“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
– Former President Ronald Reagan; Berlin, 12th of June, 1987.
There are a lot of famous walls throughout history. Hadrian’s Wall. The Great Wall of China. The Wailing Wall in Jerusalem…but walls are built for a lot of reasons. To protect, to defend, to hold up an important building…or to seperate a people. In this last category we have one of the most famous walls of all. The Berliner Mauer…the Berlin Wall.
For those born after the era of the Soviet Union, the Berlin Wall is something you read about in your history-books. It sure as hell was something I read in my history-books when I was in school even though when I was born, the Berlin Wall was still up. It’s a structure that’s fascinated me because it’s something that we imagine was built a long time ago and which was pulled down a long time ago and was significant a long time ago…but ain’t anymore, which is why it’s in the history books. But it wasn’t! It was still around when I was a kid, even if I wasn’t aware of it. And that was just a little over twenty years ago, which is a tick of a clock in the eyes of history. So what was the Berlin Wall? Where did it come from? What was it for? How did it come down and how did you get to the other side?
The Berlin Wall was a product of the Cold War that started escalating as soon as the ‘hot’ Second World War started cooling down in 1945. To understand where the wall came from, we need to crank the clock back over sixty years to the close of World War Two and what happened immediately after it.
Berlin, Germany, 1945
Japan is defeated. Germany has surrendered. The nuclear bombs have blasted Hiroshima and Nagasaki into the history books and the German capital of Berlin has been pulverised to rubble. It has been shelled, bombed and blasted for days and weeks on end by Allied bomber-planes and Russian field-artillery during the Battle of Berlin. The Allies have steamrollered in against the desperate and pathetic defences thrown up by the Nazis that consist of Hitler Youth divisions and World War One veterans pressed into service for the ‘Fatherland’. The Soviet Hammer and Sickle flag flies over the Reichstag, the German parliament building. The war is over.
The moment the Second World War ended, another war started. A war between ideologies. Between the capitalists and the communists. The Western Allies were not idiots. The Germans had started the Franco-Prussian War, the First World War and the Second World War. And the Allies weren’t about to let the Krauts have another crack at the cannons, so to ensure they couldn’t, the German nation was occupied.
Germany was split in two. The Americans, the British and the French took joint control of West Germany while the Soviets took control of East Germany. So far, so good. But what to do with the German capital city of Berlin? The problem was that Berlin was located smack bang in the middle of East Germany. The Allies refused to allow the capital to become communist, so the city too, was divided up. Eventually, Germany and its capital were split into two camps. On the West was the Federal Republic of Germany. On the East was the German Democratic Republic. The names sound very similar, but how they operated was very different.
The Berlin Airlift; 1948
Trying to sieze control of the German capital, the Soviets attempted to starve Berlin into submission. All road transport and rail transport to Berlin was cut off. Roads and railway lines were barricaded and utility-supplies were cut off. The Allies were not happy. They wanted their slice of Berlin. And they wanted it now.
Berlin was no longer seen as the ‘enemy’. It was not Nazified anymore. It was an ordinary city just like any other. But it was a city that wanted to be free and capitalist and which was being held hostage by the Reds who wanted it all for themselves. The people of Berlin were trapped in a hole.
It was to save the citizens of Berlin that the Allies started the ambitious ‘Berlin Airlift’ in 1948. The airlift was nothing less than dozens of day-and-night deliveries of food, clothing and other supplies to the city of Berlin by air, from West Germany to East Germany. The Soviets were trying to starve the city into submission and the West wasn’t about to let that happen. The airlift began.
The Berlin Airlift ran from June, 1948 until April of 1949. During those few months, Western planes flew over Berlin, dropping parachute-lowered supplies of food to the people of Berlin. Everything from milk to bread to chocolate bars were dropped into Berlin to keep the morale of the people high and their bodies healthy. The airlift was a big success and a total humiliation to the Soviets who thought that they could overpower the West and keep a stranglehold on the German capital. When the Soviets realised that the West would not stop with its airlift, they had to admit defeat and the blockade on Berlin was lifted.
It was after this time that Berlin was divided into two cities, informally at first, but as time went on, in more and more physical ways.
