Skip to main content

Secrets about the Berlin Wall revealed

By Gabe LaMonica, CNN
updated 12:36 AM EST, Thu January 16, 2014
Two and a half years after it was constructed, the Berlin Wall was temporarily opened during the Christmas season in 1963. From December 20 to January 5, 1964, an agreement between East and West Germany allowed West Berliners to obtain one-day passes to visit relatives in East Berlin. Two and a half years after it was constructed, the Berlin Wall was temporarily opened during the Christmas season in 1963. From December 20 to January 5, 1964, an agreement between East and West Germany allowed West Berliners to obtain one-day passes to visit relatives in East Berlin.
HIDE CAPTION
When the Berlin Wall first opened
When the Berlin Wall first opened
When the Berlin Wall first opened
When the Berlin Wall first opened
When the Berlin Wall first opened
When the Berlin Wall first opened
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Thousands of previously classified documents about the wall are released
  • Martin Luther King Jr. went to East Berlin without a passport
  • Intelligence reports detail wall's construction, protection

(CNN) -- Martin Luther King Jr. used his American Express card instead of a passport to get past the Berlin Wall.

Now, 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, this little known fact and thousands of previously classified documents have been released.

After an executive order issued by President Barack Obama called for the processing of classified records that are 25 years old or more, the CIA, in conjunction with the National Archives' National Declassification Center, announced it had made public more than 11,000 pages of documents detailing life and death in the shadow of the wall between 1962 and 1986.

To prevent East Germans from getting into West Berlin, the border between West and East Berlin was closed by the Soviets on August 12, 1961.

Called the "Anti-Fascist Protective Rampart" by East Germans, 155 kilometers, or 96 miles, of wall encircled West Berlin, itself a West German island in the heart of East Germany. The central part of the wall that divided West Berlin and East Berlin was 43 km, or 27 miles long.

A men's rooms at this Las Vegas casino has been home to a portion of the Berlin Wall for about 20 years. Three urinals are mounted onto the graffiti-bearing concrete slab. The wall itself is protected by glass. A men's rooms at this Las Vegas casino has been home to a portion of the Berlin Wall for about 20 years. Three urinals are mounted onto the graffiti-bearing concrete slab. The wall itself is protected by glass.
Men's room, Main Street Station, Las Vegas
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
>
>>

Intelligence reports and maps included in the document release details on the construction of the wall. What began as guarded barbed wire strung along the border quickly became barbed wire with guard towers and two high concrete walls, one on the inside, one on the outside of a no man's land. This "death strip" was littered with anti-tank barriers, signal wires, beds of spikes, sand --to see footprints, and guard dogs, all under the constant surveillance of armed guards with orders to shoot on sight anyone trying to cross.

"Ich bin ein Berliner," said President John F. Kennedy when he visited the city on June 26, 1963. Many of the US government memos outline the technical aspects of a presidential trip to the city only 22 months after the Berlin Wall was erected.

Dr. Hope Harrison, who helped with the project and spoke at a symposium at the National Archives on Tuesday highlighting the document release, said massive media coverage in the West highlighted every killing. "Cross and flowers" marked death sites. She compared that to the East German approach. Coverage of the killings of people trying to escape East Berlin was "taboo," she said. But a border guard killed at the wall was "turned into a hero of socialism defending the border, streets and schools were named after them."

Hundreds of West Berliners standing on the Western banks of a narrow canal witnessed 24-year-old Gunter Litfin's death when on August 24, 1961 he become the first person killed at the Wall by guards with machine guns who shot him as he swam in the water. The killing of Peter Fechter, 18, was filmed by Western media and broadcast live as he bled to death after being shot trying to cross the border zone near Checkpoint Charlie.

That infamous checkpoint, also known as Checkpoint C, was the one Martin Luther King, Jr. managed to cross without a passport. Diplomatic cables reveal how on September 13, 1964, after speaking to large crowds in West Berlin, he used his American Express card to get past guards in order to enter East Berlin. He conducted a church service there honoring President John F. Kennedy, who had visited Berlin two years earlier. Two thousand people overflowed St. Mary's Church, where he said "There is no East, no West, no North, no South, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole, wide world."

The diplomatic cables also highlight President Ronald Reagan's trip to Berlin, when he implored Mikhail Gorbachev, the head of the Soviet Union to "tear down this wall." It fell two years later on November 9, 1989. The CIA hasn't released classified Berlin Wall material from that year.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
It was supposed to be a class trip to a resort island. Instead, the ferry capsized, turning the afternoon into a deadly nightmare.
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
It's hard not to be nervous, standing outside the Ebola isolation wards.
updated 8:58 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Ukraine says it's forces have regained control of an airfield from Russian separatists. Nick Paton Walsh reports.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
An "extraordinary" video shows what looks like the largest and most dangerous gathering of al Qaeda in years.
updated 8:30 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Explore each side's case, reconstructed from Pistorius' court affidavit and the prosecution's case during last year's bail hearing.
updated 5:16 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Officials are launching their next option: an underwater vehicle to scan the ocean floor.
updated 1:53 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
How are police preparing for this year's 26.2-mile marathon, which takes place Monday?
updated 1:02 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Katrina Karkazis
Romance is hard, for anyone. For people with intersex traits, love poses unique challenges.
updated 8:38 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Suisse's Belinda Bencic returns the ball to France's Alize Cornet during the second match of the Fed Cup first round tennis tie France vs Switzerland on February 8, 2014 at the Pierre de Coubertin stadium in Paris. AFP PHOTO / KENZO TRIBOUILLARD (Photo credit should read KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images)
It's no easy matter becoming a world class tennis player. It's even harder when everyone (really -- everyone) is calling you the "new Martina Hingis".
updated 5:26 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
The "kill switch," a system for remotely disabling smartphones and wiping their data, will become standard in 2015.
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Browse through images you don't always see on news reports from CNN teams around the world.
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Sky gazers caught a glimpse of the "blood moon" crossing the Earth's shadow Tuesday in all its splendor.
updated 11:09 AM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
A staff stands next to the propellers of Sun-powered plane Solar Impulse 2 HB-SIB seen in silhouette during its first exit for test on April 14, 2014 in Payerne, a year ahead of their planned round-the-world flight. Solar Impulse 2 is the successor of the original plane of the same name, which last year completed a trip across the United States without using a drop of fuel. AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)
This solar-powered aircraft will attempt to circle the globe next year.
ADVERTISEMENT