Permanent construction began on the Berlin Wall on this date in 1961. After World War II, Germany had been divided up by British, French, Soviet, and American occupying forces. The city of Berlin lay completely within Soviet territory, but it was also divided. Soviet forces controlled the eastern part of the city and the country, and they were increasingly concerned about locking it down against the democratic West. The border was porous after the war, and millions of East Germans emigrated west in search of greater opportunities. By 1961, they were leaving at a rate of a thousand per day.
So in the early hours of August 13, 1961, East German soldiers quietly began laying down barbed wire: a hundred miles of it just inside the border of East Berlin. People woke up and discovered that they had been separated from families and jobs, with no advance warning. And two days later, on this date, the government of East Germany began to replace the wire with a six-foot block wall. The mayor of West Berlin dubbed it the “Wall of Shame”; East German authorities, on the other hand, called it an “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart,” and they placed sentry towers and minefields all along the wall. People still tried to escape, even after the wall was raised to ten feet. About half of them made it. West Germany wanted the United States to do something, but President Kennedy was reluctant to act. He told his staff, “It’s not a very nice solution, but a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.”
Finally, in 1989, with the end of the Cold War, the gates between East and West Berlin were opened again. Over the next year, souvenir hunters known as Mauerspechte, or “Wallpeckers,” began chipping away at the wall, knocking off blocks with sledgehammers and climbing back and forth over it. The wall was formally dismantled, and Germany reunified, in 1990.