On August 13, 1961, about seven years before Gueffroy was born, Berliners awoke to find their city split in half. Barbed wire and concrete posts had appeared overnight along the border of West and East Berlin, separating family members, friends, and classmates.
Before long, these barriers would be transformed into a more formidable concrete and barbed wire structure. It would serve as a physical representation of the “iron curtain” separating the U.S. and its democratic allies in the West from the Communist nations in the East, led by the Soviet Union, during the Cold War.
Though the barbed wire beginnings of the Wall appeared overnight, they’d been years in the making. During World War II (1939-45), the U.S., Great Britain, and the Soviet Union had joined forces to defeat Adolf Hitler’s Germany. After the war, Germany was divided among the three victors and France. The U.S., Great Britain, and France took over the western three-quarters of Germany and in 1949 installed a democratic government in what became West Germany. The Soviets installed a Communist regime in the eastern section, which became East Germany (see map).
Berlin, which had been Germany’s capital, sat entirely in East Germany, but it too was divided, with U.S., French, and British forces controlling the western half. That part remained accessible to the West by planes, trains, and highways.
For 12 years, Berliners could travel freely within the city, and many East Germans used Berlin as an escape route to flee Communism. About 2.5 million East Germans fled to West Berlin from 1949 to 1961. Alarmed that their country was losing its young, educated workforce to the West, East German leaders came up with the drastic solution to barricade the border.
East Germans were cut off from the Western world. Under Communism, they lived in a police state where they lacked basic freedoms. The Stasi, the secret police, imprisoned citizens who spoke out against the government. Goods were hard to come by, with people waiting years to buy a car or even get a phone.