Whatever happened to the Berlin Wall?

Thirty years after the Cold War barrier was removed, we look at its origins and where parts of it can still be seen

Why was the Berlin Wall erected?

The Berlin Wall was built in 1961 to stop an exodus from the eastern, communist part of divided Germany to the more prosperous west. Between 1949 and 1961 more than 2.6 million East Germans, out of a total population of 17 million, had escaped. Many were skilled professionals and their loss was increasingly felt in the German Democratic Republic, or GDR, as it was called.

With the country on the edge of economic and social collapse, the East German government therefore made the decision to close the entire border, and erected the wall overnight, on 13 August 1961. It was often referred to by eastern authorities as the anti-fascist protection barrier, to protect East Germans from the west.

How was it built?

The concrete barrier, complete with 300 guard towers at regular intervals, was 96 miles in length and 13 feet high, though to start with it comprised temporary barriers of barbed wire coils. The erection date of 13 August 1961 was deliberately chosen because it was a Sunday during the summer holidays. Over days and weeks the barbed wire was replaced with vertical concrete slabs reinforced with iron bars, and hollow blocks.

East German soldiers set up barbed wire barricades in Berlin on 13 August 1961
East German soldiers set up barbed wire barricades in Berlin on 13 August 1961. Photograph: AP

Nothing was allowed to stand in the way of the wall. Houses on streets ,such as Bernauer Strasse, where the pavements were in the west, and the backs of the houses were in the east, became part of the border construction. The authorities simply ordered the bricking up of front entrances and windows. There are documented cases of people jumping from windows to avoid being locked into the east in their own homes.

The wall itself was merely the outer boundary. Behind it was the so-called “death strip”, containing anti-vehicle trenches, beds of nails and other defence devices. Wherever the boundary ran through water, similar defence mechanisms were put in place to prevent anyone escaping.

East German soldier Hans Conrad Schumann leaps over a barbed wire barricade at the Bernauer Street sector into West Berlin in August 1961
East German soldier Hans Conrad Schumann leaps over a barbed wire barricade at the Bernauer Street sector into West Berlin in August 1961. Photograph: Peter Leibing/AP

Did anyone manage to escape?

At least 138 people lost their lives trying to escape across the wall, but an estimated 5,000 did manage to flee, although both figures are often disputed. Those who escaped hid in cars, sneaked through border points, crashed tanks through the fortifications, swam across the Teltow canal, paddled on a lilo over the river Spree, or crawled out via tunnels specially constructed by teams of dedicated volunteers including would-be escapers. Among the most spectacular was the circus tightrope walker who walked across a disused power line to the west, breaking both arms in the process.

Most of those who tried their luck were males with an average age of 25.

Why was it pulled down?

An autumn of rising political protest in 1989 put pressure on the East German government to relax travel rules. In the early evening of 9 November, a government spokesman told a press conference that East Germans would be free to travel into West Germany. Asked when, he hesitated, and to the shock and amazement of the Germans present, added: “immediately”.

As soon as western media reported – erroneously – that the border had opened, people started gathering in large numbers at checkpoints on both sides. Overwhelmed by the numbers, passport checks were dropped by guards at around 11.30pm, by which time people were surging through.

It wasn’t until 11 and 12 November that the first pieces of wall were pulled down. A hole was made in the wall segment cutting off the Brandenburg Gate on 10 November, but then sealed off again by the East German authorities and the wall did not come down properly until 22 December.

People smash chunks off the Berlin Wall on 12 November 1989
People smash chunks off the Berlin Wall on 12 November 1989. Photograph: Pool Chute do Mur Berlin/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

How was it removed?

East German authorities initially began removing pieces of the wall using angle grinders, construction vehicles and cranes in the days after 9 November, to create more crossing points between east and west; thousands of Mauerspechte or “wall peckers” with hammers and chisels came to take pieces home.

