Germany remembers rise of the Berlin Wall 56 years on

Politicians gathered in Germany's capital, Berlin, to remember the initial laying of the foundations of the Berlin Wall. On this day 56 years ago, East Germany's communist regime started dividing Berlin in two.

Politicians laid wreaths at the main memorial site for the wall at Bernauer Strasse in downtown Berlin. A service commemorating the 56th anniversary was held earlier at the nearby Chapel of Reconciliation.

Among those attending the services was the German commissioner of cultural affairs, Monika Grütters. Grütters referred to the Berlin Wall as the "most recognized symbol of the ruthlessness of the SED regime," referring to the communist party of East Germany, the Socialist Unity Party. The minister also stressed that the wall separated not only the city but entire families, friends and neighborhoods.

Grütters added that it was important to commemorate such historic events. "This is an elementary part of our collective, national culture of remembrance," she said during the event. Because of this work, she added, "especially young people today get to understand the importance of freedom, democracy and rule of law without having to suffer the experience of dictatorship."

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Barbed wire divides Berlin

East German authorities began patrolling the inner-German border in 1952. Until then it had been relatively easy to pass between the two. They sealed off West Berlin in 1961. Here, soldiers keep people from crossing as the Berlin Wall is built.

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The day the wall went up

In 1961, communist East Germany was having trouble keeping its young, educated population from emigrating to the West. The Berlin Wall was erected almost to completion in a single night, without warning, on August 13.

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Escape atempt

This famous photo from September 1961 shows a woman trying to escape East Berlin through an apartment block where one side of the building faced the West. Some men try to pull her back inside while others wait underneath, hoping to aid in her escape.

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Fall of the Wall

Amidst mounting internal and international pressure, a mistaken announcement by an East German official on November 9, 1989 led to the wall being opened. Germans on both sides of the border celebrated for days. New openings were made in the wall, like here at Potsdamer Platz two days later.

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East Side Gallery

Today, some parts of the Berlin Wall still stand as a memorial to hard-won freedoms. The famous East Side Gallery allows different artists from around the world to add murals to the part of the wall that remains on Mühlenstrasse in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg.

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Berlin remembers

Politicians for the state government of Berlin lay flowers along the site of the Berlin Wall on Bernauer Strasse, 56 years to the day after it was constructed. At least 140 people were shot dead by East German border guards at the wall from 1961 to 1989.

A divided city

The first stone for the Berlin Wall was laid on August 13, 1961. The wall stood for 28 years, symbolizing the division of the city, the nation and the schism between the capitalist West and communist East.

"In the early hours of the morning, construction workers started erecting a barbed-wire fence on the sector border between East and West Berlin," the German government said in an official statement. 

Over the next years, the barriers in Berlin were expanded to a 160-kilometer-long (100 miles), heavily-guarded border system.

The federal culture ministry allocates more than 1.26 million euros ($149 million) of their annual budget to the charity in charge of the upkeep of the Berlin Wall memorial, which features parts of the original wall as well as museums chronicling the history of the structure.

Audios and videos on the topic

What remains of the Berlin Wall has become a cultural magnet for the German capital. Various exhibitions highlight what it was like to live under the long shadow of the infamous structure. A DW investigation meanwhile revealed that large sections of the wall had ended up at a garbage dump.

A painful history

At least 140 people are estimated to have been killed by East Germany's border officials whilst trying to cross over into the West. Twenty-four-year-old Günter Litfin was the first to die after being shot at the wall on 24 August, 1961.

The division of East and West Germany ended when the Berlin Wall came down as part of a peaceful revolution on November 9, 1989, less than 11 months later, the two German nations were reunified.

Related Subjects

The Berlin Wall Trail

The Berlin Wall divided West and East Berlin for 28 years. Almost as many years have gone by since reunification in 1990, progressively erasing the differences between both former cities. Still, one of the best ways to explore the remaining traces of the Cold War is the Berlin Wall Trail. This round tour covers some 160 kilometers, identified with the sign "Berliner Mauerweg."

The Berlin Wall Memorial

The tour can easily be started anywhere you want, as bikes can be brought on Berlin's public transport network. An interesting place to begin is the Berlin Wall Memorial. Following the Wall's former location on Bernauer Strasse along 1.4 kilometers, it shows how the border fortifications were set up and pays tribute to the people who fled East Berlin as well as to the victims of the death strip.

Cobblestone markings

These lines of cobblestones will help you recognize the exact former location of the Wall in the center of the city. However, it is not continuously documented this way throughout the urban part of the border, which covered some 40 kilometers. When the Wall came down on November 9, 1989, East and West Germans were eager to get rid of all traces of it.

The Brandenburg Gate

Following the bike path down towards Mitte, you will reach the government district by the Spree River and the Brandenburg Gate. This famous Berlin landmark landed in a no-man's land after the Wall was built. Although the Wall officially blocked it from West Berlin, a smaller wall also restricted access to the monument for East Germans as well.

Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie remains the most famous former crossing point between East and West Berlin. Tourists now stop there to get their picture taken with actors dressed as military policemen and of a replica of the famous sign: "You are leaving the American sector." If ever you're tempted by a Red Army hat or a gas mask sold there, be aware that many rather see this spot as a Cold War Disneyland.

Watchtower near Potsdamer Platz

More than 300 watchtowers used to overlook the Berlin Wall, allowing border guards to catch people trying to flee East Berlin. Only a few were left standing, such as this mushroom-shaped surveillance platform near Potsdamer Platz, now listed as an historical monument. Larger, square towers later replaced this model from 1966. An example of this type of tower can be found near Treptower Park.

East Side Gallery

Another classic attraction that can't be missed on the Berlin Wall bike path is the East Side Gallery. International artists painted this 1.3-kilometer-long remaining stretch of the Wall in 1990, making it one of the longest open-air galleries in the world. This depiction of Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker kissing is one of the most iconic paintings of the gallery.

The Glienicke Bridge

Beyond the urban section of the bike path, the route continues through the suburbs of Berlin. Just before reaching Potsdam is the Glienicke Bridge, where spies used to be exchanged during the Cold War. A 1962 trade of a KGB agent for an American pilot that took place here is featured in Stephen Spielberg's recent film, "Bridge of Spies." Many villas can be spotted in that area too.

Watchtower Museum in Hennigsdorf

Large parts of the bike route are in the middle of the forest, allowing you to realize how green Berlin and its surroundings still are. Right on the bank of the Havel River, this watchtower in Hennigsdorf, about 20 kilometers northwest of Berlin, houses a small museum on the history of the Wall and how it affected that town. It is free to visit.

Cherry tree avenue in Pankow

Returning to the city, you'll be greeted by a cherry tree avenue in Pankow, which is most spectacular towards the end of April, when the trees are in full bloom. The Japanese donated some 10,000 trees "to bring peace in the hearts of the people." They were planted in different sections of the former Wall. This avenue is right by Bösebrücke, the first crossing to open on the day the Wall came down.

ss/jlw (dpa, KNA, epd)