Fifty years ago today, workers began erecting the Berlin Wall, which was to divide the German capital for nearly three decades. Between its construction to the joyous celebration that greeted its fall, the Berlin Wall was a physical reminder of the Iron Curtain of Communism that divided Europe post-World War II.
Outside of the pithy demand from President Reagan that “Mr. Gobachev, tear down this wall,” how much do you know about the Berlin Wall’s history? Here are five Berlin Wall facts:
1. Shaky on German geography? Then you may not realize that Berlin was fully in the eastern part of the country, controlled by the Soviets. Post-WWII agreements, however, divided the city much like the entire country. While the most famous part of the wall divided Berlin’s east and west, there was a barrier around the entire area of West Berlin to separate it from East Germany.
2. The Berlin Wall divided the city overnight, going up on a weekend with most Berliners unaware until it was too late. Its effect was immediate—families, friends and colleagues were suddenly on opposite sides of the wall, unable to cross freely back and forth. According to George Washington University professor Hope M. Harrison, in some cases children visiting grandparents on the opposite side of the wall were separated from their parents with the overnight construction. In one case, the wall ran right through an apartment building, which was in the west, but the only entrance was in the east.
3. The Berlin Wall claimed the lives of at least 136 Germans attempting to flee from east to west in the city. All were victims of a shoot-to-kill order for defectors. Günter Litfin was the first victim, shot to death Aug. 24, 1961. Hundreds more were killed at the border between East and West Germany, with upward of 100,000 attempting to flee East Germany over the years. About 5,000 made the crossing successfully.
4. Construction may have started on Aug. 13, 1961, but it never really ended as fortifications continued almost until its dismantling. The wall first began with tangles of barbed wires, temporary barriers and armed guards. Soon, physical walls began appearing. In inner city Berlin, the wall actually had two parts. The outer wall was closest to West Berlin, with the inner wall in East Berlin. The no man’s land in between, often called the “death strip,” ranged in width from 5 meters to several hundred. The death strip had various security measures, including soft sand that showed defectors’ footprints, dog runs and trip-wire machine guns.
5. Berlin Wall historians have the audacity to hassle the Hoff. David Hasselhoff, inexplicably popular in Germany, stood atop the Berlin Wall a month after its November 1989 fall to sing “Looking for Freedom,” with a chorus of thousands on both sides of the wall joining in. He did it in a light-up jacket, no less. Turns out Hasselhoff was a bit peeved his supposed role in uniting Germany has gone unappreciated. “I find it a bit sad that there is no photo of me hanging on the walls in the Berlin Museum at Checkpoint Charlie,” the Hoff told Germany’s TV Spielfilm magazine, according to the BBC.
Bonus facts! The Berlin Wall by the numbers:
43 km/26 miles: length of the inner city Berlin Wall
155 km/96 miles: total length of the border around West Berlin
302: observation towers on the total border wall
8: border crossing between East and West Berlin
259: dog runs along the wall used to detect and attack defectors
11.8: height, in feet, of the wall sections, not including a large pipe at the top to make scaling the wall harder
10,315: days the Berlin Wall divided the city