Later, people would rent out the hammers for a fee. The thud and chink sound of the hammers on the iron-reinforced concrete was heard for months. Most segments remained in place and it took more than two years to remove the vast majority of it, with an official demolition programme not starting until the summer of 1990.

After much debate about the best way to mark the position of the former wall, a double row of cobblestones was discreetly set into public streets and pavements.

Tourists are seen in front of graffiti depicting former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev kissing his East German counterpart Erich Honecker along the East Side Gallery.
Tourists are seen in front of graffiti depicting former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev kissing his East German counterpart Erich Honecker along the East Side Gallery. Photograph: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

Is any of it still in place in Berlin?

Initially there was little appetite for keeping any of the wall in Berlin. Only years later, did people start to talk about the necessity of building an Erinnerungskultur or culture of memory, including bringing chunks back and setting them in new foundations.

Sections still remain but there is said to be more of the wall on display in the US than in Berlin itself.


Original segments can be found at:

The East Side Gallery Artists from around the world painted this stretch, the largest existing piece of outer wall. It is one of the most visited Berlin Wall sites, attracting about 3 million visitors a year. At 1,314 metres in length, it gives an impression of the physically imposing presence of the wall.

Mauerpark Now a popular green space with everyone from families to joggers, hosting a flea market and outdoor karaoke, this was formerly on the border strip, and not accessible by Berliners.

Schlesicher Busch watch tower Again, along the former border strip, the 10 metre high tower and a few metres of wall, is now set among clubs and parks, and a popular floating swimming pool on the River Spree.

Potsdamer Platz After the last remaining original sections of wall were taken down in 2008, six sections were later re-erected next to the railway station. For some reason tourists have taken to pressing their coloured chewing gum into the wall, often impressing beer bottle tops into the gunge. It is a popular selfie site.

St Hedwig Cemetery At St Hedwig Cemetery, is a 15 metre section of the last “version” of the wall to be erected, in 1975 – known as “Border Wall 75’. It runs along the Liesenbrücken, which crossed the border between west and east Berlin.

Bösebrücke – Bornholmer Strasse Immortalised in David Bowie’s 2013 song Where Are We Now? (“Twenty thousand people cross Bösebrücke, fingers are crossed, just in case”) was the focus of world attention on the night of 9 November when it became the first crossing to open. Scores of Japanese cherry trees line the so-called Mauerweg or wall path, which contains a stretch of wall.

The memorial to people who died trying to get to the west with an original portion of the Wall at the Bernauerstrasse
The memorial to people who died trying to get to the west with an original portion of the Wall at the Bernauerstrasse. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Bernauerstrasse Berlin Wall Memorial This street was split by the wall, which ran down its southern side. The open air exhibition here is arguably the most impressive, and a watch tower and a viewing platform help give a sense of the wall’s scale.

Topography of Terror Next to the former SS central command site, now a museum, there is a long stretch of the wall, about 200 metres long. Juxtaposed against the permanent exhibition on the murderous crimes of the SS, it is a particularly chilling reminder of the tumultuous history of the 20th century.

Checkpoint Charlie The most famous border crossing, controlled by US troops, Checkpoint Charlie is now a trashy Disneyfied “monument” to the wall. But there is a small piece of the “hinterland” wall remaining on the corner of Schützenstrasse.

What about the rest of the world?

Hundreds of wall segments have been shipped to more than 50 countries, mostly as commemoration pieces and acts of solidarity and friendship, but sometimes as auctioned pieces put on display in private estates.

Wall pieces can now be found as far afield as the north-south Korean border, a train station in Monaco, a urinal in Las Vegas and a historic east-west summit venue in Reykjavik.

Segments found their way overseas in interesting ways. One ended up in Kingston, Jamaica, after being gifted to Usain Bolt following his record-breaking 100 metre dash in 2009. Another popped up in Cape Town after being selected by Nelson Mandela.