Berlin: Gateway to the West (1949-1961)
When the Soviet blockade of Berlin failed, the Soviets had to bow to pressure from the West to divide Berlin between the Capitalists and the Communists, just like the rest of the country. This division formally took place in 1949. For the next forty-one years, West Berlin would become an island of capitalism amid a sea of communism, surrounded on all sides by East Berlin and East Germany. East Berlin, by comparison, became part of the Soviet Union, a prison city with its people under siege. If you think that Berliners were all cool with this and just went back to building luxury cars, eating bratwurst and watching soccer on TV…then let me correct you.
Berliners were terrified of living under the heel of the Soviets. They had absolutely no desire at all to live in a Soviet city. They wanted out. And they wanted out NOW. Between 1949 and 1961, thousands of East Berlin citizens fled to the West. They moved across the border, they took the subway to Western stations and they packed everything into their cars and drove! Berliners were getting scared off and the Soviets were getting pissed off. Not only did thousands of fleeing civilians make the Soviets look big and scary and mean…which they probably were…but it also meant that a lot of vital manpower and skilled labour was running out of East Berlin as fast as their feet could take them! There was no Berlin Wall during these years of the city’s history and East Berliners could flee to the West with relative ease, however, Berliners weren’t the only people running.
Germans fleeing the Soviets wasn’t just confined to the citizens of Berlin. East-Germans everywhere were fleeing from the Soviets, not just those living in the capital. However where East Germans could flee to was confined to Berlin. If this is confusing, then let me explain.
People living in East Germany, controlled by the Soviets, wanted to get out of Soviet territory into Western territory, where they felt safe. Only, they couldn’t go from East Germany to West Germany due to travel-restrictions. However, there was no reason why the Soviets should restrict travel within East Germany. And Berlin was in East Germany. So Germans wanting to flee the Soviets went to Berlin instead. And they entered the city through East Berlin and then went to West Berlin, where they could fly out of the city and over Soviet Germany to the capitalist West Germany, nice and far away from the Reds. It was a roundabout way of escaping the Soviets, but it did work. And it was something that the Soviets were wising up to. And they weren’t having any of it.
See, once you got into Berlin, it was easy to get to the West. There was no barrier and once you got the paperwork you could just go across, or you could simply hop on the Berlin subway system and take a train that was going to a West Berlin station. It was pretty easy. The Soviets were worried that it was too easy. They were worrying about a ‘brain drain’ on East Germany. They were scared that all the talent, knowledge, brains and know-how of the East Germans would flood into the West leaving East Germany and East Berlin as a dried up husk of a place full of idiots. So to stop this, they built a wall.
The Berlin Wall; 1961
Even though there had been tension between the Soviets and the West ever since the end of the Second World War in 1945, it wasn’t until 1961 that the Soviets actually tried in any serious capacity, to stop people from getting to the West. This all changed on the night of the 12th of August, 1961. That evening, the order was given for the border between East and West Berlin to be officially closed and for a wall to be erected. In the truest form of German efficiency, the wall was put up in record time! By six o’clock in the morning of the 13th of August…Berlin was a city divided. A wall ran all the way from the northern border of Berlin down the middle of the city to the south of Berlin. People in East Berlin suddenly realised that the Soviets were serious about keeping them penned in, and they were not happy.
1961; Building the Berlin Wall
What some people may not know is that the Berlin Wall was not just one wall. It was a series of walls. Berliner Mauer Model A came out in 1961 as a simple, slap-up overnight job of wood, brick, concrete blocks and barbed wire. People who were desperate or quick-witted enough, could still get across to the West. They got through the wall by pushing or cutting away the barbed wire fences and running to the West, they even used car-bombs to blast holes in the wall so that they could get through. They rushed checkpoints and some people even just climbed out the window! Yes it’s true.
See, to make the wall in 1961 in record time, the East German army took a few shortcuts. Where possible, they followed roads and streets to make the wall as straight and as short as possible. They incorporated the walls of buildings into this first generation of the wall so as to speed up construction. But what they probably forgot was that…buildings have doors and windows…duh!
So when East Berliners woke up and found themselves imprisoned, some citizens realised that their houses and apartment blocks had been incorporated into this new wall. What did they do? They packed their suitcases and jumped out the window or broke open their own front doors, ran across the street and over to the West. The Soviets were quick to see the loophole in their design, however, and quickly bricked up windows and doorframes that opened out into West Berlin.
