Berlin Wall’s 45th

August 13, 2006, is the 45th “anniversary” of the erection of the Berlin Wall, the totem of the Cold War that came down in 1989, pushing the end of the Cold War. Residents of Berlin awoke on this day in 1961 to find the communist government of East Germany erecting what would become a 96-mile wall around the “western quarters” of the city — not so much to lay siege to the westerners (that had been tried in 1948, frustrated by the Berlin Airlift) as to keep easterners from “defecting” to the West. The Brandenburg Gate was closed on August 14, and all crossing points were closed on August 26.

From 1961 through 1991 1989, teachers could use the Berlin wall as a simple and clear symbol for the differences between the communist Eastern Bloc, the Soviet Union and her satellite states, and the free West, which included most of the land mass of Germany, England, France, Italy, the United States and other free-market nations — the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries. I suspect most high school kids today know very little about the Wall, why it was there, and what its destruction meant, politically.

This era of history is generally neglected in high school. Many courses fail to go past World War II; in many courses the Cold War is in the curriculum sequenced after the ACT, SAT and state graduation examinations, so students and teachers have tuned out.

But the Wall certain had a sense of drama to it that should make for good lessons. When I visited the wall, in early 1988, late at night, there were eight fresh wreaths honoring eight people who had died trying to cross the Wall in the previous few weeks (in some places it was really a series of walls with space in between to make it easier for the East German guards to shoot people trying to escape) — it’s an image I never forget. Within a year after that, East Germans could travel through Hungary to visit the West, and many “forgot” to return. Within 18 months the wall itself was breached.

The Wall was a great backdrop for speeches, too — President John F. Kennedy visited Berlin in June 1963, and expressed his solidarity with the walled-in people of both West and East Berlin, with the memorable phrase, “Ich bin ein Berliner, which produced astounding cheers from the tens of thousands who came to hear him. There are a few German-to-English translators who argue that some of the reaction was due to the fact that “Berliner” is also an idiomatic phrase in Berlin for a bakery confection like a jelly doughnut — so Kennedy’s words were a double entendre that could mean either “I am a citizen of Berlin,” or “I am a jelly doughnut.”  [Be sure to see the comments below, from Vince Treacy (9/28/2010).]  Ronald Reagan went to the same place Kennedy spoke to the Berlin Wall, too, to the Brandenburg Gate, in his famous June 1987 speech which included a plea to the Soviet Union’s Premier Mikhail Gorbachev: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Construction of the Berlin Wall, photol collected by Corey S. Hatch

Construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961 –photo from University of Utah, by Corey Hatch.

Update March 9, 2007: Berlin Airlift information and lesson plans are available from the Truman Library, here, here and here.

Update November 9, 2009: Notes on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall

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27 Responses to Berlin Wall’s 45th

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    Check to see where the photo came from (I always show a link); be sure to attribute it properly.

    When you finish your History Day project, if it’s on line in any form, please come back and give us a link to it.

    Good luck!


  2. jonah varley says:

    hey i am doing a project for history day, may i use your photo AS A picture on my board


  3. Ed Darrell says:

    This is interesting: History teachers, take a look at this study assignment, from a South African school:


  4. […] democracy.  Ceremonies in Berlin marked the anniversary and the creation of a new museum there.  I wrote before: August 13 . . . [marks the 50th] “anniversary” of the erection of the Berlin Wall, the totem […]


  5. Vince Treacy says:

    I have just accessed (and bookmarked) this site because of the excellent recent post at Jon Turley’s site.

    My hobby is history, so I will follow closely this site’s efforts in “Striving for accuracy in history.”

    Here is my initial contributions. In this article on the Berlin Wall, should be made clear that Ronald Reagan did not go to the same place Kennedy spoke, the Brandenburg Gate. Kennedy did not speak at Brandenburg gate, but at the city hall square. I have visited the site myself.

    The notion that Kennedy somehow said that he was a jelly doughnut is a persistent urban legend that was exploded years ago. There was no such perception at the time. The legend first hit print in the 1980s in a novel by Len Deighton, Berlin Game, and was picked up in a column in the New York Times; it lived on in Bartlett’s quotations and other references. There is ample treatment at the Wikipedia entry and at

    Kennedy delivered the speech in English, pausing at intervals to allow his translator to translate to German. The translator was Robert Lochner, who grew grown up in Berlin as the son of an Associated Press correspondent in Berlin and was educated in German schools.

    Kennedy had rehearsed his speech for an hour in the city hall office of West Berlin mayor Willy Brandt. He repeated the German phrases, “ich bin ein Berliner,” and “lasst sie nach Berlin kommen” (let them come to Berlin) with Lochner in the presence of Brandt and his advisor Klaus Franke. Brandt related this in his autobiography.

    Kennedy’s speech was a critical American commitment to the continued freedom of West Berlin, an issue of overwhelming importance to Brandt. I have always felt that Brandt, a native Berliner, would never have allowed the President to commit a solecism like the one in the urban legend.

    In researching this, I went to the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress to read Monatshefte, a scholarly journal of the German language from the University of Wisconsin. The article was “Ich bin ein Berliner”: A History and a Linguistic Clarification, by Juergen Eichhoff. In it, Eichhoff wrote:

    “Of course, no one ‘tittered’ or “chortled’; the situation was too tense for Berliners to be amused. What is more, every native speaker’s Sprachgefül will tell that ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ is not only correct but the one and only correct way of expressing in German what the President intended to say.”

