The Berlin Wall was under the constant surveillance of armed East German border guards who were authorised to shoot anyone attempting to escape into West Berlin. Though construction  began in 1961, the wall would divide the city until 1989.

But what was life like in divided Berlin?

Life in Divided Berlin

I'm here at the Tränenpalast, meaning Palace of Tears, in Berlin. The name is in reference to tearful goodbyes between people at this former checkpoint between West and East Berlin at the Friedrichstraße railway station. Today is it home to a museum dedicated to people who experienced and lived in divided Berlin. 

When the Berlin wall was constructed on the 13th of August 1961, it was painful for citizens. Relatives, friends and neighbours were separated overnight. Travel restrictions made it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for them to reunite. Loved ones would wave at each other over the wall or communicate through letters. As telephone lines between West and East Berlin had been cut in 1952, not to be reconnected until 1971. Some people wanted to flee the German Democratic Republic and many succeeded, meaning that the border fortifications were improved and expanded over time to deter people from escaping further. Despite this, and the border guards being armed with the order to shoot, many risked their lives to cross from East to West. From digging tunnels under the wall, to flying a hot air balloon over it.

I am stood on Bernauer Straße, a street in Berlin where countless escape attempts took place. Behind me is the Berlin Wall memorial, a stretch of the Berlin Wall fortifications which have been preserved since 1990 complete with watchtower and death strip. What was once part of the border between East and West Berlin is now a memorial, dedicated to over 140 people who lost their lives at the wall between 1961 and 1989. Here at the Window of Remembrance visitors can pay their respects to the victims to the victims of the Berlin Wall. 

The last person to be killed by shooting while trying to escape was 20 year old Chris Gueffroy, pictured here, in February 1989. Just 9 months after Chris Gueffroy's death the Berlin Wall fell, allowing the free movement of people in Berlin. Checkpoints, which had been so heavily guarded, were opened and new ones created. People from both sides of the border reunited and rejoiced in their thousands. 30 years on and walls and physical barriers between people continue to multiply as the world faces 21st century tensions.

Related content

Brian Wehner awaits his turn to observe East Berlin from a viewing platform in the French sector of West Berlin circa 1963. A small sign on the platform warns that unauthorised personnel are forbidden from proceeding any further.
© Brian Wehner from IWM photo archive, HU 140187
Cold War

Voices of the Wall

The Berlin Wall played a role in millions of lives - find out more about how five people who were there remember it. 

Wall installed at IWM London
© IWM (Andrew Tunnard)
Cold War

The Berlin Wall

Explore the story of the Berlin Wall, one of the most iconic and defining moments of the 20th century.

What was the Berlin Wall? Thumbnail
Cold War

Berlin Wall 30: What Was The Berlin Wall?

Patrolled by guards and dogs, illuminated by floodlights and fortified by barbed wire and watchtowers, the Wall divided Berlin for 28 years.

The opening of the Berlin Wall. The West German flag flies over the Brandenburg Gate, with a graffiti covered section of the Berlin Wall in the foreground in early 1990. The marks on the wall left by hundreds of Berliners chipping away at the concrete are clearly visible. By the end of 1990, much of the Wall had been demolished.
Cold War

8 Photos Of The Fall Of The Berlin Wall

On 9 November 1989, government spokesman Gunter Schabowski announced at a press conference that every citizen of East Germany would be allowed to travel to the West, effective immediately.

A man chips away at a part of the Berlin Wall. Grafffiti above him reads 'Build Doors Not Walls.' Still from the NATO film collection.
© IWM (NAT 3544)
Cold War

The Rise and Fall of the Berlin Wall on Film

The Berlin Wall fell on 9 November 1989. By the end of 1990, much of the Wall had been demolished. 

Explore our timeline of key events in the Berlin Wall’s history using IWM’s film collection.

Why did the Berlin Wall fall - Thumbnail
Cold War

Why did the Berlin Wall fall?

The fall of the Berlin Wall was the first step towards German reunification. The political, economic and social impact of the fall of the Berlin Wall further weakened the already unstable East German government. Germany reunited on 3 October 1990, 11 months after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But why did the Berlin Wall fall?