With the rise of communism following the end of World War II, and the increased control Eastern Bloc nations exercised over their citizens, what began as a trickle of malcontents became millions of people fleeing the Soviet-controlled countries in search of freedom. In an attempt to stop the exodus and to make a statement to the rest of the world, East Germany built the Berlin Wall 50 years ago this month, in August 1961. Here are five interesting facts about this symbol of communism.
5. The ‘Official’ Reason for the Berlin Wall
By 1961 more than 3 million East Germans, nearly 20 percent of the country’s population, had given up on communism and headed west for a better life. It’s unclear whether Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev or Walter Ulbricht, the First Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party, gave the direct order to build the wall, but its purpose was clear. While the rest of the world knew why the wall was built, the East German government’s official reason for its construction was pure propaganda. Officials announced that the “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart, ” as the Berlin Wall was christened by East Germany, would protect its population from “fascist elements conspiring to prevent the will of the people in building a Socialist state in East Germany.” No matter the name, the Berlin Wall immediately became the unofficial symbol of the Iron Curtain between Western Europe and the Eastern Bloc nations.
While the world slept the night of Aug. 13, 1961, totally unaware of the extraordinary event about to take place, East German officials shut down the border between East Germany and West Berlin, in effect circling the city. Bulldozers rolled in, workers quickly erected a wire fence barrier, and in a 24-hour period East German authorities blocked nearly 100 miles of border. The Berlin Wall immediately escalated tensions in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. President John F. Kennedy reportedly told the East German government that he would not oppose construction of the wall, but he quickly reinforced U.S. troops in the region. During a visit to West Berlin in 1963, Kennedy vowed his support for the city with his famous pronouncement, “Ich bin ein Berliner, ” (“I am a Berliner”).
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