The rise and fall of the Wall: a timeline

The Berlin Wall went up in August 1961 to the wide-eyed consternation of all. It was no less shocking when came down on November 9, 1989 — particularly since it happened because of a verbal slip.


February, 1945: At the pivotal conference at Yalta, in the Crimea, the allied nations (the United States, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union) meet to discuss the fate of post-war Germany. They agree that once the Nazis are defeated, Germany is to be split into four zones, governed by the three Yalta attendees, plus France.

1945-1949: Moscow begins running civic and school systems under the Communist model in the zone it occupies.

March 1946: Winston Churchill uses the word “iron curtain” for the first time to describe the areas in the “Soviet Sphere”.

May 1949: Birth of the Federal Republic of Germany, aka West Germany.

October 1949: Moscow creates the German Democratic Republic, aka East Germany.

April 1952: Moscow and East Germany decide officially to close the border between East and West Berlin.

1952-1961: 3.5 million East Germans manage to flee westward. East Germany becomes deeply concerned about the loss.

June 1961: Walter Ulbricht, GDR state council chairman, declares that “No one has the intention of erecting a wall” between the East and West.

August 12, 1961: Ulbricht orders the construction of a wall.

August 13, 1961: Construction of the Wall begins.

1961-1989: Restrictions on crossing between East and West become increasingly stringent. Border guards are ordered to shoot to kill anyone attempting an illegal crossing of the border. Several thousand manage successfully to escape, but 136 die in the attempt.

June 1963: US President John F. Kennedy gives his historic speech in front of the Wall and expresses his support for the divided people of Berlin, saying, “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

June 1987: Ronald Regan becomes the second US president to make an historic speech in Berlin, this time in front of the Brandenburg Gate. He echoes Kennedy’s devotion to preserving democracy. His exhortation – “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” – would become a catchphrase.

August 1989: The Eastern Bloc shows signs of weakening, with Hungary removing its border bloc with Austria. Thousands of East Germans escape to the West via Austria.

September 1989: East Germans begin organizing peaceful “Monday demonstrations” weekly in protest against the GDR government.

September-November 1989: Protests agitating for loosened border controls increase in number in the GDR.

October 18, 1989: Erich Honecker, who had ruled since 1971, resigns. His departure leaves open the possibility for looser border controls.

November 9: The GDR politburo, seeing the impossibility of maintaining a firm hand, agrees to a minor concession allowing limited travel across the border.

At a press conference announcing the decision, a politburo member who had just learned of the policy mistakenly says that is immediately effective. In fact, it was to take effect the next day, in order to inform the border guards ahead of time.

Thousands of East Berliners flock to the checkpoints and attempt to cross the border, overwhelming the guards by their numbers.

People begin picking away at the wall by hand.

1989-1991: Dismantling of the wall continues, carried out by the military.

December 1990: The first democratic elections open to all of Germany. Helmut Kohl becomes chancellor of the unified Germany.

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