The building of the Berlin Wall: 50 years on

On 3 August 1961, the leaders of the Communist bloc, the Comecon, met in Moscow. It was the heart of the Cold War, the Bay of Pigs invasion failed a few months earlier, and in July President Kennedy requested a 25 percent increase in military spending. The East stood strong but had a soft underbelly: Berlin.

Divided by the Potsdam Conference after the war, scarred by the 1948 blockade and institutionalised by the founding of East and West Germany in 1949, Berlin remained a porous city. Over half a million East Berliners crossed daily to West Berlin to get their dose of capitalism. Many went shopping or to the cinema and discos in the West, 60,000 commuters even worked there. There was no need to defect. The east was cheaper and the exotic frills of the west like panty hose and tropical fruit were just a U-bahn ride away. Westerners too enjoyed the fruits of the border. West German Deutsch Marks were exchanged into East German DM at a rate of 1:4 and westerners got goods cheaply in the East.

However, East Germany was losing its thought leaders. The income gap was stark and anyone with ambition wanted to be in the west. Although some were stopped, hundreds of thousands made it across the border forever. By the 1960s, East Germany had lost 2.5 million trained professionals, 15 percent of its population. The Comecon decided this had to stop before the labour force was drained. At 4pm on Saturday 12 August 1961, East German leader Walter Ulbricht issued the order to close the border. At midnight Sunday, police and armed forces began bolting the city shut. They built the wall in a day and shut streets, the railway, the S-Bahn and U-Bahn. The pulsating heart of the city at Potzdamer Platz became a no-go zone. Trucks with soldiers and construction workers rumbled though the sleeping city and tore up telephone wires and streets to West Berlin, dug holes to put up concrete posts, and strung barbed wire across the border. The 100km wall wrapped up West Berlin. In the morning, there was widespread shock. Whichever side of the border you went to bed on 12 August, you were stuck there for decades. The wall captured the imagination, defining the Cold War.

The wall went through four transformations in its 28-year history. It started as a barbed-wire fence with concrete posts, but after a few days, it was replaced with a permanent structure of concrete blocks, topped with barbed wire. A third version in 1965 was a concrete wall, supported by steel girders. The fourth built in 1980 had 3.6m high and 1.2m wide concrete slabs with a smooth pipe across the top to stop people from scaling it. By 1989 there was a 91m No-Man’s-Land, an additional inner wall, soldiers patrolling with dogs, raked ground that showed footprints, anti-vehicle trenches, electric fences, massive light systems, watchtowers, bunkers, and minefields.

About 200 people were shot dead trying to cross this labyrinth and another 5000 escaped over or under it. The only people allowed to cross the border were foreign tourists, diplomats and military personnel. There were three crossing points: Helmstedt, Dreilinden and Berlin Friedrichstrasse. Helmstedt was called Checkpoint Alpha, Dreilinden got Bravo and Friedrichstrasse got the name Charlie. When East German border guards at Checkpoint Charlie checked identification as western soldiers entered the Soviet sector on 25 October 1961,  the Americans said the Allied right to move freely had been violated. For 16 hours there was an imminent threat of war. The next day, both sides withdrew as Kennedy and Khrushchev hastily cobbled together an agreement.

While the 1989 revolutions were all startling in their speed, the fall of the Wall was the most stunning. On 9 November 1989, East German central committee spokesman Günter Schabowski made a surprise announcement: “Permanent relocations can be done through all border checkpoints between the GDR (East Germany) into the FRG (West Germany) or West Berlin.” “As of when?” asked an Italian journalist. Schabowski hesitated and then improvised: “As far as I know … as of now.”

It was a shock to locals decoding his bureaucratic announcement to realise he meant the border was open. The first East Germans approached tentatively and found border guards were letting people cross. Within an hour, people from both sides crowded to the Wall. Some brought hammers and chisels. Others hugged, kissed, cheered and cried. Schabowski, who was later imprisoned, said he remembered a Stasi agent telling him: “Comrade Schabowski, the border is open. Nothing to report.”

Now the Wall is mostly gone and the few remaining scraps are tourist attractions. The East and West are reunited though the East still lags. Germany is arguably weaker as a united country with a reunification bill of €1.3 trillion. Trabants litter the streets but few people are calling for the return of the DDR. The Berlin Wall was the supreme monument to the corrosive power of the old regime’s paranoia and distrust.


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