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  • In the early hours of August 13, 1961,

  • East German construction workers flanked by soldiers and police

  • began tearing up streets and erecting barriers throughout the city of Berlin

  • and its surroundings.

  • This night marked the beginning of one of history's most infamous dividing lines,

  • the Berlin Wall.

  • Construction on the wall continued for the next decade

  • as it cut through neighborhoods,

  • separated families,

  • and divided not just Germany, but the world.

  • To understand how we got to this point,

  • we have to go back to World War II.

  • America, Britain, and France

  • joined forces with the Soviet Union against the Axis Powers.

  • After they defeated Nazi Germany,

  • each of the victorious nations occupied part of the country.

  • The division was meant to be temporary,

  • but the former allies found themselves at odds

  • over their visions for post-war Europe.

  • While Western powers promoted liberal market economies,

  • the Soviet Union sought to surround itself with obedient Communist nations,

  • including a weakened Germany.

  • As their relations deteriorated,

  • the Federal Republic of Germany was formed in the West

  • while the Soviets established the German Democratic Republic in the East.

  • The Soviet satellite countries restricted Western trade and movement,

  • so a virtually impassable border formed.

  • It became known as the Iron Curtain.

  • In the former German capital of Berlin, things were particularly complicated.

  • Although the city lay fully within the East German territory of the GDR,

  • the post-war agreement gave the allies joint administration.

  • So America, Britain, and France created a Democratic enclave

  • in Berlin's western districts.

  • While East Germans were officially banned from leaving the country,

  • in Berlin, it was simply a matter of walking,

  • or riding a subway, streetcar or bus,

  • to the Western half,

  • then traveling on to West Germany or beyond.

  • This open border posed a problem for the East German leadership.

  • They had staked a claim to represent the Communist resistance against Hitler

  • and portrayed Western Germany as a continuation of the Nazi regime.

  • While the U.S. and its allies poured money into West Germany's reconstruction,

  • the Soviet Union extracted resources from the East as war reparations,

  • making its planned economy even less competitive.

  • Life in East Germany passed under the watchful eye of the Stasi,

  • the secret police whose wiretaps and informants monitored citizens

  • for any hint of disloyalty.

  • While there was free health care and education in the East,

  • the West boasted hire salaries,

  • more consumer goods,

  • and greater personal freedom.

  • By 1961, about 3.5 million people, nearly 20% of the East German population,

  • had left, including many young professionals.

  • To prevent further losses,

  • East Germany decided to close the border, and that's where the Berlin Wall came in.

  • Extending for 43 kilometers through Berlin,

  • and a further 112 through East Germany,

  • the initial barrier consisted of barbed wire and mesh fencing.

  • Some Berliners escaped by jumping over the wire

  • or leaving from windows,

  • but as the wall expanded, this became more difficult.

  • By 1965, 106 kilometers of 3.6-meter-high concrete barricades had been added

  • topped with a smooth pipe to prevent climbing.

  • Over the coming years, the barrier was strengthened with spike strips,

  • guard dogs,

  • and even landmines,

  • along with 302 watchtowers and 20 bunkers.

  • A parallel fence in the rear set off a 100-meter area called the death strip.

  • There, all buildings were demolished and the ground covered with sand

  • to provide a clear line of sight for the hundreds of guards

  • ordered to shoot anyone attempting to cross.

  • Nevertheless, nearly 5,000 people in total managed to flee East Germany

  • between 1961 and 1989.

  • Some were diplomats or athletes who defected while abroad,

  • but others were ordinary citizens who dug tunnels,

  • swam across canals,

  • flew hot air balloons,

  • or even crashed a stolen tank through the wall.

  • Yet the risk was great.

  • Over 138 people died while attempting escape.

  • Some shot in full view of West Germans powerless to help them.

  • The wall stabilized East Germany's economy by preventing its work force from leaving,

  • but tarnished its reputation,

  • becoming a global symbol of Communist repression.

  • As part of reconciliation with the East,

  • the Basic Treaty of 1972 recognized East Germany pragmatically

  • while West Germany retained its hope for eventual reunification.

  • Although the Eastern regime gradually allowed family visits,

  • it tried to discourage people from exercising these rights

  • with an arduous bureaucratic process and high fees.

  • Nonetheless, it was still overwhelmed by applications.

  • By the end of the 1980's,

  • the liberalization of other Eastern Bloc regimes

  • caused mass demonstrations for free travel and demands for democracy.

  • On the evening of November 9, 1989,

  • East Germany tried to defuse tension by making travel permits easier to obtain.

  • But the announcement brought thousands of East Berliners

  • to the border crossing points in the wall,

  • forcing the surprised guards to open the gates immediately.

  • Rejoicing crowds poured into West Berlin

  • as people from both sides danced atop the wall.

  • And others began to demolish it with whatever tools they could find.

  • Although the border guards initially tried to maintain order,

  • it was soon clear that the years of division were at an end.

  • After four decades, Germany was officially reunified in October 1990.

  • And the Soviet Union fell soon after.

  • Today, parts of the wall still stand as a reminder

  • that any barriers we put up to impede freedom,

  • we can also break down.

In the early hours of August 13, 1961,

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B1 US TED-Ed germany east berlin soviet west

【TED-Ed】The rise and fall of the Berlin Wall - Konrad H. Jarausch

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