“Wall? What Wall?”

That is pretty much how Walter Ulbricht, Chairman of East Germany (1950-1971), responded to a reporter’s question about whether a state border crossing would be erected at the Brandenburg Gate, which sat at the heart (and on the border) of West and East Berlin. It was an odd response, given that nobody had up until that point (15th June 1961) had mentioned anything about border walls. But soon after this strange reply, on the 13th of August 1961, thousands of soldiers and thousands more construction workers surrounded West Berlin and began constructing a wall straight through the middle of the city. This 156km long perimeter, which included 38km of lakes and rivers, 32km of woods and 68km of urban areas, would eventually be comprised of hundreds of kilometres of barbed wire, alarmed fencing and anti-vehicle trenches. It was watched over by searchlights from hundreds of towers and patrolled by hundreds of watchdogs and tens of thousands of border troops. These troops had thousands of vehicles, ten thousand submachine guns, hundreds of LMGs and HMGs, almost 3,000 pistols, and hundreds of mortars, anti-tank guns, flamethrowers, and hundreds of antitank rifles at their disposal to create the most potent symbol of the Cold-War.

Remnants of the Wall at Potsdamer Platz.

So why did all this effort put into the Wall? Why was Berlin divided in the first place? Well, you can blame Hitler for that. See, he started this little thing called WWII (not sure if you heard of it). At first, things were going well for him, but by February 1945, Nazi Germany was completely and utterly screwed. Not only had Allied Forces reached the Rhein River to the West, but the Soviet Union was advancing rapidly from the South and East, with Berlin well within sight. Two ideological enemies, Democracy and Communism, had agreed to fight their common foe, Fascism, until it surrendered unconditionally or was annihilated, whichever came first. But Hitler refused to back down, even when the Soviets had encircled Berlin with him still inside it, and killed himself on the 30th April 1945 as opposed to being captured (and Lord knows what would have been done to him if that happened, if Mussolini’s gruesome death at the hands of communists is anything to go by).

But before Hitler unalived himself, the Allies had gathered at Yalta in Crimea in February 1945 and discussed the post war settlement. The four powers – The USA, Britain, France and the Soviet Union – decided to split Germany into regions which they would administer separately while reconstruction and de-Nazification were underway. There was one problem with this, however – Berlin lay wholly in the Soviet Sector, and just because they all fought side by side doesn’t mean they were all buddy-buddy or willing to put aside deep mistrusts (Stalin is infamous for his deep paranoia, which was certainly exacerbated during and after the war). So, the city of Berlin was also split into four sectors. Austria was also split into four sectors (being annexed into Nazi Germany in 1938, it was treated as separate territory) from 1945, but was reformed whole as an independent nation in 1955. That did not happen in Germany. The British, French and American Sectors (including the Berlin Sectors) became the Federal Republic of Germany (FRD) in 1949. The Soviet Sector refused to join and became its own independent nation, the Democratic Republic of Germany (DDR), just a few months later.

What a lovely park. Hard to believe that standing here could once get you shot. (East|West)

Here’s the issue: There was a speck of West in the middle of the East – Berlin is hundreds of kilometres from the western zones. And so, for the next forty years, Berlin became a constant sticking point Cold War. The first move was made by Stalin when he ordered a blockade around West Berlin in 1948 (while it was still in the hands of the Allies) to break its morale and force them into the Eastern Bloc. But he was thwarted as the Allies sent daily airlifts of supplies for months until May 1949 when Stalin gave up. (Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor, also tried to pressure the West into giving up West Berlin in 1961, but this also failed). Not long after, the Chinese Revolution, the Korean War and the Vietnam conflict drew the attention away from Germany – for now…

In 1952, the DDR shut the borders to the FRD (except for Berlin). But the nation faced so many problems, including inflation, rising prices and cuts to pensions, that a severe uprising occurred in 1953. This was suppressed, but it was clear that West Germany was a much more attractive prospect than the East, especially after it had joined the Warsaw Pact in 1955 (basically NATO but for Communists), kicked up aggression against religion and forced collectivisation of agriculture in the late 1950s. Plus, after living under a totalitarian system since 1933 and enduring the utter destruction it wrought, it’s unsurprising that people had little desire to live under another one. Hundreds of thousands of people, the majority of whom were under twenty-five, fled the country every year, mostly through Berlin. It was almost too easy. Sure, there were the official checkpoints, but there were so many streets that one could walk across and just…not cross back over. The Berlin Metro ran through both parts of the city, so many hopped on in East Berlin, got off in the West…and ‘forgot’ to go home. Buildings had entrances in the East and windows that were in the west. People climbed through them and just…didn’t climb back through. Such was the attrition rate that by August 1961, after twelve years of existence, nearly three million people had fled East Germany, disastrous for a country that had just under twenty million people at its inception. If this outflow of people wasn’t curbed, the country would collapse. And since West Berlin was the main issue, something had to be done about West Berlin. Hence, the Wall was built on the 13th August 1961.

Checkpoint Charlie. No, there wasn’t any soldier called Charlie. Standing in West, looking into East.

