The surprising Communist decision to seal the border between the Soviet and Western sectors of Berlin on August 13, 1961 not only divided the city but also set off an international crisis. The initial reinforcement of the line demarcating these sectors with barbed wire – and the eventual construction of a concrete wall – divided the former German capital into two parts that were virtually inaccessible to each other. This severing of all connections sought to stem the mass flight of East German citizens to the West – a movement that had been propelled by the collectivization of agriculture and the nationalization of industry. The Socialist Unity Party (SED) justified this desperate measure as the “protection of peace” and an enhancement of “GDR security,” but the majority of its population failed to believe such propaganda and resented their confinement. West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer therefore denounced the building of the Wall as a “clear and unmistakable declaration of bankruptcy” on the part of the Communist dictatorship, but Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev instead blamed western subversion. U.S. President John F. Kennedy initially refused West Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt’s appeal for countermeasures, but later reassured the population of his continued support.
Continuous attempts to cross the border to reach “freedom” in the West persisted despite increasingly elaborate and impenetrable fortifications. In spite of strenuous East German attempts to shift the blame to the Federal Republic, the ugly scar across the urban landscape turned into a major embarrassment for the SED regime, because it demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that the government had to use force to keep its own people in. Since GDR border guards were ordered to prevent escapes by gunfire, efforts to break through became dangerous, resulting in many shootings in plain sight of Western onlookers. Nonetheless, it was still possible to find holes to slip through, to jump out the windows of apartment buildings bordering the Wall, or to dig tunnels in order to escape. While casualty statistics diverge considerably, the ceaseless efforts to cross the border cost several hundred lives at the very minimum. Thousands of others, however, managed to leave legally, escape through third countries, or have themselves ransomed by the West German government.
The building of the Berlin Wall and the reinforcement of the approximately 800-mile-long border between both German states physically sealed the division of the country and psychologically reinforced the development of distinctive polities and societies. While some elements of Berlin’s infrastructure, such as sewers and power-lines, continued to link East and West, the SED tried to interdict all human contacts, making exceptions only during special holidays such as Christmas. As a result, the last remaining all-German institutions, including the united Olympic team and the Protestant Churches, broke apart into rival Eastern and Western organizations. With respect to its own population, the Communist regime pursued a policy of “demarcation” [Abgrenzung] that forbade all contact with the West, while the Federal Republic’s rhetorical concern for its poor “brothers and sisters in the East” rang increasingly hollow. On account of both its sheer massiveness and its continued contestation, the Wall became the most visible international symbol of the divisive effects of the Cold War, inspiring U.S. President Ronald Reagan to demand rhetorically, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”.