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 could get goods very cheaply in the East.
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, a 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 5,000 escaped over or under the wall. 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. On 25 October 1961, East German border guards at Checkpoint Charlie tried to check the identification as western soldiers entered the Soviet sector. The Americans said the Allied right to move freely had been violated and for 16 hours there was an imminent threat of war. The next day, both sides withdrew after Kennedy and Khrushchev hastily cobbled together an agreement.
While the 1989 revolutions were startling in their speed, the fall of the Wall was the most stunning of all. On 9 November, 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 now 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 simply 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 Berlin 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 still litter the streets but few people are calling for the return of the DDR. The Wall was the supreme monument to the corrosive power of the old regime’s paranoia and distrust.