How the Berlin Wall Worked: The Engineering & Structural Design of the Wall That Formidably Divided East & West

More than thir­ty years after the for­mal dis­so­lu­tion of the Union of Sovi­et Social­ist Republics, few around the world have a clear under­stand­ing of how life actu­al­ly worked there. That holds less for the larg­er polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic ques­tions than it does for the rou­tine mechan­ics of day-to-day exis­tence. These had a way of being even more com­plex in the regions where the USSR came up against the rest of the world. Take the Ger­man cap­i­tal of Berlin, which, as every­one knows, was for­mer­ly divid­ed into East and West along with the coun­try itself — but which, as not every­one knows, but as clar­i­fied in a nine­teen-eight­ies infor­ma­tion­al video pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture, was entire­ly sur­round­ed by East Ger­many.

You can learn much else about life on the edges of the Fed­er­al Repub­lic of Ger­many and the Ger­man Demo­c­ra­t­ic Repub­lic from the new neo video above, “How the Berlin Wall Worked.” The first thing to clar­i­fy is that, even after the divi­sion of Ger­many, the Berlin Wall was­n’t always there; for a time the nar­ra­tor explains, with “social­ism and cap­i­tal­ism, two dif­fer­ent nations, and even two dif­fer­ent cur­ren­cies, were sep­a­rat­ed only by streets.”

Many “lived in one part of the city but worked in the oth­er: East Berlin­ers took jobs in the West in order to ben­e­fit from the stronger cur­ren­cy, while West Berlin­ers got their hair­cuts in the East at prices that were much cheap­er to them.” Kur­fürs­ten­damm’s shop win­dows dis­played the pur­chasable glo­ries of cap­i­tal­ism; just a few streets away, Stali­nallee swelled with proud­ly social­ist archi­tec­ture.

But on August 13th, 1961, “Berlin woke up to a divid­ed city.” The GDR imme­di­ate­ly began on a wall between East and West “made out of con­crete and topped off with barbed wire,” though it could­n’t com­mand the resources to build its whole length quite so solid­ly right away. Over time, how­ev­er, the wall was “con­sis­tent­ly upgrad­ed with more and more increas­ing secu­ri­ty fea­tures.” By 1975, it had become the struc­ture we remem­ber, con­sist­ing of not just one but two con­crete walls, and between them a barbed-wire sig­nal fence, tank traps, mats of steel nee­dles known as “Stal­in’s grass,” and watch­tow­ers manned by armed guards. “Vir­tu­al­ly impos­si­ble to cross” in its day, the for­mi­da­ble Berlin Wall now exists pri­mar­i­ly as a cul­tur­al phe­nom­e­non: a mem­o­ry, a series of tourist sites, a some­times-mis­used cul­tur­al ref­er­ence. Liv­ing in South Korea, I can’t help but ask myself if the same will ever be said of the DMZ.

Relat­ed con­tent:

See Berlin Before and After World War II in Star­tling Col­or Video

Google Revis­its the Fall of the Iron Cur­tain in New Online Exhi­bi­tion

The Dos & Don’ts of Dri­ving to West Berlin Dur­ing the Cold War: A Weird Piece of Ephemera from the 1980s

Louis Arm­strong Plays His­toric Cold War Con­certs in East Berlin & Budapest (1965)

Bruce Spring­steen Plays East Berlin in 1988: I’m Not Here For Any Gov­ern­ment. I’ve Come to Play Rock

Watch Samuel Beck­ett Walk the Streets of Berlin Like a Boss, 1969

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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