50 Facts About the Berlin Wall

Almost 60 years ago, a colossal concrete wall was built to divide Germany into two parts: the East and the West. The Berlin Wall separated streets, split up families, and caused numerous tragedies during the years that it stood looming over its divided citizens. On the day the Berlin Wall fell, everyone in Germany rejoiced. This day marked the beginning of a new era of freedom and emancipation for those involved. Read on to learn 50 facts about the Berlin Wall.  

Fact 1: The fall of the Berlin Wall started on November 9, 1989.

  • East German politburo member Günter Schabowski announced that restrictions on travel visas would be lifted “Immediately without delay”, but he allegedly got the dates mixed up! 

Fact 2: The Cold War was an already active battle well before the Berlin Wall was erected.   

  • From 1949 to 1961, roughly 2 million East Germans fled to the west, prompting Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to accept East Germany’s request to build the wall. 

Fact 3: The Berlin Wall had a 160-yard “death strip”.

  • The ‘death strip’ was an area that contained hundreds of watchtowers, miles of anti-vehicle trenches, guard dog runs, floodlights and trip-wire machine guns.

Fact 4: It was estimated that more than 100 people died trying to cross the Berlin Wall.

  • The Centre for Research on Contemporary History Potsdam, and the Berlin Wall Memorial Site and Documentation Center, report that at least 138 people were shot dead, suffered fatal accidents or committed suicide after failed escape attempts across the Berlin Wall.  

Fact 5: Around 5,000 defectors managed to escape by going over and under the Berlin Wall. 

  • As the Berlin Wall grew more elaborate, so did escape plans. Fugitives hid in secret compartments of cars driven by visiting West Berliners, dug secret tunnels and crawled through sewers to escape.  

Fact 6: John F. Kennedy was quite relieved when the Berlin Wall was erected.

  • President Kennedy expressed relief, stating that although the wall wasn’t a very nice solution, it was still better than a war. 

Fact 7: On June 26, 1963, Kennedy supposedly told Berliners that he was a “jelly doughnut” by mistake. 

  • Kennedy famously told a crowd at the Berlin Wall, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” The president intended to express solidarity with the citizens of Berlin by saying he was one of them, but some critics claimed that by adding the indefinite article “ein,” he actually called himself a ‘jelly doughnut’.

Fact 8: East Germany called the wall the “Antifascist Bulwark.” 

  • Rather than keeping its citizens in, the East German government claimed it erected the Berlin Wall to keep Western fascists, spies and ideas out.  

Fact 9: The Brandenburg Gate was commissioned by Prussian King Frederick William II in the 18th century. 

  • When completed in 1791, the Brandenburg Gate was incorporated into the city’s original Customs Wall, which circled the city in the 1730s.

Fact 10: A piece of the wall stands in the bathroom of a Las Vegas casino. 

  • Official demolition of the Berlin Wall began in 1990, and more than 40,000 parts of the wall were recycled into building materials for German reconstruction projects. But a few hundred segments were auctioned off and are now scattered around the globe. 

Fact 11: The Berlin Wall was designed to keep people in. 

  • Between 1949 and 1961, almost 3 million people defected from East Germany to the West, and almost all went through Berlin, prompting East Germany to build the wall to prevent its citizens from leaving. 

Fact 12: Unlike ancient walls built in China and northern England, die Mauer was not constructed to repel invaders.

  • The wall was was thrown together and manned to stop the incessant flow of Germans escaping to live and work in the West. 

Fact 13: The East Germans literally tore up city streets to construct the wall. 

  • German Democratic Republic (GDR) troops ripped apart the surface of Friedrich-Ebert Strasse, and created a makeshift barrier. Armed guards stood, and watched for defectors.  

Fact 14: As defectors became more creative in finding a means to escape, the wall also became more elaborate over time.  

  • In 1963, a border area was added behind the wall, which was reinforced with individual barriers and additional fencing. The wall topped out at 12 feet in places, with a pipe placed on top that made climbing over nearly impossible.  

Fact 15: In addition to the concrete and barbed wire, the 96.3-mile wall came with 302 observation towers, 259 dog runs and 20 bunkers.

  • The length of the wall was manned by more than 11,000 soldiers, and more than 79 miles of electrified fencing.

Fact 16: ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ was the most famous checkpoint of all the border crossings.

