• Imagining History

What was the Berlin Wall? – A Guide for Children

Updated: Nov 19

What was this Berlin Wall then?

Would you like the long story or the short story?


The short story please, I have a worryingly short attention span and I’ve got around five thousand TikTok videos to watch.

Fair enough. Well, when the capital of Germany, that’s Berlin, finally fell to allied forces at the end of World War 2, it was divided in to four bits. The city was shared out and placed under the control of the United States of America, the United Kingdom, France and the Soviet Union.


A map of Berlin divided into its four sectors. Thanks Infographics!

In 1949, the USA, UK and French zones became West Berlin, whilst the Soviet Union’s slice became East Berlin. It wasn’t just Berlin that was split in half like this either, the whole of Germany was divided to become two countries: West Germany and East Germany – they even had two competing football teams!


But there was no wall to start with?

That’s right. The thing is, from 1949 and over the course of the next few years, millions of people fled East Berlin and East Germany to go live in the West. The reasons why they wanted to leave the East are many, varied and brain meltingly complicated. So let’s keep things simple by saying this: living in East Germany absolutely sucked.

The Berlin Wall being built in 1961

The Soviet Government realised that they were losing too many citizens and that soon their side of the county would cease to function. Their decision? To build a big wall and prevent anyone else from escaping. This wall became known as the Berlin Wall.


How big was it?

Here’s my exceedingly precise assessment: it was absolutely massive. However, The Berlin Wall wasn’t one big structure, instead it consisted of a maze-like arrangement of walls, fences, watchtowers, bunkers, barbed wire, trenches and minefields.


More wall building. It was a big job.

Much of the wall was a concrete wall or wire fence, which stood 3 metres in height. That’s taller than a camel, animal fans. Which means a person of average height, even when stood on the hump of a camel, wouldn’t be able to clamber over the wall. Mind you, camels are hardly discreet, so hump climbing would be a terrible escape plan.


Did people try to escape then?

Yes, all the time. Thousands of daring people were successful in their mission. But tragically, many also died in the attempt. It’s estimated that at least 206 people were killed trying to cross the Berlin Wall. However, the number could well be higher, as the East German government didn’t keep records of the death toll.


Of those who died, most escapees were shot and killed trying to cross the "death strip". This was a section of land between the walls of West and East Berlin in which all the buildings had been pulled down so there was nowhere to hide. There were many horrific tragedies, such as when two children were shot and killed in 1966 trying to make the crossing.

The Death Strip between East and West Berlin was a deadly crossing. Courtesy GeorgeLouis

There were also inspiring moments of humans being unimaginably creative and brave in their escape attempts. Such as Winfried Freudenberg, the last person to die trying to cross the wall. Winfried constructed himself a homemade gas balloon and attempted to glide over the wall by clinging on to his invention on the 8th of March 1989. Sadly, the balloon crashed before Winfried could make it to safety.


What happened to the wall in the end?

East and West Berliners scale the wall. Courtesy Raphaël Thiémard

During the 1980’s, The Soviet Union started to fall apart. The reasons for this are far too complex for my little brain to explain, so let’s keep it simple again by saying that several countries left the Union to go and do their own thing. One such county was Hungary, which opened its borders and by doing this, provided a route for people from East Germany to finally reach West Germany.


To stop this, the East German government banned all travel to Hungary. This was not a good idea, as it prompted many riots and protests from the people of East Germany.


In response, the government decided to allow some people to cross the Berlin Wall. But a mistake meant that they accidentally told everyone several hours before they were ready to allow the crossing.


As such, thousands of people travelled to the wall and were met by some very confused border guards. In the chaos that followed, more and more citizens tried to get through the border gates. Soon the guards were overwhelmed and surrendered. In a brief moment, after years of anguish, East Berliners were through the wall and meeting West Berliners in scenes of jubilation and joy.


The end of the Berlin Wall was marked by scenes of joy.

Did the wall get pulled down then?

Remains of the Berlin Wall. Photo by DatGuy

Once the gates had been breached it didn’t take long for the wall to fall. Heroic Berliners braved being blasted by water cannons to climb the wall and chip away with spade, shovel and axe at the concrete edifice.


By the next day, the East German Government, finally recognising it was all over, began deconstructing the wall. Within a year Germany was reunited to be one country again. The Berlin Wall had stood unmoving and undeniable for 28 long years but finally, thanks to people power, the citizens of Germany were free.

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