Around 2.7 million people left the GDR and East Berlin between 1949 and 1961, causing increasing difficulties for the leadership of the East German communist party, the SED. Around half of this steady stream of refugees were young people under the age of 25. Roughly half a million people crossed the sector borders in Berlin each day in both directions, enabling them to compare living conditions on both sides. In 1960 alone, around 200, 000 people made a permanent move to the West. The GDR was on the brink of social and economic collapse.
As late as 15 June 1961, GDR head of state Walter Ulbricht declared that no one had any intention of building a wall [Film 0.81 MB]. On 12 August 1961, the GDR Council of Ministers announced that “in order to put a stop to the hostile activity of West Germany’s and West Berlin’s revanchist and militaristic forces, border controls of the kind generally found in every sovereign state will be set up at the border of the German Democratic Republic, including the border to the western sectors of Greater Berlin.” What the Council did not say was that this measure was directed primarily against the GDR's own population, which would no longer be permitted to cross the border.
In the early morning hours of 13 August 1961 [Film 5.80 MB], temporary barriers were put up at the border separating the Soviet sector from West Berlin, and the asphalt and cobblestones on the connecting roads were ripped up. Police and transport police units, along with members of “workers’ militias, ” stood guard and turned away all traffic at the sector boundaries. The SED leadership's choice of a Sunday during the summer holiday season for its operation was probably no coincidence.
Over the next few days and weeks, the coils of barbed wire strung along the border to West Berlin were replaced by a wall of concrete slabs and hollow blocks. This was built by East Berlin construction workers under the close scrutiny of GDR border guards.Houses on, for instance, Bernauer Strasse, where the sidewalks belonged to the Wedding borough (West Berlin) and the southern row of houses to Mitte (East Berlin), were quickly integrated into the border fortifications: the GDR government had the front entrances and ground floor windows bricked up. Residents could get to their apartments only via the courtyard, which was in East Berlin. Many people were evicted from their homes already in 1961 – not only in Bernauer Strasse, but also in other border areas.
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