  • In October 1961, it was the site of a tank standoff between Soviet and U.S. forces. U.S. diplomat Edwin Allan Lightner was travelling to East Germany and was stopped at the border. But he refused to show his papers to the East German border guards, insisting that U.S. policy stated he was to only show them to the Soviets.  

Fact 17: On August 22, 1961, Ida Siekmann became the first person to die trying to cross the Berlin Wall.  

  • After being cut off from her sister, who lived just blocks away on the western side of the wall, Ida Siekmann, 58, jumped from the third-story window of her apartment building.  

Fact 18: Günter Litfin was the first person to be shot while attempting to cross the Berlin Wall.

  • Litfin lived and worked in the West, but had returned to the Eastside prior to the wall going up. He tried to run across the railroad tracks, but was shot in the head by police on August 24, 1961.

Fact 19: On January 22, 1985, East Germans bombed a Protestant church. 

  • The Church of Reconciliation, was mainly used by West German worshippers, it was situated in the Death Strip, and was abandoned after the wall went up.

Fact 20: Two U.S. Presidents gave iconic speeches in Berlin.

  • On June 26, 1963, John F. Kennedy spoke in front of nearly half a million Germans on the steps of Berlin’s city hall. 24 years later, Ronald Reagon gave his impassioned piece speech in Berlin. 

Fact 21: In June 1987, Ronald Reagan visited Berlin and demanded that the Soviet leader should tear down the wall. 

  • Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate, and said, “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

Fact 22: Springsteen and the E-Street band performed a concert for over 300,000 in East Berlin in July 1988.

  • Speaking in German, Springsteen told the crowd, “I want to tell you that I’m not here for or against any government, I have come to play rock ‘n roll for the East Berliners, in the hope that one day all barriers will be torn down.”

Fact 23: The “fall of the Berlin Wall” paved the way for German reunification.

  • The reunification formally took place on 3 October 1990. 

Fact 24: Before the wall was erected, East Germany was left with only 61% of its working-age population.

  • In comparison, they had a relative and able workforce of 70.5% before WWII. 

Fact 25: Construction of the Berlin Wall started on August 13, 1961.

  • On the 15th of June, SED-boss Walter Ulbricht had claimed at an international press conference: “No one has the intention of erecting a wall”, but shortly after he ordered a systematic lock-down of the border, with the first preliminary barricades being installed in mid-August.

Fact 26: The Inner German border was 1400 kilometres long.

  • The Berlin Wall was part of a much bigger border. The Inner German Border was actually 1400 kilometres long, crossing 24 kilometres of waterways.

Fact 27: Despite the East German government’s general policy of benign neglect, vandals were known to have been pursued in the outer strip, and even arrested.

  • In 1986, defector and political activist Wolfram Hasch and 4 other defectors were standing inside the outer strip defacing the wall when East German personnel emerged from one of the hidden doors to apprehend them. 

Fact 28: Berlin Wall guards often let fugitives bleed to death on the ground.

  • For instance, on August 17, 1962, Peter Fechter was shot and bled to death, in full view of the Western media.

Fact 29: Approximately 574 East-German soldiers deserted to West Berlin.

  • One of them was Hans Konrad Schumann, an East German border guard who defected to West Germany during the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961.

Fact 30: Around 1709 shots were fired by border soldiers during the existence of the wall. 

  • The shots wounded around 200 and killing more than 100 inner-German refugees. 

Fact 31: The Berlin Wall’s last victim was Winfried Freudenberg.

  • The electrical engineer died while trying to escape on the 8th of March, 1989 in a hot air balloon.

Fact 32: People who dug out pieces of the wall, after it was destroyed,  were called “Mauerspechte” or ‘wallpeckers’.

  • Crowds of East Germans crossed and climbed onto the Wall, joined by West Germans on the other side in a celebratory atmosphere. Over the next few weeks, euphoric people and souvenir hunters chipped away parts of the Wall.

Fact 33: On 6 June 1987, David Bowie played a concert close to the Wall. 

  • This was attended by thousands of Eastern concertgoers across the Wall, and was followed by violent rioting in East Berlin.  

Fact 34: In 1989 a series of revolutions in nearby Eastern Bloc countries (Poland and Hungary) resulted in the demise of the Wall. 

