August 13, 1961 construction began on the Berlin Wall. The massive project was the brainchild of communist Germany backed by the Soviet Union. In total, it was 96 miles long, 27 of those miles ran smack dab through Berlin. The other 69 miles encircled parts of West Berlin so that it would not have contact with the East German countryside.
The 27 miles that ran through the city was actually a double wall construct. The inner wall was 3 feet wide, made of reinforced concrete. The inner wall was 12 feet tall. The outer wall was also 3 feet wide and stood 15 feet tall and again was made from reinforced concrete (essentially concrete with rebar in it). Between the inner wall and the outer wall was an area known as the Death Strip which in some places was only 18 feet wide and in others was as much as 380 feet wide.
Not 35 miles from my house is a 32 feet long section of the outer Berlin Wall that stands as a memorial at a local college’s museum dedicated to Churchill. I have seen in person there as well as in Berlin where sections were saved, reconstructed and now stand as a reminder to how terrible it was. It is imposing. It makes one feel small to stand next to it and have it’s shadow engulf you.
However, it wasn’t the Wall that kept people from hopping between East and West Berlin, it was the death strip. The inner wall had gun turrets, guard towers, and armories. And all that firepower was aimed at the death strip. It was also lovingly boobytrapped with mines and things. The death strip is where people died trying to cross the Berlin Wall. Both inner and outer walls were manned, not just check points, but people who actually did nothing but walk along the top of the wall and shoot at people trying to illegally cross it.
The DDR quickly realized after constructing the Berlin Wall that they would have to commit to it in order for it to work at keeping Westerners out of the East and Easterners inside the confines of the poorer section of Germany. And that commitment would require bloodshed. As far as we know, there were no successful escape attempts across the Wall once the death strip was put in place.
One of my professors once told me that the DDR had CCTV aimed at the Death Strip and in the early days of the Berlin Wall, they would air footage on TV of people dying as they tried to illegally cross the border wall. And those clips also helped deter people from trying to cross illegally.
It only stood for 36 years (from completion to destruction). In 1989, the DDR in an attempt to pacify it’s citizens agreed to release a certain number of VISAs to cross from the East to the West. But the announcement became garbled between headquarters and broadcasting and suddenly there was a rush at the checkpoints to get the VISAs.
At that point, desperate, enraged, and surrounded by hundreds of their fellow East Berliners, a few brave and daring people took matters into their own hands and overwhelmed the guards in the checkpoints. Guards from the top of the Wall had to come down as reinforcements and they too were soon overwhelmed and the security of the Berlin Wall was compromised in less than a day. By that night, people from both sides were climbing on top of the Berlin Wall with sledgehammers. The announcement aired on the morning of November 6, 1989 and by November 15, 1989, the East German government announced they would begin allowing free travel from the East to the West, a complete contradiction of the ideals they supported.
A few thousand people had toppled a government in just nine days. And they had wrecked the symbol of division that had arbitrarily governed them for 36 years. It was a powerful and emotional event. I still have memories of seeing people stand on the Berlin Wall, leaning on sledgehammers or wielding them over their heads to bring them down again on the ghastly thing.
Walls have never been effective deterrents, it is the death that lays at the base of the walls that deter people from testing them. The same was true of walled cities and walled castles centuries before the Berlin Wall was built. It will still hold true six centuries from now. A wall is only as good as the violence that can be rained down on those that test it, whether that be with landmines, boiling pitch, arrows, or bullets, that is the deterrent, not the physical wall.