Almost 60 years ago today, Berlin’s residents woke up to find East German soldiers laying down barbed wire and bricks. The barrier they erected would separate Soviet-controlled East Germany from the democratic western section of the city, dividing loved ones and ripping apart families.

Although the official purpose of the “Antifascistischer Schutzwall” was to keep Western “fascists” from entering East Germany and undermining the socialist state, it’s real job was to stop East Berliners from defecting to the other side.

Post-World War II Germany

After World War II, defeated Germany was divided into four separate zones: American, British, French, and communist Soviet Union. The city of Berlin, although firmly entrenched in the Soviet zone, was also split between the USSR and western forces. Right from the get-go, this was a point of contention.

For years, East German citizens attempted to defect to West Germany in search of a better life. Many of them succeeded: It is estimated that up to 1,000 people escaped East Germany every day. This, of course, was a giant thorn in the Soviet’s side. Eventually, Premier Khrushchev flat-out demanded that the allies leave Berlin (a demand that, to his chagrin, was flat-out refused).

A city divided

In August 1961, Soviet soldiers began the work of laying more than 100 miles of barbed wire just inside the Soviet border. Soon, it was replaced by a more formidable six-foot-high, four-foot-wide wall of concrete blocks – but the Soviets weren’t about to stop there. They took that six-foot wall and added a “Death Strip”: A trench of soft sand (to show footprints), floodlights, dogs, guard towers, and trip-wire machine guns.

After the wall was built, the only way to travel from one side of the city to the other was through designated checkpoints – but no one was ever actually allowed through. Friends and families, unable to (legally) move from East to West, were torn apart.

Tear down the wall!

Ultimately, it is estimated that at least 171 people died trying to get past the Berlin Wall. By the late 1980s, the people could take no more. In 1989, citizens from both sides of Berlin began to climb the wall and dismantle it, bit by bit. Just a few months later, in October 1990, a formal treaty was signed, uniting East and West Germany once again.