Berlin Wall

Berlin Wall

Berlin is home to one of the most famous historical landmarks which symbolized the end of the Cold War. The Berlin Wall and its rich history are famous across the globe as a historical representation of German, European and World history. During the 28 years of the Cold War that The Wall existed, it separated numerous families. It was erected in 1961 to divide Berlin into two ‘blocks’. East Berlin was called the German Democratic Republic and West Berlin was named the Federal Republic of Germany. Initially, the barrier only consisted of a temporary 155km barbed wire that forbade access between East and West Berlin. It did not take long for the barbed wire to be replaced with bricks, specifically, two parallel walls spaced a few metres apart. The gap between the walls was aptly named the ‘death strip’ as it was reinforced with check points, watch towers, bunkers and guard dog cages as well as barbed wire.

Over the years, the inhabitants of East Berlin made attempts to escape from the communist regime which ruled the East side of the wall however many were arrested in their attempts to flee to West Berlin and some were killed.

 The Wall became not only a physical barrier that divided the city politically in two, it also imposed social restrictions on all the inhabitants of Berlin. The separation lasted until 1989, when the destruction of the wall began, and the population was finally liberated. Today, traces of the wall are still visible around the city.  Although it is a period that the citizens want to forget, the knowledge of the history of the Wall acts as a reminder for humanity to learn from the mistakes which were made and of the importance of freedom worldwide.

When was the Berlin Wall built and who was it built by?

The year 1945 marked the end of the Second World War and the fall of the Nazi state in Germany. Germany was occupied by the victors of the war: the Americans, the British, the French and the Soviets.

Although the German citizens were no longer under the Nazi regime, there was no rest from the fear of what would happen over the next few years. The victorious countries had a common goal to prevent Germany from becoming a powerful political and economic nation until peace had been restored and were therefore happy to appease other countries by returning land which was seized by Germany during the war.

Several plans were prepared to decide the future fate of Germany. From 12th to 16th September 1944, before the end of the war, a plan was presented at the Québec Conference by President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill which would convert Germany from an industrial country to an agricultural one.

In October of the same year, at the Yalta conference, Great Britain and the United States presented a plan which provided for the division of Germany into three states. The projects, however, were rejected due to the opposition of the Soviet Union. In the summer of 1945 during the Potsdam conference, it was decided that Germany would be divided into four areas which would be ruled by the victorious countries. The plan was put into action three years later, in 1948.  

After the death of Roosevelt on 5th March 1946, the first steps were taken to reconstruct Germany as a unified state…and so the Cold War began.

Winston Churchill was invited to give a lecture at the local university his speech marked the beginning of the division of Europe and consequently that of Germany. It is in this conference that Churchill popularized the expression known as the Iron Curtain – an imaginary border that divided Eastern Europe (communist countries under the influence of the Soviet Union) from Western Europe (democratic countries with a capitalist economic system, under the influence of the United States), separating them both territorially and ideologically. This was undoubtedly the end of the alliance between the Western countries and the Soviet Union. Europe was cut in two and with it, Germany too. Berlin found itself in the middle of this separation, becoming the main victim of the Cold War. Given its painful defeat, Germany did not have the necessary means to escape the powers of the United States and the Soviet Union, so its fate was sealed. East Germany was taken over by the Soviet Union which wasted no time in rebuilding it according to Soviet plans. This was the beginning of Stalin’s collection of resources as compensation for the damage suffered during the war. In fact, he asked for entire factories and a considerable quantity of raw materials. In this way Stalin was no longer considered by the Germans as one of the liberators from Nazism, and they began to see him as an enemy. On the other hand, The United States, had a more humanitarian approach by providing citizens with necessities such as food, clothing and medicine.  The US strengthened West Germany and allied themselves with the British and French to counter the Soviets. Although Germany was already divided almost immediately after the end of the war, it was not until 1949 that it was formally separated into four. The rift became even more evident in the main city of Germany, Berlin which, despite being geographically located in the East of Germany, as it was the capital city, the decision was to divide it into two parts.  West Berlin was therefore controlled by the United States of America, Great Britain and France and East Berlin became the capital of the German Democratic Republic, under the influence of the Soviet Union.

