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East Germany cuts off access to West Berlin

August 13, 1961

The line of East German troops appeared at midnight, starting at the Brandenburg Gate and spreading for miles in either direction. They carried guns, but their most effective weapons were bricks and barbed wire. Since the end of the Second World War, millions of Germans had fled the Soviet-controlled East for the freedom of West Berlin. On this day, Nikita Khrushchev would halt the exodus. By morning, the Brandenburg Gate was closed, forming ground zero for the construction of the Berlin Wall and becoming the ultimate symbol of a divided city. But symbols are malleable. When hordes of East German protesters and bureaucratic bungling combined to overwhelm border guards on Nov. 9, 1989, the gate reopened. Overnight, this stark icon of division became the city’s greatest emblem of reunification.

In August 1961 Magnum photographers Leonard Freed, Burt Glinn and René Burri documented Berliners as they woke up to find their city divided.

Children play on the west side of the Berlin Wall. Leonard Freed/Magnum Photos

At Checkpoint Charlie, American soldiers watch as Communist East Germany begins to put up the wall. Leonard Freed/Magnum Photos

West Berliners watch as Communist East Germany build the Berlin Wall. Leonard Freed/Magnum Photos

West Berliners wave across the wall while it is still low enough to see over. Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos

The American checkpoint at the Berlin Wall. Leonard Freed/Magnum Photos

An East German border guard at the wall. Leonard Freed/Magnum Photos

Westerners wave across the wall. Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos

U.S. troops on the Friedrichstrasse border checkpoint facing East German police. René Burri/Magnum Photos

An American soldiers stands guard as Communist East Berlin puts up the wall. Leonard Freed/Magnum Photos

Berliners on the west side look across the wall to the east. Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos

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