In the early days of the Berlin Wall, it wasn’t so much a wall as it was a fence. Because the wall was put up so fast, the East German soldiers used the simplest materials to build it. Cinderblocks, barbed wire and bricks. In some areas of the wall, the only thing keeping East and West Berliners apart was a few feet of barbed wire stretched out across a road. People who were brave or desperate enough, could just jump over the wire into the West. That’s exactly what East German soldier Conrad Schumann did on the 15th of August, 1961. That’s him up there in that photograph, jumping over the barbed wire division between East and West, defecting from Soviet Germany to the capitalist West. Schumann wasn’t the only person to do this, however. Hundreds of people took advantage in one way or another, of the hasty construction of this first version of the Berlin Wall, to change their lives forever…and in most cases, for the better.
Berlin’s historic Brandenburg Gate is right in the middle of the city. This photo taken in mid-August, 1961, shows East German soldiers forming a human blockade in front of the gate, preventing East-to-West migration after the border was officially declared closed
The Berlin Wall; 1962-1965
Like I mentioned above, the Berlin Wall was not one single structure. It was several structures that changed, evolved and which were torn down and rebuilt several times over the years. By 1962, a second, more permanent wall was being built between East and West Berlin. The Soviets could see that their initial barrier was not working and that it needed strengthening. Between 1962 and 1965, the second and eventually, third versions of the Berlin Wall were constructed, not of bricks or cinderblocks, but of huge slabs of concrete that were tough, high and impossible to blast through, ram with cars or climb over. Anyone who did try to climb over the wall was impeded by a smooth, cylindrical drainage-pipe which the East-Germans put on top of the wall. The smooth curved surface on top of the wall made it impossible for people climbing over to get a grip and pull themselves up, over and into West Berlin. It was around this time that the wall was also lengthened as well as strengthened.
Eventually, by the early 1970s, the Berlin Wall didn’t just divide the city, it completely encircled it. The entirety of West Berlin was surrounded by a huge, twelve-foot high wall of solid concrete sections that completely cut it off from all of East Germany that was around it on all sides…to say nothing of it also cutting it off from East Berlin.
Getting Through the Wall
Life in Soviet Berlin is hardly pleasant. The East Berlin secret police, the Stasi, keep tabs on everyone. Who they are, what they do, where they live, who they know, what their jobs are, where they are, where they’re going and why they’re going there and what they intend to do once they’ve reached there. Up to one third of the East Berlin population is under surveillance by the Stasi at its peak. Apart from the presence of an oppressive police-state, the quality of living in East Berlin is a pale imitation of life in the West. Although legally still under Allied occupation, people in West Berlin enjoy the latest entertainment, inventions and consumer-goods.
In East Berlin (and indeed, in most of the Soviet Union), basic household necesities are in short supply. Whitegoods for the home, automobiles, televisions and other appliances and machinery that the West take for granted are sold to the East Berliners on a first-come, first-serve basis. People have to go on waiting-lists that can last for weeks…months…even years…before they can even think of buying something that their Western counterparts could go out and buy at the shop the next day. The severe shortage of Soviet-made consumer-goods means that life under communism is hardly the “Worker’s Paradise” that the Soviets were hoping to achieve.
In the early days of the existence of the Berlin Wall, getting across to the West was relatively easy. You just needed a bit of luck and good timing. But after the first few weeks and months, the Berlin Wall has become an imposing and impassable barrier. Getting across is much harder. People get through by using forged identity and travel-permits and passports, they dig tunnels, they’re smuggled through the checkpoints in automobiles; two families gather up a whole heap of cloth and even floated over the Wall to the West using a homemade hot-air balloon! But nobody actually climbs over the wall to escape to the West, and here’s why…
The Berlin Wall; 1975
In 1975, the fourth and final version of the Berlin Wall was constructed. This wall is less like a simple wall and more like the impenetrable perimeter-fence of a maximum-security prison. It consists of two huge walls, watch-towers, trip-wires, barbed-wire fences, ditches, machine-guns, spotlights and vehicular-traps to prevent cars getting through. Between the two walls that made up this great barrier, apart from the tripwires, guns, searchlights, sirens, barbed-wire fences and the guards, there was also a kill-zone and even attack-dogs on long leashes! As you can see, getting across conventionally was not going to be easy, and 171 people died trying to do it. The most famous person who gave his life to freedom in this dramatic way was an 18-year-old East Berlin teenager…
Peter Fechter and his friend, Helmut Kulbeik attempted to jump Berlin Wall #2 in 1962. Kulbeik made it across safely but Fechter was shot in the leg by East Berlin guards. Although only a single shot was fired, the bullet severed a major artery in his injured leg and Fechter would bleed to death on the Soviet side of the wall, just a few feet from freedom. Western powers were outraged, but could do nothing to help him get across due to the threat of Soviet violence. The photograph above was taken by a Western photographer as Fechter lay bleeding on the ground. His body was eventually removed by East Berlin authorities.