In the midst of the political turmoil, the German population continued to suffer from hunger, money lost its value and the only way to survive was bartering. As the country’s economy became almost non-existent, the three western nations decided to strengthen their resources by introducing a new currency and giving each German citizen 40 new marks. In this way in West Berlin the inhabitant’s wellbeing improved and work opportunities were more frequent than in the East of Berlin. In addition to this, aid also came from the Marshall Plan, an ambitious project with the aim of strengthening the economy of European countries impoverished by the recent war and restricting the advance of communism. The Marshall Plan highlighted the imbalance between East Berlin and East Germany and the living conditions of the inhabitants worsened day by day. Instead of rehabilitating their part of Germany, the Soviets continued to transport machinery and factories to the Soviet Union, to repay the damage caused by Germany during the war.

The Americans did not communicate to the Soviets their reorganization of the monetary system now in force, as a result, in 1948, Stalin decided to block access to the western sector in order to curb the liberalization of the Allies. This caused massive disruption, the Western Countries were forced to think outside the box and arranged aircraft to supply provisions to the Berliners (who found themselves in the middle of the enemy territory). Approximately 1,200 aircraft were sent every day to deliver 12,000 tons of goods to West Berlin. At this point the Germans understood that only the Americans and the allies could guarantee their survival, while the Soviets continued to take the war spoils from East Berlin back home to the Soviet Union.

In the year 1949 the western part of Germany influenced by the United States of America, Great Britain and France was named the Federal Republic of Germany. The east of Germany, under the influence of the Soviet Union, instead, formed the German Democratic Republic. As a result of their actions in the war, Germany found itself paying a very high price: to be a divided country and to find itself a victim of the Cold War.

From the 1950s onwards, the economy of the western sector became stronger and stronger, so much so that the Times newspaper coined the term “Wirtschaftswunder” meaning ‘economic miracle’. This defined the rapid financial development which followed the intense crisis that occurred after the war. Statistics show that in 1949 over 2 million people were unemployed whereas in 1965 this is compared to 160,000 unemployed citizens. The figures prove that the US led their part of Germany into economic growth and technological advancements.

The more the western sector grew economically, the more the differences with the eastern sector were evident. The eastern economic planning structure turned out to be rigid, so the country was unable to establish itself financially. Even on a political level, the contrast between the west and the east failed in obtaining a unanimous response. In fact, they often found themselves talking about the reunification of the entire country however conditions were always imposed which made it difficult for the proposal to succeed.

The 1950s are characterized not only by the economic development of the West but also by various tensions between the East and the West. One of many examples is the uprising in 1953 where citizens revolted in the eastern sector because they did not agree with the rigid economic measures of the government. The protesters saw that the abyss with West Germany was getting deeper and the living conditions were not acceptable, the citizens became disheartened and the revolt turned into a strike. Eastern inhabitants began to realize the difference that reigned in their sector compared to the West. To escape the limitations established by the communist regime, thousands of people moved to West Germany. The majority were graduates, professionals and skilled workers who escaped in hope of a better future. The East German government began to see that the population loss it was suffering was too great. In fact, nearly 3 million people from 1949 to 1961 moved to West Germany.

Berlin Wall Costruction.

To avoid a further mass exodus, from Sunday 13 August 1961 the Soviets decided to permanently interrupt all connections between the two sectors, placing a temporary barbed wire fence on the border between the two areas. All transports were blocked, the checkpoints were closed and people who found themselves inside a sector could no longer cross it. This was only the first step towards the division. After a few days the barbed wire was replaced by a wall of concrete and brick slabs that construction workers were commanded to build. Sentries were posted to check that no one crossed the border and people watched in disbelief at what was happening before their eyes, feeling helpless in the face of the cruel scene.

The Berlin Wall, logistics, position and length.

Until 1961 the borders between the two areas were invisible, in fact millions of people walked them every day to go to work. But from the moment the wall was built, every link was blocked. The houses located along the border were demolished, while in others the windows and the entrances of the houses were bricked up to prevent citizens escaping. In Bernauer Straße, the inhabitants, driven by despair, tried to escape by jumping from the windows onto the stairs that the firefighters of West Berlin had extended beyond the wall, but in a short time, the wall became almost impossible to climb. To make matters worse, it was constantly guarded by thousands of sentries who alternated in the control towers and were ordered to shoot anyone who tried to escape. The wall did not just divide east from west, but surrounded west Berlin, turning the three allied sectors into an enclave. The 160km wall spanned the entire city, even dividing some neighbourhoods.

