Throughout the 1950s, millions of people left East for West Germany. The mass escapes threatened the very existence of the East German state. Towards the end of the decade, a period of economic recovery and a growing acceptance of East German policy among the population brought signs of improvement, and the number of escapees declined. This upturn proved, however, to be of short duration. In 1960, about 200,000 fled, over 90% of them via Berlin. This was at a time when the government’s policy of forcing the collectivization of agricultural production led to renewed repression and – a more sensitive issue for the whole population – renewed food shortages. In addition, the so-called „2nd Berlin crisis“ (see below and picture 32) created an atmosphere of uncertainty which also prompted many escapes.
In the light of this, the head of state and of the ruling Communist party (the so-called „Socialist Unity Party“), Walter Ulbricht, started to consider sealing off West Berlin. In March 1961 he put forward this suggestion at a meeting of the member states of the Warsaw Pact (the military alliance of the Eastern bloc), but did not obtain their full approval.

During the following months, the so-called „second Berlin crisis“ became more intense. In June 1961, the Soviet leader Krushchev repeated his memorandum demanding the withdrawal of Allied troops from West Berlin. Otherwise, he claimed, the Soviet Union would conclude a separate peace treaty with East Germany, giving the GDR sovereign control over access routes to West Berlin. Whilst the Soviet Union was obliged to secure the Western Powers free access to West Berlin, the GDR was not bound by Allied agreements. Such a peace treaty would therefore have meant the danger of a new blockade of West Berlin. At a press conference on 15th June 1961, Walter Ulbricht expressed his full support for the Soviet memorandum. However, at the same press conference he uttered a sentence which was to reveal in hindsight that he had another solution in mind. The sentence became notorious: „Nobody has any intention of building a wall.“

At the beginning of August, the member states of the Warsaw Pact agreed on the sealing-off of West Berlin by East German police forces. The plan was to put up a barbed-wire fence first and only to go on with the building of the wall if there was no serious danger of military action from the West. The man who was put in charge of this operation later became the head of state: Erich Honecker.
On 12th August, posters were printed which publicised the „ministerial decision“ to close the sectorial borders. The printers were detained until midnight so they couldn’t spread the news. Even most of the GDR government did not know about it. Around 1 a.m. on Sunday, 13th August, the erection of the wall began with the putting up of a barbed wire fence.

Vergrößert Bild 11 + Bildunterschrift und Kommentare Vergrößert Bild 12 + Bildunterschrift und Kommentare Vergrößert Bild 13 + Bildunterschrift und Kommentare
Vergrößert Bild 14 + Bildunterschrift und Kommentare Vergrößert Bild 15 + Bildunterschrift und Kommentare Vergrößert Bild 16 + Bildunterschrift und Kommentare
Vergrößert Bild 17 + Bildunterschrift und Kommentare
Vergrößert Bild 18 + Bildunterschrift und Kommentare
Vergrößert Bild 19 + Bildunterschrift und Kommentare

Despite previous indications as to the GDR’s intention, the West was caught off guard. It was a couple of days before the Western Allies and the West German government responded with declarations of protest. The mayor of West Berlin, Willy Brandt, had the task of calming down the citizens of West Berlin. There was wide-spread outrage, not only in West Berlin but also in the East. At the same time, many people still believed that the sealing-off of West Berlin would only be a temporary measure. More than 6,000 protesters were detained in East Berlin and East Germany over the following three weeks, but there were no strikes or other mass actions. The fact that the population reacted relatively passively to such a profound restiction indicates, in most cases, resignation rather than approval.

East German media made great efforts to portray popular approval and even enthusiasm about the new reality. But in fact, some of the people who had refused to sign declarations of approval were punished as an example to others and sent to newly-created labour camps.

During the first weeks after 13th August, the chances of successful escape from the East were still quite good, since border controls for Westerners were tightened only gradually before West-East visits were completely forbidden on 23nd August. During those first weeks, students from West Berlin went to the East carrying the passports of fellow students with them so that Easterners could escape using the passports. In other cases, Easterners successfully escaped via the sewage pipes.
On 22nd August 1961, Ulbricht ordered border guards to „use gunfire“ against escapees. Two days later, policemen killed 24-year-old Günter Litfin, who had tried to swim across the river Spree to West Berlin – he was the first person shot dead after the erection of the wall. Fatal accidents had already occurred, however, during desperate attempts to escape such as jumping out of windows in Bernauer Straße, where the houses were situated in the East but the pavement was in the West. The first wall made of stone came up a couple of days after 13th August. The photographs taken by Helwig-Wilson show the barbed-wire fence that was erected first, but stones can already be seen on some of the pictures. Up until 1989, the border construction was continually extended and perfected. What is commonly called „the Wall“ eventually consisted of several walls, fences, vehicle and tank barriers, the so-called „death strip“ (an empty space which was always well raked so that any footprints or signs of movement could be noticed immediately), police dog patrol units, watchtowers and a specified border zone, including houses and streets near the wall, to which only the inhabitants (whose passports included special permits to enter this area) had access.
During the first couple of years, the border was sealed off on both sides. At Christmas 1963, West Berliners were allowed brief visits to relatives in East Berlin. It took nine more years until visits from West to East were legally guaranteed by the Four-Power Agreement on Berlin and the intra-German agreements of 1972.
The official East German term for the „Wall“ was „anti-fascist defensive wall“. Its erection was justified by the claim that it had prevented a war in 1961.

From 1961 to 1989, at least 239 escapees died at the wall; at least 16 East German border guards were shot dead, in most cases by people helping escapees. (But see also the comment on picture 11). Altogether, the borders between East and West Germany and those around West Berlin cost about 1000 lives. At least 70,000 East Germans were sentenced to imprisonment on grounds of attempted escape or assistance to escape.

Not only have historians have always considered 13th August to be a turning point in East German history but the date also made a lasting psychological impression on those who experienced it.

Unlike the famous and dramatic images such as the well-known picture of a border guard jumping across the barbed wire, Helwig-Wilson’s pictures show typical „ordinary“ behaviour in the face of this historic event. Passers-by and residents are shown as onlookers, but at the same time victims, of the wall-building. Policemen and militia are shown carrying out their tasks in an almost off-hand way, as though they were doing nothing unusual.