1961 is the year the Berlin Wall was first built, but the conditions that led up to its construction began earlier, shortly after the end of the Second World War in 1945. The Berlin Airlift (1948-1949) was the landmark event that most dramatically signaled the growing divide between the Soviets and the other Allies.
Both postwar German states were founded in the year the Airlift ended: 1949. The former Soviet occupation zone became the German Democratic Republic (GDR) on October 7, 1949. Only months earlier, the other three Allied zones had become the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG – May 23, 1949). Hitler’s war had now resulted in a divided Germany: the GDR (East Germany) and the FRG (West Germany), setting the stage for the physical barrier that would be known as the Berlin Wall (die Berliner Mauer) and would stand as an ugly scar on the German landscape from August 1961 until November 1989.
Berlin Wall Timeline: 1945-1989
- 1945 | In late April, Soviet troops reach Berlin. World War II is almost over.
- 1945 | German forces capitulate on May 2.
- 1945 | The Potsdam Conference takes place just south of Berlin from June 17 to August 2. The Allied victors (USA, Great Britain, France, Soviet Union) divide Germany and Berlin into four occupation zones (see map above).
- 1948 | On June 24 the Berlin Blockade (Berliner Blockade) begins. The Soviet Union cuts off all land and water transit routes running between Berlin and West Germany, turning West Berlin into an isolated island surrounded by East Germany. With all land access now blocked, the Allies begin the Berlin Airlift (Luftbrücke) on June 26. For the next eleven months, Berlin is supplied only by aircraft. Everything, from coal to food, has to be airlifted into the city.
- 1948 | In September the Soviets force the Berlin city council (Stadtverordentenverwaltung) to leave the “Red City Hall” (Rotes Rathaus, named for its red brick exterior) in the east sector. The communists split Berlin with the proclamation of their own “magistrate.”
- 1949 | On May 12 the Soviet Union lifts the blockade, but the Airlift continues until September.
- 1949 | On May 23 the Federal Republic of Germany (Bundesrepublik Deutschland, West Germany) is founded, followed by the creation of the German Democratic Republic (Deutsche Demokratische Republik, East Germany) on October 7. The West German capital is Bonn, while East Germany declares East Berlin its capital city.
- 1953 | The famous Workers Revolt of June 17 takes place all across East Germany. Workers go on strike to demand better working and living conditions, as well as free elections and unification. Soviet forces help the GDR brutally crush the revolt. Today Berlin’s Straße des 17. Juni is named for this historic uprising.
More on The German Way
History of Germany
A brief history, from Prussia to the Federal Republic
- 1955 | The Allies proclaim Germany a sovereign state on
May 5, officially ending the occupation.
- 1960 | On September 12 Walter Ulbricht (1893-1973) becomes the head of the German Democratic Republic (Chairman of the Council of State of the GDR (Vorsitzender des Staatsrats der DDR). He is also the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED).
- 1961 | In an effort to stop the growing numbers of people leaving the GDR, Walter Ulbricht orders the construction of the Berlin Wall. Early on August 13, East German troops and workers begin stringing barbed wire and setting up barriers that will eventually become the Berlin Wall. The wall surrounding Berlin will extend 165 km (100 miles). Berlin is now a divided city and East Berlin is a prison from which its citizens can no longer escape.
- 1963 | On June 26, US president John F. Kennedy makes his now famous Berlin speech in front of the Schöneberg City Hall in the western half of the city: “All free men, wherever they live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’”
- 1964 | In September Martin Luther King Jr. visits East and West Berlin. He crosses the Wall using his American Express card for ID. More…
- 1971 | An agreement between East and West Germany, signed on December 17, makes it easier to travel to and from Berlin.
- 1973 | Walter Ulbricht, the head of the German Democratic Republic, dies in office on August 1. Willi Stoph replaces him for three years, until Stoph is in turn replaced by Erich Honecker, the man who was in charge of building the Wall, in 1976.
- 1982 | US president Ronald Reagan visits Berlin for the first time on June 11.
- 1984 | The West Berlin transit authority (BVG) takes over the running of the S-Bahn commuter rail lines on January 9. Because it had been under the control of the communist Deutsche Reichsbahn, West Berliners had boycotted and bankrupted the system. East Germany had not invested any money for service or equipment, so that most of the system was antiquated and in poor repair at the time of the BVG takeover.
- 1986 | On April 5, a bomb explosion kills three people, two of them US soldiers, in a Berlin disco known as La Belle. 230 people, including 50 Americans, are also injured in the terrorist blast, later blamed on Libya with the knowledge of the East German secret police (Stasi). In 2004, Libya paid $35 million in compensation to the non-US La Belle bombing victims. Part of the Lockerbie bombing settlement in 2008 went to US La Belle victims.
- 1987 | During his second Berlin visit, US president Ronald Reagan makes a speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate in which he demands: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this Wall!”
- 1989 | On August 19, over 700 GDR refugees cross the Hungarian-Austrian border at Sopron. Hungary has been in the process of opening its border with Austria since May.
- 1989 | In October, the East German government comes under increasing pressure to reform. On October 4, there are mass anti-government demonstrations in Dresden, Leipzig and East Berlin. Erich Honecker is forced to resign his top government and party leadership position on October 18. On October 23, the “Monday Demonstrations” begin in Leipzig. With the slogan “Wir sind das Volk!” (“We are the people!”) East Germans demand radical reforms and the resignation of the government.
- 1989 | On November 7 and 8, GDR government and SED-Politbüro members resign.
- 1989 | On November 9, during an evening news conference, an East German government spokesman mistakenly announces that citizens of the German Democratic Republic will now be permitted to travel without restrictions — effective immediately. (The announcement was supposed to be held until the next day.) Unaware of this sudden change in policy, border guards are overwhelmed by crowds of East Berliners who want to cross into West Berlin. Over the next few months the Berlin Wall will soon almost completely disappear.
- 1990 | In February, 118 artists from 21 countries gather to create the East Side Gallery along a 1.3 km section of the Wall running along Mühlenstraße in Berlin-Friedrichshain from the Ostbahnhof (East Train Station) to the Oberbaum Bridge. The Gallery has its official debut on 28 September. – More: East Side Gallery Timeline
Take the quiz! A self-scoring Berlin Wall History Quiz
Next | East Side Gallery Timeline
AT THE GERMAN WAY
- East Side Gallery Timeline (1989-Present)
- Martin Luther King, Jr. in Berlin – Everyone knows about JFK’s 1963 visit to West Berlin, but MLK went to both East and West Berlin in 1964.
- Berlin Airlift – Die Luftbrücke 1948-1949
- Berlin – City Guide – What to see in the German capital
- The Reichstag in Berlin – The history of the German parliament and a guide to visiting the Reichstag and its dome
- Our For Expats section has information and links of interest to those now living or planning to live in the German-speaking world.
ON THE WEB
- East Side Gallery – Artists Initiative site
- The Berlin Wall by Heiko Burkhardt. A good site with information and links concerning the vanishing Wall and its history.
- More links on this page: East Side Gallery
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