The Berlin Wall
Construction began on The Berlin Wall early in the morning of Sunday, August 13, 1961. It was a desperate – and effective - move by the GDR (German Democratic Republic) to stop East Berliners escaping from the Soviet-controlled East German state into the West of the city, which was then occupied by the Americans, British and French.
Berlin's unique situation as a city half-controlled by Western forces, in the middle of the Soviet Occupation Zone of Germany, made it a focal point for tensions between the Allies and the Soviets and a place where conflicting ideologies were enforced side-by-side. However, as more and more people in the Soviet-controlled East grew disillusioned with communism and the increasingly oppressive economic and political conditions, an increasing number began defecting to the West. By 1961 an estimated 1,500 people a day were fleeing to the West, damaging both the credibility and - more importantly - the workforce of the GDR. Soon rumours began to spread about a wall, and it wasn’t long after that those rumours were made a concrete reality.
In a masterfully-planned operation, spanning just 24 hours, the streets of Berlin
were torn up, barricades of paving stones were erected, tanks were gathered at crucial places and subways and local railway services were interrupted, so that within a day the West of Berlin was completely sealed off from the East. As of that same day inhabitants of East Berlin and the GDR were no longer allowed to enter the West of the city (including the 60,000 who had been commuters). In response to international criticism that such drastic measures inevitably drew, the GDR claimed that the barricade had been raised as an ‘anti-fascist protection wall’, and that they had moved to prevent a third world war.
The version of the ‘Wall’ that started life in 1961, was in fact not a wall but a 96 miles barbed wire fence. However, after this incarnation proved too easy to scale, work started in 1962 on a second fence, parallel to the first but up to 100 yards further in. The area in between the two fences was demolished to create an empty space, which became widely known as "death strip" as it was here that many would-be escapers met their doom. The strip was covered with raked gravel, making it easy to spot footprints, it offered no cover, was mined and booby-trapped with tripwires and, most importantly, it offered a clear field of fire to the armed guards – who were instructed to shoot on sight.
Later on even these measures were deemed insufficient and a concrete wall was added in 1965, which served until 1975 when the infamous ‘Stützwandelement UL 12.11’ was constructed. Known also as Grenzmauer 75 (Border Wall ’75), it was the final and most sophisticated version of the Wall. It was made from 45,000 separate sections of reinforced concrete, each 3.6 m high and 1.5 m wide, and topped with a smooth pipe, intended to make it more difficult for escapers to scale it. The Grenzmauer was reinforced by mesh fencing, signal fencing, anti-vehicle trenches, barbed wire, over 300 watchtowers, and thirty bunkers… Just to be on the safe side!
Despite the various security measures enforced, escape attempts were commonplace, especially in the years immediately following the erection of the wall, when there was still a fighting chance of making it across alive. Climbing was the obvious way to go and some 5,000 were said to have reached the other side. However in its thirty year history 100 people were shot dead, most famously the eighteen year old Peter Fetcher, who, after he was hit in the hip, was left to bleed to death in no-man’s land as the world’s media watched on.
As security tightened, more ‘creative’ escape plans became the order of the day. Tunnels and jumping from bordering buildings were two more successful ways of getting to the West, although the Wetzel and Strlzyck families eloped in true style - floating to salvation in a hot air balloon which they had fashioned from hundreds of small pieces of nylon cloth (after which it became almost impossible to buy cloth in the East). Rivalling them for the coveted prize of brave escapes, is the citizen who drove up to the checkpoint barrier and, winding down the roof of his convertible at the last minute, slipped underneath! Needless to say that a lower barrier was subsequently installed.
For those unable or unwilling to abscond from the East, life was bleak; and things only continued to get worse throughout the 70s and 80s as Communism and the USSR began to collapse. Honecker and the GDR resolutely stuck to their guns, speaking out in support of their regime; but when Hungary opened its borders in the summer of 1989, a flood of East Germans made their way West. Meanwhile student protests in Leipzeig put pressure on the government to lower the borders into West Berlin.
As the Iron Curtain cracked the fall of the wall looked inevitable. In the evening of November 9th, 1989 Gunter Schabowski, Minister of Propoganda, read out a note at a press conference announcing that the border would be opened for "private trips abroad”. The news spread like wildfire and the German people immediately gathered in their thousands by the checkpoints, demanding passage. There was some confusion as to what the official line was and the border guards, uncertain of what to do and ill-equipped to deal with the huge and unyielding mob, were forced to let them pass. The Wall had fallen.
The days that followed saw chaotic celebrations erupt over the country as Germany celebrated the political fall of the Wall - and in the following days and weeks hundreds of citizens began physically tearing down the concrete division. These events were the first steps to the reunification of Germany, which was formally concluded on October 3rd, 1990. Today remnants of the Berlin Wall can be found at Bernauer Strasse and in front of the Neiderkirchnerstrasse, the former Prussian Parliament and current Berlin Parliament.