot where a transition from East to West was still possible. The goal was to end the brain drain caused by well-educated East Germans fleeing into the West after having seen the economic prosperity that was presented in West Berlin.

Let`s find out more!

The situation before the construction of the Berlin Wall

One of the reasons (that I will later present more extensively) for why the Berlin Wall was built was that Berlin was the last open passage from East Germany (the GDR, under Soviet Influence) into West Germany (the FRG, under the influence of the Western allies). In order to close that passage, the Berlin Wall was built.

The Construction of the Berlin Wall did not just happen, there was some prehistory to it that I would like to present briefly before turning toward the actual reasons.

On 27 November 1958 Nikita Khrushchev, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the chairman of the Council of Ministers of Soviet Socialist Republics, gave the Western allies (US, France, & Great Britain) an ultimatum. His plan was that West Berlin, which as a part of West Germany was heavily influenced by the western allies, should be turned into a demilitarized free city.

Khrushchev also planned to make a separate peace treaty with East Germany that would have transferred the rights regarding the transit streets (the only land-based way through East Germany to get from West Germany to West Berlin) that until then had been under Soviet control to East Germany.

In that case, another blockade of Berlin loomed. For more information on the first blockade of Berlin and how the US-American & British airlift supplied the inhabitants of West Berlin for almost an entire year, you might want to check out my article here.

So an ultimatum was set by the Soviets in 1958. But the Western allies did not give in to the Soviet Ultimatum and insisted on their 3 essential demands.

The 3 essential demands of the US, Great Britain, and France were…

  • Free access to West Berlin
  • Their right to be present in West Berlin
  • The opportunity for every inhabitant of West Berlin to freely decide about his own future and his own way of life

In the following years (1958 to 1961) tensions rose as well as the number of refugees who left East Germany through West Berlin.

And that brings us to the reasons why the Berlin Wall was built.

The 3 reasons for building the Berlin Wall

There were 3 main reasons why the Berlin Wall was built. And while some were also influenced by the economic, social, and political differences between East Germany and West Germany the underlying theme was always the special position of West Berlin.

Let`s find out more!

Refugees leaving East Germany caused a massive brain drain

The first problem that the Berlin Wall should solve was the brain drain that was caused by the huge number of refugees leaving East Germany and fleeing to West Germany in hopes of a better future.

I will soon give you a few numbers for a better idea of how severe that brain drain was.

Not only during the last days of World War II and immediately after the war did large numbers of Germans try to escape the advancing Red Army by fleeing from the eastern parts of Germany into the west.

And when Germany lost massive parts of their Eastern territories after the war, more on these territories and what the soviet invasion of Poland in 1939 had to do with Poland getting former German territories in my article here, large parts of the German population that was still living in these former German territories (like East Prussia) were expelled.

But that refugee movement is a story for another time. For now, I would like to focus on the number of refugees that left East Germany (East Germany as a state, called the German Democratic Republic (= GDR), was established in 1949) between 1949 and the construction of the Berlin Wall in August of 1961.

Between 1949 and the beginning of the construction of the Berlin Wall on 12 August 1961 more than 2,8 Million people fleed from East Germany into the West. More than half of these refugees were under the age of 25 and more than 60% were employed, many of them highly skilled laborers that the industries of East Germany could not afford to lose.

Just to put it into perspective how serious that was. While 60% of the refugees were employed only 47% of the entire population of East Germany was employed. So a high percentage of skilled workers left which caused an existential problem for the East German State.

In 1961, shortly before the Berlin Wall was built, the number of inhabitants of East Germany had dropped back to the number that it had been in 1939!

But what motivated these refugees to leave their homes behind and start over in West Germany?

West Berlin as the display window of the (capitalistic) West

I believe that to be unhappy with your current situation you have to know that a better life is not only possible but is also currently lived by others. Today, in a time of global interaction through social media and other means of interaction that is simple. Everybody who has a smartphone, computer, or television can see how other parts of the world live.

Back in 1961 that was different.

Yes, television and radio did exist, and especially ownership of radios was quite common (Hitler for example had ordered that every household should have a radio so that his speeches could be broadcasted into every home). And yes, the citizens of East Berlin listened to Western radio stations even when that eventually became a crime.

But listening to another way of life on the radio is different from actually seeing another way of life!

And that is where Berlin came into play.

On 26 May 1952, the border between East Germany and West Germany was closed, and casually passing that border was no longer possible. Only Berlin still offered the possibility to casually leave East German territory and pass into West German Territory.

More on why Berlin, despite being about 105 miles away from West Germany, still had a West German part in my article here.

So until the Berlin Wall was built on 13 May 1961 citizens of East Germany could just pass from East Berlin to West Berlin (which was a part of West Germany) without the need for any paperwork. There they experienced a standard of living that was much higher than the standard of living in socialist East Germany.

