5 Things You Didn't Know About The Berlin Wall

On June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan delivered a speech in West Berlin in which he publicly challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall." To mark the anniversary of Reagan's powerful Cold War speech, here are 5 things you didn't know about the Berlin Wall.

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The Berlin Wall Kept People From Leaving Around the time of World War II's conclusion and the defeat of Germany in 1945, two peace conferences in Potsdam and Yalta divided the conquered land into four Allied-controlled areas. The Soviets grabbed the East (dubbed the German Democratic Republic, or GDR), while the United States, the United Kingdom, and France each seized a section of the West. Berlin, which served as the capital for several years, was also divided into East and West. Between 1949 and 1961, about 3 million East Germans defected to the West, with almost all of them passing via Berlin. The GDR closed the border between the two sides on August 13, 1961. Thus, unlike ancient Chinese barriers, the Berlin Wall was not intended to dissuade invaders. It was constructed to stem the flow of Germans fleeing to the West.

The Berlin Wall Was Really Two Walls Those who are unfamiliar with the Berlin Wall may not realize that it was actually two walls. More than 300 observation towers, 11,000 soldiers, electrified fencing, floodlights, trip-wired machine guns, and barbed wire kept the walls secure. The inner area between the walls became known as the "Death Strip," which included even more ways to stop defectors by adding buried mines and beds of nails. By placing raked sand on the ground between the walls, the footprints of any potential defectors were easy to spot by the armed tower guards.

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Many Deaths of East Berliners Trying to Escape Occurred The Wall was a lethal barrier in the three decades it stood. Border guards were under strict instructions: “Don’t hesitate to use your weapon even when border breaches happen with women and children,” one East German secret service file from 1973 read. At least 138 people died trying to cross the border. While some did make it safely across, it is unclear how many people exactly reached the western part. According to some estimates, 5,000 East Germans crossed the Wall into West Berlin. Men, women, and children snuck through checkpoints, hid in vehicles, and tunneled under the concrete.

The Wall Fell By Mistake Checkpoint Charlie was the crossing point between East and West Berlin. At a 1989 press conference held by a member of the politburo in East Germany, it was announced that there would be a lifting of restrictions on travel visas that would start right away. However, he misspoke because East Germans would still have to go through the process of visa applications, which was lengthy. Erroneous reports that the border crossings had been opened led to thousands of people showing up, and the head duty officer, overwhelmed, opened the crossing and soon the others followed suit. 

Chunks Of The Berlin Wall Are For Sale It was almost a year before the reunification of East, and West Germany became official. In the meantime, wall peckers, called "mauerspechtes" in German, chipped away pieces of the wall for memorials or souvenirs. Fragments of the Berlin Wall are still for sale on eBay.