Berlin Wall graphic
Where sections of the wall are located outside Germany

What happened to the rest of it?

Large sections of the wall were crushed up and used for the building of motorways. Later, slabs of it were used in the building of homes.

Sections still come up for sale at auction houses, with two pieces selling for well above the expected price of £17,000 in Sussex in March.

Those in doubt as to whether their chips and chunks are real can send their samples, for a fee, to a government agency – the Bundesanstalt für Materialprüfung (the federal office for material control) – for verification. Many are fake. Over the years pieces of the wall have been turned into everything from earrings to medical cures. There is a homeopathic remedy in which imbibing minuscule amounts is said to help everything from asthma to insomnia.

A part of the Berlin Wall in New York City
A part of the Berlin Wall in New York City Photograph: Ullstein Bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

What happened to the strip of land on which it sat?

It has variously morphed into a bicycle path, a property boom (see the sea of glassy office blocks on Potsdamer Platz) and a legal row (around Griebnitzsee where villa owners refused public access to the lakeside path).

Bernd Ingmar Gutberlet, who is something of a “Berlin Wall archaeologist”, says traces of the old wall are everywhere, if you know where to look.

“They are often just small traces, but I’ve found everything from little markings in the ground and ditches dug to impede escape tunnel builders, iron bars marking the border zone, the lamps which illuminated it, as well as evidence of the plenty of attempts made to disguise the wall so that people would literally forget it was there, and obstacles placed in the ground to stop vehicles from crossing.” Among his finds was a wall segment now incorporated into the garden wall of a kindergarten.

The further towards the outskirts of Berlin, he says, the greater the chance of finding evidence. “I want to encourage other people to do the same,” he adds.

A cyclist passing cobbles marking the former line of the Berlin Wall
A cyclist passing cobbles marking the former line of the Berlin Wall. Photograph: Felix Clay/The Guardian

What commemorations are planned for this year’s 30th anniversary?

A week of festivities is planned in Berlin for the anniversary. A list of official and other events can be found at: https://www.visitberlin.de/en/blog/11-top-events-30th-anniversary-fall-berlin-wall

* * *

Further reading

  • The Berlin Wall: 13 August 1961-9 November 1989 Frederick Taylor

  • The Berlin Wall Story: Biography of a Monument Hans-Hermann Hertle

  • After the Berlin Wall: Memory and the Making of the New Germany, 1989 to the Present Hope M Harrison

  • Berlin in the Cold War 1959-1966 Allan Hailstone

  • The Collapse: the Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall Mary Elise Sarotte

  • Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall Anna Funder

  • Die Berliner Mauer Für die Hosentasche – Was Reiseführer Verschweigen Bernd Ingmar Gutberlet

  • Tunnels: the Untold Story of the Escapes Behind the Berlin Wall Greg Mitchell

* * *

Film list

  • Goodbye Lenin! (2003) A dark comedy set around the end of the Cold War. A woman wakes from a coma to realise that the Berlin Wall has fallen.

  • Wings of Desire (1987) Wim Wenders’ classic, set in Cold War Berlin with startling black and white views that evoke the alienating effect of the division.

  • Sonnenallee (1999) set in East Berlin of the 1970s.

  • The Life of Others (2006) About the human tragedies unleashed by East German state surveillance.

  • One, Two, Three (1961) Directed by Billy Wilder – set in Cold War Berlin.

  • Gundermann (2018) Directed by Andreas Dresen, about the real-life East German singer-songwriter Gerhard Gundermann, who struggles with life in a totalitarian state as a coal miner and with the secret police.

  • In Times of Fading Light (2017) A drama showing a day in the life of an East German family. Based on the 2011 novel by Eugen Ruge: In Zeiten des abnehmenden Lichts.

  • Deutschland 83 (2015) A critically acclaimed German-US TV series about an East German sent to the west as a spy.


Kate Connolly in Berlin

The GuardianTramp

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