  • After several weeks of civil unrest, the East German government announced on 9 November 1989, that all East German citizens could visit West Germany and West Berlin.

Fact 35: On December 25, 1989, Leonard Bernstein headed a concert in Berlin celebrating the end of the wall.

  • He performed Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (Ode to Joy), with the chorus’ word “Joy” (Freude) changed to “Freedom” (Freiheit).

Fact 36: Roger Waters performed songs from Pink Floyd’s album, “The Wall” in Potsdamer Platz on July 21, 1990.

  • The concert included performances from Bon Jovi, Scorpions, Bryan Adams, Sinéad O’Connor, Cyndi Lauper, Thomas Dolby, Joni Mitchell, Marianne Faithfull, Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Van Morrison.

Fact 37: Little is left of the Wall at its original site, it was destroyed almost in its entirety. 

  • Just 3 sections are still standing: an 80-meter-long piece at the Topography of Terror, a second part along the Spree River, and the third section in Bernauer Straße, which was turned into a memorial space in 1999.

Fact 38: On 9th November 2009, Berlin celebrated the 20th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall with a “Festival of Freedom”.

  • 1,000 colourful foam domino tiles, were stacked along the former route of the Berlin Wall and were all pulled down to commemorate the destruction.

Fact 39: A Berlin Twitter Wall was set up to allow Twitter users to post messages commemorating the 20th anniversary. 

  • The Chinese government quickly shut down access to the Twitter Wall after masses of Chinese users began using it to protest the Great Firewall of China.

Fact 40: Following World War II, Germany was divided into 4 zones, controlled by the Soviets, France, Britain and the U.S. 

  • The Berlin Wall divided the communist Soviet side from the other 3.  

Fact 41: The subway system that had run across Germany was divided after the Berlin Wall was built. 

  • Subways on the East could only be operated on the Eastside and vice versa. 

Fact 42: Harald Jäger, the chief officer on duty the day the wall was opened, opened the border crossing on his own, and the other gates soon followed. 

  • East German politburo member Günter Schabowski confused the dates on when the wall was to be opened up, this prompted East Berliners to swarm to the Berlin Wall, and overwhelmed the chief officer on duty.

Fact 43: The Soviet Union had initially rejected East Germany’s original request to build the wall in 1953, but finally relented in the summer of 1961.

  • As many as 1,000 defectors a day tried to leave West Berlin by the summer of 1961. 

Fact 44: The first defector to escape across the Berlin Wall was 19-year-old East German border guard, Corporal Conrad Schumann.

  • Schumann leapt over a 3-foot-high roll of barbed wire just 2 days after East Germany sealed the border. 

Fact 45: The 3 Bethke brothers pulled off the most spectacular escape across the Berlin Wall. 

  • Eldest brother Ingo, escaped by floating on an inflatable mattress across the Elbe River in 1975. Eight years later his brother Holger soared over the wall on a steel cable he fired with a bow and arrow to a rooftop in West Berlin. In 1989 the pair flew an ultra-light plane over the wall and back to pick up youngest brother Egbert.  

Fact 46: In June 1989, the Hungarian government began dismantling the electrified fencing it had set up along the border it shared with Austria, while Western TV crews were present. This was a turning point in the relationship between the Soviets and Europe, which impacted the demise of the Berlin Wall.

  • The open border allowed East Germans to leave Germany, and allowed them to travel to West Germany safely. 

Fact 47: On the night the wall came down, The East Germans were greeted by West Germans waiting with flowers and champagne amid wild rejoicing.

  • Soon afterwards, a crowd of West Berliners jumped on top of the Wall, and were soon joined by East German youngsters.

Fact 48: The Brandenburg Gate in the Berlin Wall was opened on 22 December 1989.

  • On that same day, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl walked through the gate and was greeted by East German Prime Minister Hans Modrow.

Fact 49: On 13 June 1990, the East German military officially began dismantling the Wall.

  • The military began dismantling Bernauer Straße street and around the Mitte district. From there, demolition continued through Prenzlauer Berg/Gesundbrunnen, Heiligensee and throughout the city of Berlin.

Fact 50: On 1 July 1990, East Germany adopted the West German currency.

  • Also, all de jure (affairs in accordance with the law) border controls ceased and the demolition of the Wall was completed in 1992.

References: Link 1, Link 2, Link 3, Link 4, Link 5

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