It’s been called the Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart and the Wall of Shame, but many of us know it simply as the Berlin Wall; erected in 1961.
We might not have understood the political implications of this wall when younger; some of us didn’t know a world without it. Heck, some of you don’t know a world with it.
Throughout these German History pages you’ve probably come to understand that Germany was once many independent states; then going on to be one country united. That all changed when Germany fell to the Allies, ending World War II.
The Construction Of The Berlin Wall (1961)
The Allies divided Germany with the Soviets, French, United States, and Britain occupying a split Germany. Then they went on to split Berlin. The areas controlled by the Soviets became the GDR (German Democratic Republic), the west being collectively run by the other three was known as the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG).
Germany was united no longer. And it was these politics that led up to East Germany walling up its people.
So many people defected to the west from its eastern zones (in the early 1950’s alone more than three-quarters of a million people fled the GDR) that the Soviets did their best to squash any and all travel from their regions. By 1956, virtually all travel from East to West was done away with, although loopholes existed.
It was at the suggestion of Vyacheslav Molotov, a Soviet Foreign Minister, to restrict the freely passing westerners. This was the start of an inner border (using barbwire fencing), a precursor to the actual erection of the Berlin Wall.
How? Well, many folks who wanted out of the GDR used Berlin as the gateway to the West; which by this time was underway towards economic recovery (called the Wirtschaftswunder). The GDR lost so many of its skilled labor, engineers, doctors, and teachers to the West that Stalin and his boys had a bloody cow.
Isn’t that a colorful way of saying he kind of freaked out a bit?
Would you believe that an East German leader had the audacity to demand reparations for the loss of his skilled labor force?
But, I digress…
There was talk of a wall between the Soviet and East German leaders long before the wall was erected in 1961. By June of that year, leaders said no wall was to be built. Funny, because on August 12, 1961 the same leader signed the order to build that horrible monstrosity.
By the very next day border crossings were virtually impassable, going so far as to rip up streets alongside the entire border of not only Berlin, but the whole Soviet controlled sector.
By the time they were done there was 97 miles of fencing along the East and West German border, with another 27 miles breaking up East and West Berlin. Within 5 days of the signed order, concrete blocks were already being used to keep people in (or out, depending on which side you were on). This left West Berliners living totally surrounded by hostile territory.
To make matters worse, it wasn’t just concrete and steel that kept people at bay. No, the Soviets added minefields, a huge “no man’s land” of clearing, trenches, a bed of nails, and 116 watchtowers. All the better to catch and/or shoot defectors, the Soviets thought.
Of course the Soviets thought they were smart, building the Berlin Wall within its own borders so that it wouldn’t infringe on the Western side. Stalin thought he was slick.
Crossing the Berlin Wall was no easy feat. There were nine crossings; and it depended on where you came from as to which one you could use. Checkpoint Charlie (used by the Allies) is one of the most famous. (You’ll find a replica of Checkpoint Charlie at the corner of Friedrichstraße and Zimmerstraße in Berlin.)
Not everyone could get across by formal methods, using a variety of ingenious ideas of crossing by hot air balloons, walking through sewers, ramming their cars through concrete, and even stealing an armored car.
The Fall Of The Berlin Wall (1989)
Twenty-six years after the initial construction of the Berlin Wall, Ronald Regan stood at the Brandenburg Gate for Berlin’s 750th anniversary (June 1987) demanding Mikhail Gorbachev tear down the wall.
Little did anyone know that just over two years later on November 9, 1989 the GDR announced that its border was open. For the first time in almost thirty years there was no East German and West German, everyone was the same again.
Throughout the rest of 1989 and into 1990 this infamous wall of tyranny was dismantled, culminating in concerts (including Pink Floyd, Bon Jovi, Van Morrison (if you gotta ask, you’re not old enough), and David Hasselhoff).
After the fall of the Berlin Wall the door opened up for Germany’s reunification (I call it the Wirtschaftswunder Reloaded) on October 3, 1990; which is German Unity Day (a national holiday).
Mr. Regan’s words of tearing down the Berlin Wall wasn’t as prophetic as those of United States Secretary of State Dean Rusk, who back in 1961 said “The Wall certainly ought not to be a permanent feature of the European landscape. I see no reason why the Soviet Union should think it is — it is to their advantage in any way to leave there that monument to Communist failure.”
You’re right, Mr. Rusk, the Wall wasn’t a permanent feature. The Communist Soviets are gone. The Berlin Wall is gone. And best of all, Germany’s still here, alive and kicking more than ever.