The 13 August 1961 was a Sunday. In the early hours of the morning, construction workers started erecting a barbed-wire fence on the sector border between East and West Berlin. Units of the Volkspolizei (People’s Police), the Transportpolizei and the so-called Betriebskampfgruppen (workers’ paramilitary groups) prevented any traffic crossing sector boundaries. The asphalt was ripped up on the connecting roads between east and west.
That evening, the mayor of Berlin at the time, Willy Brandt, said the following in the House of Representatives: "The Berlin Senate condemns the unlawful and inhuman measures taken by the splitters of Germany, the oppressors of East Berlin and the menacers of West Berlin."
Berlin’s population completely surprised
For the people of Berlin, the construction of the wall came as a complete surprise. DDR-leader Walter Ulbricht had said as recently as 15 June: "Nobody has the intention of building a wall." But barely two months later, that statement was no longer valid.
From one day to the next, families were torn apart, friends and neighbours separated from each other. In the following days and weeks, there were many moving scenes: desperate people tried to make contact with their families across the barricades. Many saw escape as their only hope.
Soon, the first paid for their escape attempts with their lives. Such as 24-year-old Günter Litfin from Berlin-Weißensee, who was shot dead on 24 August 1961 in the vicinity of the Charitè. He was the first to die after being shot at the wall.
Victims of German division
The barriers in Berlin were expanded to an almost 160-kilometre-long, heavily-guarded border system. This enabled the DDR regime to halt the mass flight of its people. However, the yearning for freedom remained constant for many DDR citizens.
In the coming years and decades, people tried again and again to scale the wall and cross the inner-German border - despite the barbed wire, mines and the standing orders to shoot. And despite knowing that there were high prison sentences for attempted "Republikflucht" (fleeing the republic).
Approximately 71,000 people were imprisoned between 1961 and 1989, because they wanted to move from one part of Germany to another. 327 men and women paid for their escape attempts with their lives, and at the Berlin Wall alone, at least 139 people were killed. Tens of thousands of people suffered professional and personal consequences, because they had made exit applications.
On 5 February 1989, the last lethal shots were fired along the wall, as soldiers on the border prevented the escape of 20-year-old Chris Gueffroy.
The numbers of the victims of the Berlin Wall and the intra-German border are taken from the "Totenbuch II” (Book of the Dead II) from June 2017. The basis of this book is a study conducted by the Forschungsverbund SED-Staat (SED state research association) at the Freie Universität Berlin.
DDR disregarded the right to freedom of movement
Article 13 (2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states: "Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country." With its accession to the United Nations in 1973, the DDR recognised the UDHR, and thus also the right to freedom of movement.
However, the SED regime did not respect this - along with other human rights. On the contrary: from year to year, the border became more impassable. With tremendous effort, the DDR tried to prevent "Republikfluchten" (fleeing the republic). Simply being underway in a rubber boat on the Baltic Sea was enough to make someone suspicious in the eyes of the state security service. The STASI even had their spies in travel agencies.
As late as January 1989, SED leader Erich Honecker claimed that the wall would still be standing in 50 and even in 100 years' time. It would not be his only mistake in this fateful year.
Federal government supports coming to terms with and remembering the past
Today, the division of Berlin and of Germany is history. On 9 November 1989, the peaceful revolution ended the division of Germany and the regime in the DDR - the wall fell.
It remains necessary to remind ourselves of the injustice of the SED dictatorship, and to remember the victims. Young people, in particular, should and must be informed about this period, and the differences between democracy and dictatorship. The federal government therefore supports memorials and other places which specifically commemorate the division of Germany and its victims.
The central place of remembrance is the Berlin Wall Memorial, which was built in 1998 on the former border strip at Bernauer Straße. However, Marienfelde Refugee Center Museum also plays an important role, as the central site dedicated to the history of flight and emigration from the DDR. Also important is the so-called Tränenpalast (palace of tears), the former border crossing point at Berlin’s Friedrichsstraße Station, whose permanent exhibition vividly portrays everyday German life with division and borders.