The article below was published in Pinnable’s newsletter in .

Tracing History

In Search of the Berlin Wall

After the inner German border was closed in 1952, the easiest way for East Germans to escape the GDR was via Berlin, which was still an open city at the time. After the GDR was founded in 1949, some 2¾ million people left the country over the next twelve years, and on 13 August 1961 the East German authorities had a 155-km-long wall built around Berlin’s western sectors to avoid a further brain drain to the West. During its 28-year existence some 5,000 people illegally crossed the Berlin Wall — the majority during the sixties, and only a few hundred after 1980. About 100 refugees were killed or drowned while trying to get over the border, and innumerable people suffered from being cut off from the other side. Advertised by the communist leadership as the Antifaschistischer Schutzwall, a wall to keep the fascists out, the Wall successfully secured the East German workforce until it came down on 9 November 1989, and eleven months later the GDR, which was politically & economically bankrupt by that time, ceased to exist when Germany was reunited.

Atina Tabé & Ricardo Grijalva cycling alongside the East Side Gallery
The East Side Gallery, a 1,316-m-long remnant of the Berlin Wall

One of the reasons tourists visit Berlin is to see the Wall, but thankfully it came down, and only traces of it are left. A double row of cobblestones marks sections of its former route through the city centre, and remnants of the Wall can be seen at the Berlin Wall Memorial in Bernauer Straße, which features a replica of the so-called ‘death strip’, in Niederkirchnerstraße at the ‘Topography of Terror’ exhibition, and in Mühlenstraße at the East Side Gallery, the longest surviving section of the Wall, which was converted to an open-air gallery in 1990. None of these leftovers really conveys the insurmountable barrier that the Wall once was, but Panorama The Wall gives a good impression of what it was like in the 1980s. In addition, there are four exhibitions that are of interest, at the Berlin Wall Memorial, the Wall Museum, the Palace of Tears, i.e. the East German checkpoint at Friedrichstraße station, and the Marienfelde Refugee Center Museum. Hikers & cyclists will enjoy the Berlin Wall Trail, a 160-km-long route along the former Wall.

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Construction of the Berlin Wall started on 13 August 1961. In October of the next year, The New Yorker ran a long article titled Die Mauer, now available to everyone online, a profile of the Berlin Wall, written by John Bainbridge. He travelled to Berlin, walked along the Wall, and collected stories of East Berliners who had tried, with & without success, to escape.


The original Berlin Wall, built of cinder blocks & barbed wire, was subsequently replaced by a series of concrete walls, of which the Grenzmauer 75 was the final version, made of 3⅗-m-high bunker silo panels topped with a smooth rounded tube to hinder scaling. These L-shaped panels, Stützwandelement model UL 12.41S, were reinforced with some 200 kg of steel, twice the normal quantity needed for agricultural use, to stop vehicles — hence the S for Sonderelement in the model number. They were generally used for the westward-facing outer wall only, but at the Mühlenstraße, on the main arterial route to the south, they were used for the inner wall, the Hinterlandmauer, to make a good impression on foreign visitors to the GDR.


Broadcaster DW has released a video (10⅖ min.) of what the inner German border looked like before the Wall came down:


Marxist-Leninist doctrine defines fascism as an outgrowth of capitalism, and as a communist state the GDR legitimized itself as the anti-fascist alternative to West Germany, which it portrayed as if fascism continued there unbroken after World War II. The East German people, according to their leaders, had themselves been victims of fascism, and through denazification & expropriation of the Junkers, the GDR was free of fascists, which explains why the Berlin Wall was named the Antifaschistischer Schutzwall, and why East Germans generally felt little responsibility for the war & the genocide of the Third Reich.