Construction began on The Berlin Wall early in the morning of August 13, 1961. It was a desperate—and effective—move to stop East Berliners escaping from the Soviet-controlled East German state (the GDR) into the west of the city, which was then occupied by the Americans, British and French. By 1961 an estimated 1,500 people a day were fleeing East Berlin for the West, damaging both the credibility and more importantly, depleting the workforce of the GDR. In a masterfully planned operation spanning just 24 hours, Berlin streets were torn up, barricades erected, and tanks parked at crucial locations designed to interrupt subway and railway services. Within a day, West Berlin was completely sealed off from the eastern part of the city. At the same time, inhabitants of East Berlin and the GDR were no longer allowed to enter West Berlin, including about 60,000 commuters. The GDR claimed it had raised the barricade as an “anti-fascist protection wall” to prevent a third world war.
The “Wall” erected so dramatically in 1961 was in fact not a wall but 96 miles of barbed wire fencing. After it proved too easy to scale, work started in 1962 on a second fence parallel to the first, but 100 yards further in. The area between the two fences was an empty space that became known as the “death strip,” where many would-be escapees met their deaths. The strip was covered with raked gravel, where footprints were easy to spot. As it offered no cover and was mined and booby-trapped, it was easy for armed guards to follow instructions to shoot on sight. Even these measures were deemed insufficient; a concrete wall was added in 1965. It served until 1975, when the final and most sophisticated version of the Berlin Wall was constructed. Built from 45,000 separate sections of reinforced concrete, each unit was 3.6 m high, 1.5 m wide and topped with a smooth pipe intended to make it more difficult to scale.
Despite various security measures, escape attempts were commonplace, especially in the early years of the Berlin wall. Some 5,000 are thought to have reached the other side. In its thirty-year history, about 100 people were shot dead attempting to escape East Berlin.