As soon as the Wall went up, the world was on alert, as were the Western powers – but they were powerless to stop it. As John F. Kennedy remarked, if you knocked it down, another wall would have been built one hundred metres back, if a nuclear war hadn’t been ignited from the initial demolition. Besides, neither of the two Germanys wanted nuclear war over Berlin, especially with the horrors of WWII still fresh on their mind (although it nearly started in October 1961, when Soviet and American tanks stared each other down at Checkpoint Charlie for nearly 16 hours!). So, the Wall went up without incident, impervious to the despair and fury of bystanders…

The Wall started off as just barbed wire and bricks, but soon became prefabricated slabs made for stuff like pig-shit silos (aka, really strong – you don’t want those things leaking!). The final generation of the Wall was three metres high with a rounded tube on the top that prevented people getting a handhold. Of course, climbing the Wall was just one obstacle. There was Stalin’s lawn (spikes!) waiting for you on the other side, not to mention the aforementioned barbed wire, electric fences, bright lights, guards, bunkers full of soldiers and other assorted nasties awaiting you in the “death-strip”, ranging from 15-150 metres in width.

Very few people dared to gun it across the death strip – that was certain death. But that didn’t weaken the resolve of those who wanted to escape. Two days after construction began, Conrad Schumann, a border guard, leapt across the barbed wire at Bernauer Straße to the astonishment of the world. Also to their astonishment was the murder of Günter Litfin, who was shot on 24th August 1961 while trying to swim to freedom across the Spree River (the one that flows through Berlin and served as part of the border). He was the first person to be murdered trying to escape East Berlin after the Wall went up. The first death, however, was Ida Siekman, who jumped from her third story apartment window in a desperate bid to escape but died from her injuries. She jumped because her apartment sat right on the border and was thus sealed off (soon would be demolished) and under guard in case anyone tried to escape. In total, 136 people are confirmed to have died as a result of the Wall, including eight border guards, ninety-eight East Germans during escape attempts and a further thirty people from both sides who were killed or had fatal accidents but no intention of escaping (e.g. children who drowned in border lakes or were shot while playing around the border area, or simply ‘wrong time, wrong place’ for the adults who got too close to the Wall). That figure doesn’t include all those who died at border zones outside of Berlin.

On Bernauer Straße, where Conrad Schumann (pictured on the building) leapt to freedom a few metres behind where those two people are standing on the street. Others were not so lucky in their escape attempts. Standing in West, looking at the East.

However, there are at least 5,000 successful escapes from the GDR from 1961 to 1989, including a number from Berlin. Early on, if people weren’t able to escape before the Wall went up, people still took trains to West Berlin until the last route was shut off in December 1961. Escapees crawled through sewers until grates were welded in key escape pipes and guards patrolled the sewers (yes, there were guys with guns squelching through sewage in dank, dark sewers, just in case somebody wanted out of the country – what a glorious system, comrades!). Others were crafty by forging passports or digging tunnels, but soon the authorities cottoned on to this and employed the Stasi (secret police – incredibly scary bastards, believe me) to infiltrate counterfeiting/tunnelling operations and expose them. Most plans failed at the planning stage because someone involved was a nark. So, most people had to act individually or with family members only – but even then, they were often discovered (as I said, the Stasi were terrifying in how efficiently they compiled information and sniffed out escape plots). Plans either became incredibly subtle, like hiding in a fake cow or cable drum while someone else drove you across the border, or over the top and brazen, like speeding through border crossings, bombing the Wall, using a homemade plane and even smashing through the border with a bulldozer while under heavy gunfire. But it’s estimated that only 5-10% of escape attempts were successful, but that’s only if they got to the final step – One slip of the tongue and you could end up in prison, e.g. by not calling it the “Anti-Fascist Protection Wall.” The official story was that the Wall was keeping those pesky West-Berlin Fascists out of the East, but nobody bought that for a second – nobody was keen to flee to East Germany.

The Wall ended up becoming a financial blackhole. By 1980, it was estimated that the Wall consumed one billion Marks every year just to be maintained – that’s not including border guard salaries! That’s a bad enough cost on its own, not to mention the DDR’s mounting debts, the USSR’s increasing impatience with what was once the crown jewel of its empire and its unwillingness to pour any more money into it, the rest of the world’s indignation due to East Germany’s behaviour flagrantly conflicting its stated commitment to respect human rights, plus the overall poor condition of its economy as it was lapped by the Western countries several times over. Oh, and it’s per capita spending on military was three times that of the USSR; The country had seventeen million people in it, of which a million were military! East Germany was always strapped for cash, particularly during the 1980s when it was ready to collapse at any moment. In a desperate bid to get foreign currency, East Germany ransomed prisoners from the mid-1960s onwards, which West Germany paid for (starting at ~40,000 marks average, going up to ~96,000 marks average by the late 1980s). There is still a lot of controversy over this – it has been argued that this was legitimising the DDR and enabling it to continue violating human rights by propping it up financially. On the other hand, there were over 33,000 prisoners who gained their freedom this way, and the total cost – 3.5 billion – would only have serviced the wall for maybe 4 years until it was all gone. I still err on the side of it being a good thing that these prisoners were ‘bought’ by the FRD. To be locked up in a Stasi-run prison would be a living hell I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.

