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The Night the Berlin Wall Went Up


Image Source: National Archives 

The Berlin Wall was raised literally overnight on August 13th, 1961 after months of methodical, secret plotting by East Germany (the GDR) and Soviet Russia. While spewing disinformation to convince East Berliners that Americans and NATO planned to attack their “worker utopia” and “new just society,” East Germany quietly stockpiled 330 tons of barbed wire, concrete posts, and protective gloves. Then, following a strict, pre-set time-tick, “Operation Rose” kicked into gear just a few minutes past midnight.

It was a holiday weekend. Most Berliners had been joyfully preoccupied with children’s festivals and citywide fireworks, not noticing GDR military trucks and armed vehicles quietly gathering on the edge of the city as darkness fell. At the very last moment in order to avoid detection, 38,400 GDR soldiers, paramilitary police, transportation policemen, factory militia, and Stasi secret police were roused from their barracks or homes and mobilized.

The Timeline of the Construction of the Berlin Wall: 

At 12:15, they began unloading waist-high coils of wire—purchased, of all places, from Britain.

At 1 a.m., the GDR cut all streetlights, plunging the city’s eastern sector into darkness.

At 1:30, all trains and subways were stopped, and all but thirteen of the city’s 81 pedestrian crossing points closed. Streetcar tracks were cut and rolled up as barricades, paving stones pulled up and piled high. Guards were posted over sewer manholes. All the while paramilitary workers hurried to fence off the 193 streets that straddled the border between East and West Berlin. Often the wire ran straight down the middle of streets.

At 2 a.m., Russian tanks and infantry surrounded the city with orders to move in to crush any uprising. Also backed with their own armored cars and water cannon, GDR soldiers lined up at the Brandenburg Gate with orders to shoot to prevent a mob trying to push through—from either side.

By dawn, the barbed wire snaked 27 miles from one end of the city to the other.  GDR militiamen began jackhammering holes for pre-made concrete posts to quickly secure the flesh-tearing web—just as Berliners begin to wake and alarm spread.


Image Source: National Archives 

Official GDR radio trucks trolled the streets, broadcasting that the Wall was being put up to protect the “good German people” from “Western poison” and invasion and warned them to stay away from the perimeter as soldiers finished planting concrete posts and affixing the wire. Those who protested or tried to dash across the lines were mostly caught and thrown into awaiting police vans.

Anxious crowds gathered on either side, watching in horror, or shouting at loved ones to try to jump the fence while they still could.  Many onlookers convinced themselves the barrier would be temporary. Other East Berliners realized they were trapped with only hours, at best, to escape through holes in the fencing before it was entirely sealed. They grabbed whatever they could and ran.

Because many of Berlin’s streets were divided right down their middle, one side free, the other in a police state, dozens of buildings had windows that overlooked the American, French, or British sectors. Some desperate people dared to climb or jump out their windows into nets West German police and firemen held below.

Other families were instantly cordoned off from one another and could only pass emergency food, notes, and money over the wire. For many, it was the last time they physically touched.

By sunset, the Wall of wire was complete. Berlin was split in half. Without any warning, families, neighbors, and sweethearts were separated—most forever.

Two years later, JFK came to Berlin. Surveying the Wall, he said: “There are many people in the world who really don’t understand what is the great issue between the free world and the communist world. Let them come to Berlin. . .Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in and prevent them from leaving us.”

That cruel barrier stood for 28 years—during which its concrete barricade, searing searchlights, armed guards, and “death-strip” loomed over the world stage—a chilling reminder of the unforgiving walls people can build between themselves out of political zealotry and fear.


Image Source: National Archives 

Learn more:


A German Public Broadcasting documentary: youtu.be/OwQsTzGkbiY