Among these were the Pankow district to the east divided by Reinickendorf to the west; Prenzlauerberg district to the east divided by Wedding to the west; the district of Mitte to the east divided by Tiergarten to the west; Friedrichshain district to the east divided by Kreuzberg to the west; Treptow district to the east divided by Neukölln to the west. The wall barrier also bordered the banks of the River Spree.

berlin wall map
Source: berlinwallmap.info

There were eight checkpoints in those years including, the best known still today, Checkpoint Charlie. Each crossing point would serve as a gateway between the two sectors but only for foreign tourists without a German passport and for Western diplomats. Checkpoint Charlie was targeted by people who tried to escape from the East. One example of this in 1962 was when a girl and her mother in a soft top car were able to cross the checkpoint at full speed!

From 1962 to 1980 the wall underwent some variations to make it even more difficult to overcome. Initially the fence was made of barbed wire. After a few days they switched to concrete blocks and bricks. In the following months a double barrier was built, specifically, a second parallel wall separated by a strip of land several tens of meters wide, called the death strip. This space was covered with raked gravel and sand, allowing the guards to spot the footprints the fugitives would leave so that they could easily locate them. The death strip was later strengthened with additional control towers, bunkers, guard dogs, barbed wire and nails. It was constantly guarded by armed guards and snipers ready to act, in addition to the numerous patrols that circulated every day with military vehicles. In 1965 several kilometres of wall were knocked down and replaced by reinforced concrete slabs joined by steel posts and with the upper part covered by a smooth concrete tube to make climbing even more impossible. The last transformation of the wall took place between 1975 and 1980. The renovation included replacing the old wall with separate sections of reinforced concrete.

This became the final wall, which in its total length stretched over 155 kilometres and a height of 3.6 meters.

Despite the various fortifications over the years, thousands of people devised different ways to get to the other side of the city, with around 5,000 successful attempts, some of which have remained in history. For example, underground tunnels were dug in which groups of people were able to cross them and reach the west. One of the most famous tunnels is that of the Pankow cemetery, dug under a grave and when the citizens went to the cemetery, they took the opportunity to escape. Other people used the River Spree, still others hid in the suitcases of those who had been allowed to cross the border. Another ingenious escape attempt was with the help of a hot air balloon. While many of these methods were successful, many people also lost their lives. One of the most brutal examples of the various deaths that occurred during those years was that of Peter Fechter who, while trying to cross the wall, was shot on sight by the guards but did not die immediately. He was left on the ground for hours, suffering and agonizing until his death. From the data found it is calculated between 150 and 250 deaths of people who, desperate, tried to go to the other side. The last victim to be killed by the guards was a boy named Chris Gueffroy who, a few months before the fall of the wall, tried to climb over it together with a friend of his convinced that a new legislation prevented the guards from shooting at anyone who wanted to cross the border. Unfortunately, Chris was shot and died on the strip between the outer and inner walls. His friend, on the other hand, was wounded and arrested.

In the year 1989 many things changed. The Soviet Union nearly lost the Cold War, the borders with Austria and Hungary were opened and the flow of Germans who emigrated to these countries grew more and more. Many took the opportunity to reach the West through other European states, so it was concluded that the wall built in those years no longer served the purpose for which it was erected. Meanwhile, the Soviet leader Erich Honecker resigned leaving the reins of the government in the hands of his replacement Egon Krenz. The citizens of Berlin protested so the new government decided to give East Berlin citizens permission to go to the west sector. The news should have been disclosed by the propaganda minister who was on vacation at the time. On November 9, 1989, a press conference was held in which the spokesman for the government of East Germany declared that it would be possible to cross the border peacefully through the various gates in the city. The new law was supposed to go into effect the next day but, when asked by a reporter who asked when citizens could do so, he, unprepared, replied that the order would be enforceable. The news spread immediately on the radio and on the news, making the rounds of the whole city. Thousands of people took to the streets, armed themselves with pickaxes and began to demolish parts of the wall. The border guards found themselves prey to the chaos of the citizens. The checkpoints were opened and the families that until then had been separated by a wall finally hugged again after 28 years. Young people born under the Communist rule enjoyed the freedom to step outside the border for the first time. The whole city celebrated the liberation which for years was just a dream.

Although they began to dismantle the wall over the next few days, the supporting structure remained standing until June 1990, when the German Democratic Republic officially took care of its complete demolition and disposal. A few months later, on October 3, 1990, East Germany was integrated with West Germany, definitively reuniting the entire country.

The fall of the Berlin Wall not only meant the reunification of the two worlds, but also meant the liberation from the Soviet empire and the communist regime. The fall of the wall also assumed an important significance for the rest of the world from a cultural, social and emotional point of view.

Of the 160 kilometres it once was, today, only 2 kilometres remain visible, covered entirely by murals that illustrate various events relating to the years in which the wall divided the city, created by artists from all over the world.