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Image: Barbed wire in front of the Brandenburg Gate


The rise and fall of the Berlin Wall

An archival look at the iconic barrier that became a symbol of the broader Cold War conflict.

Barbed Wire At Gate

A city divided

The Berlin Wall was erected to separate East and West Berlin following the wider partition of Germany after the Second World War. Standing from 1961 to 1989, it became a symbol of the broader Cold War conflict. Half-controlled by Western forces, the city was geographically in the middle of the Soviet Occupation Zone of Germany and became a focal point for tensions between the NATO allies and the communist Eastern Bloc. In this image, the Brandenburg Gate is seen behind barbed wire in 1962.

John Waterman / Hulton Archive
The Big Three

The Big Three

The leaders of the Big Three meet at the Potsdam Conference on Aug. 2, 1945. Left to right: British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, U.S. President Harry Truman and Soviet leader Josef Stalin. The Potsdam Agreement divided Germany into four occupation zones: British, French, American and Soviet, setting policy for the reconstruction of Germany following its surrender on May 8, 1945.

Mpi / Hulton Archive
US C-47 cargo plane flying over locals amid ruins,

Berlin Airlift

A U.S. C-47 cargo plane carrying food and other relief supplies approaches Tempelhof Airport amid the ruins of a shattered Berlin in 1948. The Berlin Airlift was in response to the Soviet blockade of West Berlin. Disagreements regarding reconstruction and a new German currency led to the conflict. The allies responded with a massive effort to supply the 2 million inhabitants of West Berlin with food and fuel. The airlift began on June 26, 1948 and ended 14 months later on August 27, 1949. More than 277,000 flights involving 300 aircraft took part in the operation. At its busiest, planes were taking off and landing at 90-second intervals. More than two million tons of supplies were airlifted before the operation came to a close.

Walter Sanders / Time & Life Pictures

Thin white line

Police officers from West and East Berlin meet at a line marking the the border in 1955. As the Cold War continued, West Berlin prospered while East Berlin did not. Many residents of the East grew disillusioned with the oppressive economic and political situation and started to defect to the West. Millions had fled East Germany by 1955 and restrictions of movement between the two gradually increased. The inner border was officially closed in 1952 but initially there was no physical barrier.

Walter Ulbricht;Otto Grotewohl;Nikita S. Khrushchev

Krushchev gets involved

Left to right: Walter Ulbricht, Nikita Khrushchev and Otto Grotewohl arrive in East Berlin on May 1, 1960. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev became increasingly distressed by U.S. spy planes flying reconnaissance missions over Berlin. On May 1, 1960, the Soviets shot down an American U-2 plane and called for an end to the provocations and disarmament. Although Walter Ulbricht, chairman of the East Germany's state council, stated in 1961 there would be no wall erected, Khrushchev saw a need to contain the flight to the West. By 1960, the loss of working professionals to the West was profound. The East German brain drain had become so damaging to the country's economic viability that the securing the border became imperative.

Robert Lackenbach / Time & Life Pictures
Image: 20th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Building the barrier

In August 1961, a barbed-wire barrier was erected between East and West Berlin. A few days later, workers started building a concrete block wall. Residents of East were no longer allowed to enter the West. The "Iron Curtain" that Winston Churchill had spoken about in a 1946 speech had now come to fruition. "The working class of Germany has erected a wall so that no wolf can break into the (communist) German Democratic Republic again." – Nikita Khrushchev

Family Divide


Two mothers wave to their children and grandchildren from across the wall in the Soviet sector of Berlin. Many families were split by the border's closure. Some Berliners were also cut off from their jobs.

Keystone / Hulton Archive
Aerial photograph of the Berlin Wall.  (

Homes razed

The Berlin Wall grew increasingly formidable and eventually stretched more than 96 miles. Houses in its path were knocked down as it expanded.

Robert Lackenbach / Time & Life Pictures

Escape bid

A man attempts to flee East Germany by climbing over the Berlin Wall on Oct. 16, 1961. Although 'shoot-to-kill' orders were in effect, many still attempted to escape. It is estimated that approximately 5,000 people successfully made it to the West. However, up to 75,000 others were caught and imprisoned.

Image: 20th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Standoff at the border

Soviet tanks are seen at Checkpoint Charlie on Oct. 28, 1961. The standoff began on Oct. 22 as a dispute over whether East German guards were authorized to examine the travel documents of a U.S. diplomat. By Oct. 27, ten Soviet and an equal number of American tanks stood 100 yards apart on either side of the crossing. The standoff ended peacefully on Oct. 28


Death at the wall

A dying Peter Fechter is carried away by East German border guards who shot him when he tried to flee to the West on Aug. 17, 1962. Fechter jumped the barbed wire fence near Checkpoint Charlie and was wounded. He was left in 'no-man's land' for about 50 minutes before being taken to hospital where he died a short time later. Fechter’s death, in full view of the Western media, sparked negative publicity worldwide. According to the August 13 Association, which specializes in the history of the Berlin Wall, at least 938 people were killed by East German border guards as they attempted to flee to West Berlin or West Germany. The last person to be shot while trying to cross the border was Chris Gueffroy on Feb. 6, 1989.

