A hand is seen atop the Berlin Wall
A hand reaches above the broken glass-covered top of the Berlin Wall in August 1961.Paul Schutzer—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
A hand is seen atop the Berlin Wall
A West German man boosts up his son to give him a view of the other side of the Berlin Wall.
A mother and her daughter talk over the Berlin Wall.
A West German woman looks out her window onto the Berlin Wall.
U.S. and East German forces face each other across the newly built Berlin Wall
A crowd of West Berlin residents watch as an East German policeman patrols the Berlin Wall.
A couple enjoy a West Berlin bar with a view of the Berlin Wall outside.
An East German mason builds up a portion of the Berlin Wall
A crowd of jeering West Berlin youths protests the newly constructed Wall
Sunlight shines on the barbed wire and blocks of the Berlin Wall
An East German policeman uses sunlight reflected off a mirror in an attempt to stop photographers from taking pictures.
A West Berlin child struggles with a sealed door that has become a part of the Berlin Wall.
West Berlin children build a pretend Berlin Wall
West Three West Berlin police officers get ready to start their shifts on guard duty at the Berlin Wall.
An East German teen hides in tall grass awaiting a chance to jump over the Berlin Wall
West German police look out over the Berlin Wall for potential escapees to the West
An East German teen makes his way to the West climbing over the Berlin Wall.
An East German teen escapes over the Berlin Wall to the West
A Lebanese businessman carries cross in protest at the Berlin Wall
Birds rest on barbed wire atop the Berlin Wall
Berlin is seen through barbed wire and rubble
A girl plays with a ball at the Berlin Wall.
An East German guard throws a ball back to a child on the West German side of the Berlin Wall in 1962.
An East German policeman walks near Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin
Children chase a ball beside the Berlin Wall
A girl looks through a frosty window at the Berlin Wall
Silhouettes of West Berliners waving to their relatives on the other side are cast across the Berlin Wall.
A divided Berlin is seen through a tangle of barbed wire.
A hand reaches above the broken glass-covered top of the Berlin Wall in August 1961.
Paul Schutzer—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
1 of 28

Berlin Wall: Photos From the Birth of a Brutal Divide

May 15, 2014

In the early 1960s, LIFE magazine's photographers chronicled the construction of the Berlin Wall and, once it was built, its effect on residents living in the newly divided city. The Soviets and East Germans built the Wall, in part, to stop the flight of Eastern Bloc citizens who frequently used Berlin as the point from which they tried to escape to the West. (By the time the Wall was built, an estimated 20 percent of the East German population had fled.)

In its September 8, 1961 issue, LIFE wrote that the newly constructed wall, "up to 20 feet high and tipped with cruel glass splinters, is now an all but permanent barrier between the hapless people in both sectors [of divided Berlin] . . . Communist inhumanity has seldom showed itself more baldly or more brutally than in its Berlin wall—and the anguish and indignity it is now working upon the people of Berlin, young and old, East and West."

With the crude bulwark in place, the ideological divide between Eastern and Western superpowers grew sharper, more frightening and (seemingly) more intractable. Here, LIFE.com offers powerful pictures of the construction and earliest days of the Wall—photos that offer a glimpse into an era that today feels at once profoundly alien, and disturbingly familiar.

Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.

TIME may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website. Offers may be subject to change without notice.