    Eichhoff concluded:

    “With this array of native support, it is obvious why the President’s German grammar could not be wrong. But what about the claim that the audience misunderstood the phrase because in German the word Berliner can denote a jelly-filled doughnut? This, of course, is total nonsense. In all languages, listeners derive the meaning of homonyms from the context in which they appear. What is more, there is no word Berliner meaning a ‘jelly-filled doughnut’ in the speech of Berlin or of all the eastern areas of Germany, for that matter… The word Berliner meaning a jelly-filled doughnut is used only along the Rhine river and in the northwestern and southern parts (including Switzerland) of the German speech area. The word of the entire eastern part, surrounding and including Berlin, is Pfannkuchen (which, to confuse outsiders, means ‘pancake’ to the west of this area). So for contextual reasons as well as for reasons of linguistic geography, there is not the slightest chance that anyone in the audience could have interpreted Berliner as denoting a jelly-filled doughnut. As a matter of fact, native Germans shake their heads in disbelief, unable to see a point, when told the “Kennedy-got-it-all-wrong” story.”

    So there is a scholarly, authoritative examination of the legend.

    While in Berlin, I asked a bakery for a pfannkuchen.

    I got a jelly doughnut.


  6. elvi says:

    enyway now the germany is not the same from there times,now berlin is different


  7. […] Old posts on the Berlin Wall here at the bathtub are suddenly popular — usually they get a lot of hits after March when U.S. schools get to the post-World War II era, the Cold War and the Berlin airlift.  I imagine the current popularity has something to do with the anniversary. […]


  8. Ed Darrell says:


    I started this blog to figure out how to use this technology in classrooms. Still working on it. Here’s the “about” post:


  9. PiterKokoniz says:

    Hi !!!! :)
    I am Piter Kokoniz. Just want to tell, that I like your blog very much!
    And want to ask you: what was the reasson for you to start this blog?
    Sorry for my bad english:)
    Your Piter Kokoniz, from Latvia


  10. RaiulBaztepo says:

    Very Interesting post! Thank you for such interesting resource!
    PS: Sorry for my bad english, I’v just started to learn this language ;)
    See you!
    Your, Raiul Baztepo


  11. seshdotcom says:

    Hey Good Post Man—>Visit my Weblog I have written about this your blog is cool


  12. Jim says:

    I just came back from Berlin this evening and decided to look up some images of the Berlin Wall to show my kids. This discussion caught my eye. I was stationed in Germany with the Army when the Wall fell and I remember the anxiety in the air as people kept hammering at the wall. What would the East Germans do? What would the Soviets do? What would we do? The Wall divided a city still haunted by memories of WWII and the ever-present soldiers that still seemed to be fighting without actually firing their weapons at each other. Spy exchanges, daring escapes, tragic deaths, and the memories of lost loved ones were constantly reported on in broadcasts and newspapers. Surely, there were countless others that never made headlines. Important point for those of you searching for why. The better standard of living, freedom and the desire for more opportunity drove people from the Soviet sector into the West. The Soveit sector was losing its talent, its scientists, its professionals who knew that life was better in the West. So, the Communists built a wall to keep them in by force. Their fateful decision became an enduring symbol of oppression not only in the West, but also in East Berlin. After years of pain and separation there was little resistance when the people took matters into their own hands in November 1989. Remember, also, that at that time, the relatively new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, was experimenting with a new “open” form of socialism he termed Glasnost. In this atmosphere, Hungary took the unprecedented step of opening its border with Austria allowing people from the East to head West, creating, in effect, a big leak sprung in Iron Curtain making the Wall obsolete in purpose. However, symbolically, the Wall served as a reminder of a divided and occupied Germany. The Soviets wanted that to remain because East Germany was their staunchest ally in the Warsaw Pact. The German people had different ideas. When it fell, it was the start of the reunification of Germany, the beginning of the end of the Cold War and of the Soviet Union itself.

    Thank you for keeping this subject going. A trip to Berlin today will show you how much the German people are scarred by this chapter in their history but relish how it finally ended. I would recommend Berlin as a must see for any students traveling in Europe and a review of this part of history is required before going.


  13. Ed Darrell says:

    Thanks for the correction. I was actually referring to the end of the Cold War, but it’s more clear and it makes more sense to use the 1989 date.

    I visited the wall in 1988. There were fresh wreaths honoring recent fatalities of people trying to escape. Had they only been able to wait two more years, had they only known.


  14. Charles Jackson says:

    Your article states the wall was up for 30 years–61-91. The wall came down in November 1989–not 1991.


  15. […] Wall’s 46th Today is the 46th anniversary of the beginning of the Berlin Wall.  The post I wrote last year on this topic continues to be popular, day in and day out, but especially when high school […]


  16. Mick says:

    Good research. You are making some good points here. I’m impressed.


  17. Arief Wahyudhi - Indonesia says:

    Its a great experience when I have opportunity to study in Berlin for several months, so I understand about the history of Berlin Wall, its contain so much story about humanity and personal. As we see now Berlin Wall was fall, but all the memories and sacrified from the person who dedicated their self to fallen the Wall still remain. And I memory from the World History kept couple piece of Berlin Wall framed in my living room.


  18. laurence1987 says:

    I’m just using your picture to make a historical piece of art, I was only 2 when that wall fell. From what I have learnt and know this was a great event all ther Germans I know are a lot more expresive now.

    Keep it metal and Know Jesus love you :D

    This is my bigger blog


  19. Ed Darrell says:

    Hey, you several dozen people hitting this post today, more than a half-year after it went up — what specific information are you looking for? Are you researching for school, or for work?

    Please leave a comment, let us know what’s up of a sudden.


  20. Personally I think the wall was built behind theft of people private property – I can confirm that at the age of 55 years English dishonesty includes not notifying me of squatters in the family house in Berlin.

    English people particularly the women suffer from an accute tendancy that everything is free in life, demonstrating publicly this fact in Berlin.

    Facing facts is my preference today supporting extradition to Berlin in every case however trivial


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