Written By: Ben Cosgrove

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 edited this gallery for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.

A hand is seen atop the Berlin Wall

A hand reached above the broken glass-covered top of the Berlin Wall in August 1961.

Paul Schutzer/Life Pictures/Getty Images

A West German man boosts up his son to give him a view of the other side of the Berlin Wall.

A West German man boosted up his son to give him a view of the other side of the Berlin Wall.

Paul Schutzer/Life Pictures/Getty Images

A mother and her daughter talk over the Berlin Wall.

A woman, in the foreground, who had escaped to West Berlin, spoke to her mother, who was still in West Berlin.

Paul Schutzer/Life Pictures/Getty Images

A West German woman looks out her window onto the Berlin Wall.

A West German woman looked out her window onto the Berlin Wall.

Paul Schutzer/Life Pictures/Getty Images

U.S. and East German forces face each other across the newly built Berlin Wall

U.S. and East German forces faced each other across the newly built Berlin Wall.

Paul Schutzer/Life Pictures/Getty Images

A crowd of West Berlin residents watch as an East German policeman patrols the Berlin Wall.

A crowd of West Berlin residents watched as an East German policeman patrolled the Berlin Wall.

Paul Schutzer/Life Pictures/Getty Images

A couple enjoy a West Berlin bar with a view of the Berlin Wall outside.

A couple enjoyed a West Berlin bar with a view of the Berlin Wall outside.

Paul Schutzer/Life Pictures/Getty Images

An East German mason builds up a portion of the Berlin Wall

An East German mason built up a fresh portion of the Berlin Wall in August, 1961.

Paul Schutzer/Life Pictures/Getty Images

A crowd of jeering West Berlin youths protests the newly constructed Wall

A crowd of jeering West Berlin youths protested the newly constructed wall.

Paul Schutzer/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Sunlight shines on the barbed wire and blocks of the Berlin Wall

Sunlight shone on the barbed wire and blocks of the Berlin Wall.

Paul Schutzer/Life Pictures/Getty Images

An East German policeman uses sunlight reflected off a mirror in an attempt to stop photographers from taking pictures.

An East German policeman used sunlight reflected off a mirror in an attempt to stop photographers from taking pictures.

Paul Schutzer/Life Pictures/Getty Images

A West Berlin child struggles with a sealed door that has become a part of the Berlin Wall.

A West Berlin child struggled with a sealed door that had become a part of the Berlin Wall.

Paul Schutzer/Life Pictures/Getty Images

West Berlin children build a pretend Berlin Wall

West Berlin children built a pretend Berlin Wall.

Paul Schutzer/Life Pictures/Getty Images

West Three West Berlin police officers get ready to start their shifts on guard duty at the Berlin Wall.

Three West Berlin police officers jumped off a truck, ready to start their shifts on guard duty at the Berlin Wall.

Paul Schutzer/Life Pictures/Getty Images

An East German teen hides in tall grass awaiting a chance to jump over the Berlin Wall

An East German teen hid in tall grass, awaiting a chance to jump over the Berlin Wall. “Crouching in a tangle of grass in East Berlin,” wrote LIFE when this escape sequence originally ran in he magazine, “and hidden except for his face [barely visible on the left side of the pic], a boy waits to make a break over the wall he must surmount to reach the West. Nearby is a patrol of East German Vopos who will shoot to kill if they see him.”

Paul Schutzer/Life Pictures/Getty Images

An East German teen makes his way to the West climbing over the Berlin Wall.

An East German teen made his way to the West, climbing over the Berlin Wall.

Paul Schutzer/Life Pictures/Getty Images

An East German teen escapes over the Berlin Wall to the West

An East German teen escaped over the Berlin Wall to the West.

Paul Schutzer/Life Pictures/Getty Images

West German police look out over the Berlin Wall for potential escapees to the West

West German police looked out over the Berlin Wall for potential escapees to the West.

Paul Schutzer/Life Pictures/Getty Images

A Lebanese businessman carries cross in protest at the Berlin Wall

A Lebanese businessman, Edmond Khayat, carried an 85-pound wooden cross to protest the Berlin Wall in October 1961.

Paul Schutzer/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Birds rest on barbed wire atop the Berlin Wall

Birds rested on barbed wire atop the Berlin Wall.

Paul Schutzer/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Berlin is seen through barbed wire and rubble

A divided Berlin, seen through barbed wire and rubble in January 1962.

Paul Schutzer/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Children chase a ball beside the Berlin Wall

Children chased a ball beside the Berlin Wall.

Paul Schutzer/Life Pictures/Getty Images

A girl plays with a ball at the Berlin Wall.

A girl played with a ball at the Berlin Wall.

Paul Schutzer/Life Pictures/Getty Images

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 guard threw a ball back to a child on the West German side of the Berlin Wall in 1962.

Paul Schutzer/LIFE Pictures/Getty Images

An East German policeman walks near Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin

An East German policeman walked near Checkpoint Charlie between East and West Berlin in October 1962.

Paul Schutzer/Life Pictures/Getty Images

A girl looks through a frosty window at the Berlin Wall

A girl looked through a frosty window at the Berlin Wall.

Paul Schutzer/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Silhouettes of West Berliners waving to their relatives on the other side are cast across the Berlin Wall.

The Berlin Wall bore the shadowy silhouettes of West Berliners waving to their relatives on the unseen, Eastern side of the Wall in December 1962.

Paul Schutzer/Life Pictures/Getty Images

A divided Berlin is seen through a tangle of barbed wire.

A divided Berlin was seen through a tangle of barbed wire.

Paul Schutzer/Life Pictures/Getty Images

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