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.