That by the way wasn`t an accidental situation.

West Germany as well as the Western allies, especially the US, wanted to present the advantages of their free, capitalistic system to the inhabitants of the socialist East.

And there was quite an opportunity to present the western style of living to the East Germans since around 100.000 inhabitants of East Berlin would work in West Berlin!

It is certainly not a coincidence that the KaDeWe, the department store of the West, being the second largest shopping mall in Europe after Harrods in London was built in West Berlin. The goal was to show off the economic prosperity of the capitalistic west contrary to the socialist east! By the way, the KaDeWe does still exist and still offers an outstanding shopping experience.

But West Berlin did not only disturb the East German Government because it showed off the economic prosperity of the West. Additionally, the citizens of East Germany who could just walk into West Berlin could also buy western newspapers that were not controlled by the SED, the Socialist Unity Party of East Germany.

But West Berlin did not only function as the advertising poster for the capitalistic way of life that had brought economic prosperity to West Germany. As I already hinted at, West Berlin also served as the last open passage from East to West Germany.

Berlin as the last open passage from East to West Germany

After World War II a special status was given to Berlin. So while Berlin was deep within the Soviet Occupation Zone of Germany the city of Berlin was still split up into 4 different zones.

By the way, the situation of Berlin being within the Soviet Occupation Zone of Germany (later East Germany) would cause major problems in 1948 when a disagreement between the western allies and the Societ Union would lead to the Berlin Blockade. You can find out more about the reasons for the Berlin Blockade and the airlift that supplied West Berlin for one entire year in my article here.

On 26 may 1952 the border between East Germany and West Germany was fortified by units of the East German military. Barbed wire did now stop any attempt of leaving East Germany for the West. Only in Berlin, due to the special status of the city, the transition from East Germany into West Berlin was still possible at the 81 border crossings.

And that function brings us back to the first reason why the Berlin Wall was built.

Since the entire border outside of Berlin was closed, West Berlin soon became the center for refugees wanting to leave East Germany. In the months before the Berlin Wall was built the number of East German refugees fleeing through West Berlin peaked.

But all of that ended in the night from Saturday the 12th August 1961 to Sunday the 13th of August 1961.

The Construction of the Berlin Wall

While Walter Ulbricht, the First Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party and head of state, had still announced on June 15th, 1961 that nobody was the intention of erecting a wall („niemand hat die Absicht eine Mauer zu bauen“) the reality would soon be very different.

In the night from Saturday, the 12th August 1961 to Sunday the 13th of May 1961 officers of the East German army got orders to open envelopes with top-secret orders.

These orders were to supervise and secure the construction of the Berlin Wall!

The construction workers that had been brought to Berlin over the past weeks immediately started to rip up streets, put tank traps into place, and rolled out barbed wire. On the following day, these temporary fortifications were replaced by an actual, roughly 2 meters (6.5ft) high concrete wall. That wall, the Berlin Wall encircled West Berlin and separated it from East Germany.

Over the following years, the wall would be extended by adding a second fence which created a no-man land between wall and fence that was secured with guard dogs, land mines, and other measures to prevent people from getting to West Berlin and escaping East Germany.

But the Berlin Wall did not only rip apart families. On Monday 14th, 1961 roughly 50.000 inhabitants of East Berlin who had jobs in West Berlin could not attend to work.

But although West Berlin was cut off from East Germany by the Berlin Wall there were still land-based opportunities to get from West Berlin to West Germany by passing through East Germany (that is why many East Germans still tried to escape to West Berlin even though the Berlin Wall was a potentially deadly obstacle).

Traveling through East Germany to get from West Berlin to West Germany

Inhabitants of West Germany could still drive to West Berlin. But the process was difficult, uncomfortable, and potentially dangerous.

To get to West Berlin inhabitants of West Germany had to pass through East Germany by using the transit streets. Leaving these transit streets was strictly forbidden, traffic was highly overseen by the East German intelligence, and meeting East Germans was forbidden. Additionally, driving on these streets was quite uncomfortable since one was not allowed to drive faster than 100 km/h (=61 miles/hour), and the highways were made up of concrete plates and not one continuous asphalt surface.

Even accidents on these transit streets were highly suspicious since the East German police investigated these accidents as potential acts of sabotage.

So there we have it, the 3 reasons why the Berlin Wall was built.

I hope you enjoyed our trip into the fascinating and relatively recent history of Germany. Should you be interested in the not so recent history of Germany then I would like to recommend you my article here where I go into the reasons why the Holy Roman Empire was named like that.

Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.

Until next time

Yours truly

Luke Reitzer


K.H Zuber, H. Holzbauer (Hrsg.): bsv Geschichte 4. Vom Zeitalter des Imperialismus bis zur Gegenwart (München 1988).