To talk about the origins of the Berlin Wall, we have to go back to the end of the Second World War. You’d go back to the Yalta conference which was held between President Roosevelt, Premier Stalin, and Prime Minister Churchill in 1945 where the decision was made to divide Germany. There was not going to be an armistice or cease fire the same way there was at the end of the First World War. So Germany would require unconditional surrender and there would be a period of occupation. And so the decision was made at the Treaty of Potsdam later that year to divide Berlin along the lines of the four major powers, the four major allied powers.
Berlin, as a city, lay 110 miles within the borders of East Germany, or of the Soviet zone. It was not East Germany, but the Soviet Zone. And this created a problem because Berlin was then an isolated center of American, French, and British control within the Soviet sector. And so, as tensions rose between the west and the east, Berlin was always a vulnerable spot, a spot requiring the defense of the west. But it was also a place where East Germans could emigrate freely without much problem.
The borders between the two Germanys closed in 1952, but East Germans could still come to East Berlin and walk across the border into West Berlin and gain freedom that way. And between 1952 -- or throughout the 1950’s -- roughly three million Germans, East Germans, did just that. They voted with their feet against the East German regime, so to speak. And they were primarily young people, primarily intellectuals, technicians, engineers, scientists, people who would be valuable to the East German state. And so the situation grew to a crisis. The East German population actually decreased during the 1950’s because of this outward emigration. And so in 1961, the crisis came to a head and on August 13, 1961, the East German government constructed a wall that bisected the city of Berlin.
The Berlin Wall began in 1961 as a simple razor wire divide and the streets were cut off. There was an effort to impede movement obviously between the two halves of the city. And what’s important to remember is that the Berlin Wall constantly was improved by the East German government. That is, it was made more technologically sophisticated. It was increasingly militarized from 1961 to 1989.
Related Information: Voices of U.S. Diplomacy and the Berlin Wall Online Exhibition