A corridor in Hohenschönhausen, a Stasi prison. This picture cannot capture the chilling atmosphere enough – perhaps a story for another time?

So, if the Wall was just a bottomless money pit, why did the DDR keep funding it? Partly it was strategy: if war broke out, West Berlin could be captured effortlessly (Regardless of whether this victory was pyrrhic or not). But more fundamentally, because the Wall became a condition for the DDR to exist. Without the Wall, too many people would flee – remember, if the Wall didn’t go up in 1961, the DDR would have collapsed. However, East Germany was never able to construct the communist system that would have rendered the Wall unnecessary. Until the day that Communism was achieved (which is to say, never), the Wall needed to stay up. No Wall, no DDR.

So strongly did the state identify with the Wall that Erich Honecker, Ulbricht’s successor as Chairman of East Germany (1971-1989), proclaimed that the Wall would exist for another hundred years. But the writing was on the wall (if you’ll pardon the pun). No matter what the state did, neither brutal repression nor a gentle appeasement could stop the skyrocketing number of applications to leave the country legally in the 1980s. protests became more common throughout the country, with tens of thousands of people in Leipzig declaring “We are the People.” In May 1989, Hungary, another Eastern Bloc country, opened its border to Austria, which was not part of the Eastern Bloc. This was significant as Austria allowed travel to West Germany. So, East Germans would ‘go on holiday’ to Hungary (the only countries East Germans could go to for tourism were communist nations), freely cross into Austria and then flee to West Germany from there. The Soviet Union, fraught with its own political and economic troubles, refused to intervene. On the 4th November 1989, Czechoslovakia also opened travel to the West, which caused tens of thousands of refugees to pour into the country. This caused great resentment – the Czechs demanded that East Germany stop ‘using’ them as an intermediary and just let people through the inter-German border directly.

Be on the lookout for these bricks and don’t take for granted how easily you can step over them. (West|East)

Then, on the 9th November 1989 (side note: Plenty of important dates to do with Germany happen on the 9th November: The Kaiser’s abdication and collapse of the German Empire (1918), Einstein wins his Nobel Prize (1921), Hitler’s failed putsch to take over Bavaria (1923), official founding of the Schutzstaffel (1925), the sensational attacks on Jews known as Kristallnacht (1938) and the event I’m about to explain to you…), a press conference was held late one night. The DDR decided that it had to do something about all this emigration, so it created what it thought would be a great pressure release valve: permanent departures to the West, so long as the relevant application is completed, which required a passport and other bureaucratic nonsense. This meant very few people were actually eligible to depart, but given the political system we’re talking about, it was a radical departure from previous policies. But this solution had a fatal flaw: Günter Schabowski. Günther was the PR guy for this policy change at the press conference, and he was like Sean Spicer on steroids. He didn’t actually know all the details of the policy. In fact, he didn’t know one of the most basic pieces of information: When it came into effect. And when asked about this aspect of the policy, Günther panicked. He glanced at his notes and read out the first words he saw: “Immediately, without delay.”

The international media picked up on that and they screamed it from the rooftops: East Germany has opened its borders! Except…it hadn’t! But that didn’t stop hundreds of thousands of people approaching the Wall from both sides late at night. The border guards panicked: They weren’t listening to the press conference, and therefore had absolutely no idea what was happening. At 11.30PM, recognising it was futile trying to disperse all these people, the guards just…let them through. The people – now chanting “We are One People” – flowed through the border posts and, in fits of joy and passion, began embracing their compatriots separated by concrete for twenty-eight long years, breaking out into song long into the night, mounting the Wall, chipping away at it, pushing it over and demonstrating that the Wall had no power over them anymore. And if the Wall was rendered impotent, how could the DDR continue to exist?

A walking track through the woods outside Berlin. This used to be part of the death strip. (West|East)

Answer: It didn’t. West and East were swiftly reconnected (or, as the Germans cumbersomely call it, Die Wiedervereinigung), officially concluding on 3rd October 1990, which has since become the National Day of Germany. Not much of the Wall remains; most of it was crushed up and repurposed for other construction (some larger chunks are sold to tourists at Checkpoint Charlie). But the reminders are everywhere: If you keep an eye out in Berlin, you may see a two-brick-wide line zigzagging across the roads, seemingly at random. That’s where the Wall once stood. Why is the Glienicke Brücke (The “Bridge of Spies”) connecting Berlin and Potsdam two different shades of green? The border ran straight through it. And that park you’re enjoying lunch in with your friends was once the death strip.

Unfortunately, in many ways, Germany is still divided. Just look at any economic data, religious data, migration data, election results or anything else and you’ll see the border between the FRD and the DDR resurface. But one can only hope that nobody has any intention of building a wall anytime soon…

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