Walking past a cordon of saluting servicemen and the sentry post of \"Checkpoint Charlie,\" President Kennedy arrives June 26, 1963, at the West Berlin area near the Berlin Wall where less than two years ago Russian and U.S. tanks faced each other muzzle to muzzle.  Escorting the President is Brig. Gen. Frederick O. Hartell, right, Commander of the U.S. brigade in Berlin.  Partly obscured by Kennedy is West Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt.  (AP Photo)

'Ich bin ein Berliner'

Striding past a cordon of saluting servicemen at Checkpoint Charlie, President John F. Kennedy arrives in Berlin on June 26, 1963. Kennedy delivered one of his most famous speeches, declaring, "Ich bin ein Berliner" - or "I am a Berliner" - to a cheering crowd of thousands. The much-needed morale boost for West Berliners also sent a strong message to the Soviets. Two months later, Kennedy negotiated the first nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union.

Put To Good Use

Adapting to life

A family uses the Berlin Wall as a windbreak on a sunny day in West Berlin on May 27, 1964. While East Germany stagnated under Soviet domination, West Berlin received millions of dollars in American aid.

Keystone / Hulton Archive
Escapee In Lorry By Berlin Wall

Ingenious escape

Stanislaus Gefroerer hides in the back of a truck after crossing the Berlin Wall by ladder on Sept. 20, 1965. As border defenses tightened, would-be escapees were forced to become more creative. One woman hid under the hood of a car while two families floated over the wall in a hot-air balloon.

Express Newspapers / Hulton Archive
Erich Honecker

'Golden Tank'

Erich Honecker, the president of East Germany, presents a 'Golden Tank' award following Warsaw Pact military exercises in 1980. After fleeing to the Soviet Union, Honecker would later be extradited back to a unified Germany to stand trial for high treason and other crimes allegedly committed during the Cold War. Honecker was released after being diagnosed with cancer during his trial in 1993. He died in exile in Chile about 18 months later.

Keystone / Hulton Archive
The Berlin Wall separated the city into East and West for four decades. Berlin's unique situation as a city half-controlled by Western forces, in the middle of the Soviet Occupation Zone of Germany, made it a focal point for tensions between the Allies and the Soviets and a place where conflicting ideologies were enforced side-by-side. Along the \"death strip\" which stretches like a barren moat around West Berlin, with combined 100 miles of electric fences, patrols, floodlights, and vehicle traps between the inner and outer walls with the purpose of separating East from West Berlin.

'Death strip'

This image shows the 'death strip' which stretched like a barren moat around West Berlin. The top of the wall was lined with a smooth pipe, intended to make scaling it more difficult. It was reinforced by mesh fencing, anti-vehicle trenches, obstacles and barbed wire.

US 3rd Battalion scouts on jeep patrol a

American presence

U.S. troops on a Jeep patrol in West Berlin's American sector stop near graffiti reading "Give peace a chance".

Sahm Doherty / Time & Life Pictures
Image: Fall of Berlin Wall - Schabowski

'Tear down this wall'

President Ronald Reagan delivers one of his most famous speeches in front of the Brandenburg Gate on June 12, 1987. About 25.000 Berliners cheered as he said, "General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." Reagan's visit coincided with celebrations marking the city's 750th anniversary.

Michael Probst / DPA
East Germans cross border

Warm welcome

A West German border guard is given flowers as he welcomes East Germans to Rudolphstein, Bavaria, the day the Berlin Wall collapsed on Nov. 9, 1989.

Sven Creutzmann/mambo Photo / Getty Images North America
A man attacks the Berlin Wall with a pickaxe on the night of November 9th, 1989

Chipping away

A man attacks the Berlin Wall with a pickaxe on Nov. 9, 1989 after news spread rapidly that the East German government would start granting exit visas to anyone who wanted to go to the West. The announcement was misinterpreted as meaning the border was now open and East German border guards were unable to stop the rush of people to the wall. Within hours, Germans were smashing sections of the iconic barrier with their own tools.

Robert Wallis / SIPA
Thousands of young East Berliners crowd atop the B

Packed perch

Thousands of young East Berliners crowd atop the Berlin Wall near the Brandenburg Gate on Nov. 11, 1989. One day earlier, an official had declared that starting from midnight East Germans would be free to leave the country, without permission, at any point along the border.

Gerard Malie / AFP
German Youth Astride the Berlin Wall

Cry freedom

A German youth waves victoriously from the top of the Berlin Wall on the morning of Nov.12, 1989. The fall of the Berlin Wall led the way to German reunification, which was formally concluded on Oct. 3, 1990.

Peter Turnley