A diagram showing what the Berlin Wall looked like, ca. 1980
The Berlin Wall; 1989
By the 1980s, generations of Berliners and people around the world had grown up with the Berlin Wall. It was a part of their lives. It was a part of world affairs. It was a part of Berlin. Nobody ever envisioned a day when it might not be a part of their lives, the news, the world at large or a part of Berlin. It had simply been there too long for it to suddenly just disappear! And even if it was going to be pulled down, it would take some huge, amazing, monumental and earthshaking events to even get the Soviets thinking about such a ludicrous thing…right?
Well probably. We’ll never know. Because that’s not how the wall came down. Believe it or not but the fall of the infamous Berlin Wall happened quite literally by accident.
It is the 9th of November, 1989. The Berlin Wall has fallen! People are streaming across the border between East and West Berlin. A momentous and historic occasion! But how did it happen?
To understand, we need to backtrack a few weeks. In August of 1989, other countries in the Eastern Bloc are beginning to relax travel restrictions, even if East Germany is not. Border controls between Austria and Hungary are relaxed. People start moving freely between these two countries. Amongst these people are East Germans. While in Hungary, East Germans take refuge in the West-German embassy in Budapest, not wanting to go back to East Germany. This show of resistence sparks off a series of protests throughout East Germany by people who want to be free. East German travel-restrictions are amongst the tightest in the Soviet Union and the people are getting tired of them. Not wanting a full-scale riot on their hands, East German authorities decided to allow for a relaxation of travel-restrictions between East and West Germany. This relaxation of such restrictions was supposed to start on the 17th of November, 1989. But it all went wrong from there.
The person charged with the job of spreading the news about the relaxed travel-restrictions between East and West Germany was a man named Gunter Schabowski, an official working for the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, the communist party that ruled over East Germany during the Soviet era. Schabowski had been told about the relaxation of travel-restrictions…a last-ditch attempt by East German politicians to stop the rising tensions in East Germany…but he had not been fully briefed on when these relaxations of restrictions were to take effect.
On the 9th of November, 1989, Schabowski was a member of a panel being interviewed in a live televised press-conference which was meant to spread word about these modified travel-restrictions. Not in full posession of all the facts, Schabowski was unprepared to give a proper answer when, after announcing the plan to relax travel-restrictions, a journalist asked a single, simple question.
Unaware of the actual date (17th of November), Schabowski consults his papers. Mumbling and fumbling for time, he accidently says “Immediately!”.
And that was the simple accident that caused the downfall of the Berlin Wall.
His one word sealed the Wall’s doom. Within hours, hundreds of East Berliners were charging towards the crossing-points between East and West Berlin, along the length of the Berlin Wall. They had heard about the opening of the border and they wanted out of East Germany and into West Germany. And they wanted it now! Border-guards were caught off-guard by the rush of hundreds and eventually thousands of people. Unable to hold their posts and been given no instructions not to let people go through, the guards opened the gates allowing thousands of people to stream from East Berlin into West Berlin! The Wall was now starting to fall.
The famous ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ border-crossing of the Berlin Wall; November 9th, 1989
Over the next few weeks and months, Berliners from both sides of the city would crowd at the wall to meet, greet and party and to celebrate the hopeful reunification of their city and their country, split in half by nearly fifty years of opposing political camps. People even showed up at the Wall carrying sledgehammers, pickaxes, jackhammers and drills. These were the “Wall Woodpeckers”, ordinary civilians who had come along to quite literally get a piece of the action. Over the next months and years, the Berlin Wall would be torn down, bit by bit, piece by piece, yard by yard. While most of it would be torn down with mechanised help, several Berliners hack into the structure of oppression with ordinary hand-tools, chipping off chunks of the Wall to keep as souveniers.
The Wall Today
The majority of the Berlin Wall was pulled down during the early 1990s as people rushed to bring an end to communism in Germany. Some sections still remain, although these are few and far between. In Berlin today, a cobblestone line runs through the city, marking the path that the Wall once took through the streets of the German capital.
A segment of the Berlin Wall (left, with all the graffitti) in central Berlin today