The Berlin Wall: Seriously important concrete.

The Berlin Wall: Seriously important concrete.

‘Berlin is the testicles of the West. When I want the West to scream, I squeeze on Berlin.’ Nikita Khrushchev, leader of the USSR, 1954-1964

It was about 140 kms long, 3.65 metres high and just 12 centimetres thick at the top. In old measurements, that means it was 90 miles long, 12 feet high and five inches thick. From the summer of 1961 until the autumn of 1989, it was the most important symbol of Cold War tension between the East and the West, Communism and Capitalist Democracy. When it was built, many thought it would mark a permanent division not only between the Eastern and the Western sectors of the great city of Berlin, traditional capital of Prussia and Germany, but also between those two ideological systems which had divided the world. But then, quite suddenly and unexpectedly in the eyes of most observers, it was gone. After twenty eight years of separation, it was a broken force, torn down by the people it had enclosed for a generation. Although the USSR itself did not formally end until December 1991, the fall of the Berlin Wall became the iconic event which effectively marked the end of Communism as a major force in world politics, especially in Europe. Concrete, barbed wire, checkpoints, graffiti, death: what was the ‘Berlin Wall’ all about?

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The Berlin Wall under construction in 1961. (Author: National Archive; Source: here)

Across the city people experienced things in a completely different light to anywhere else in the world because they were able to make a direct comparison between the two different ways of life on offer. There were no barriers within the city and so, as the rubble was slowly removed, transport re-built, power and water re-connected and industry restored by visiting both systems. Contact with people from outside the city was easily controlled through visas but in Berlin this was impossible and Stalin feared the impact of such meetings; and he simply could not stop people from Eastern Europe going first to East Berlin and then travelling on to the West. From 1949 onwards, and especially after Stalin’s death in March 1953, more and more people made that journey through East Berlin and on into West Berlin; from there, many moved on to West Germany and beyond. The ‘crack’ in the ‘Iron Curtain’ was there throughout the 1950s and a trickle of emigrants became a flood. Between 1950 and 1961, an estimated 3.5 million East Germans left out of a total population of 20 million or so. This was about one in six of the population, a huge number, but even this does not tell the full story because those who left tended to be the young, the educated, those with families, skills and the ambition to do well in the West. It left the old, the less educated, the less creative to maintain the system. By 1961, the country was on the verge of collapse. Walter Ulbricht, the leader of East Germany was desperate for a solution and so was Nikita Khrushchev, then leader of the USSR. The collapse of East Germany would have triggered a reaction across the whole of the Eastern Bloc, bringing with it the end of Communism and, potentially, World War III – and Armageddon though a nuclear conflict. A solution was needed and it was found in the Berlin Wall.

Berlin, 15. Volkskammersitzung, Walter Ulbricht

Walter Ulbricht (1893-1973), leader of East Germany from 1950-1971. (Author: Sturm, Horst; Zühlsdorf; Source: here)

The day was 13th August, 1961. It was a Sunday morning and the peace was shattered by sounds of building and transport, very different sounds from normal. Pneumatic drills, cranes, lorries and armoured trucks appeared in central Berlin, very near the Brandenburg Gate and along the official line dividing the Eastern and Western Sectors. Soldiers and police were lined up with workers building a fence. Although few realised it at the time, the ‘Berlin Wall’ was under construction and the city was facing its final few hours of unity: families and friends were being divided, people were losing the chance to go to work and, in some cases, even farms and gardens were being cut in two.

On Nikita Khrushchev’s orders, the Berlin Wall was built just inside the eastern sector of the city, not taking even an inch from the West. This linked with the careful reading of a statement from President Kennedy some weeks earlier where he had said that the West would not tolerate any attack or restriction on the west of Berlin. This had been a response to attempts by Khrushchev to force the USA, Britain and France to give up claims to Berlin and allow the city to be re-formed as an independent state, something Moscow had aimed for since 1958. Khrushchev and others noted that Kennedy had made no mention about acting on restrictions between the sectors within the city and so it was that building the Berlin Wall was proposed as a means of saving East Berlin and East Germany by blocking up this crack in the ‘Iron Curtain’.

In time, the Berlin Wall developed from being just a wire fence to a solid construction of bricks and cement. It developed a 100 metre exclusion zone on the Eastern side, a ‘no man’s land’ area where only border guards could go. On the western side, it became famous as a huge target for lovers of graffiti. Watch towers, dogs, guards, barbed wire and tank traps appeared. An estimated 5000 people attempted to cross between 1961 and 1989, and between 100 and 200 died. It became the greatest symbol of division in the Cold War.

The first man to escape was Conrad Schumann, a border guard on the Eastern side of the Wall at the time it was built. He was in charge of a group of guards and, while on patrol, he took the momentous decision to go, so he ran and jumped across what was still just a low barbed wire section in those early days, and creating one of the of the most famous photos of decade. (That photo can be seen here.)

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The statue to mark Conrad Schumann’s escape in 1961. It makes sense but has to be one of the slightly more odd memorials in Berlin. (Author: Jotquadrat; Source: here)

 

As the Berlin Wall was strengthened, ingenious methods were developed for escaping as people attempted to flee to the West. At the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, many of these things can be seen today. A few of the attempts included: sneaking out in converted cars, flying over in a hot-air balloon (‘well done’ to the Wetzel and Strelzyk families for building theirs out of thousands of small pieces of cloth), flying ultra-lights over the wall at night, digging tunnels and swimming through the canals and sewers in specially adapted frogmen outfits. Wolfgang Engels, a 19 year old student, actually stole a Soviet armoured car and drove it into the Wall, being wounded but escaping in the process. Early on people just ran across the zone between the two sectors while others leapt from windows into the blankets of the West Berlin Fire Service. Some worked but all reflected the anger and concern at being trapped by a system that people saw as failing. Eventually, pretty much every method of escape was closed off. As the East German writer, Stefan Heym (1913-2001), said: ‘What kind of system was it that could only survive by imprisoning its people?’

Berlin, Checkpoint Charlie

Crossing the Berlin Wall was officially possible only at a number of checkpoints, such as the famous Checkpoint Charlie. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

The Berlin Wall was an extraordinary thing. It was, as Stefan Heym said, a symbol of failure and hatred, yet it probably saved Communism, and given the tensions of the time, it might well have saved the city, the country and the world. The collapse of East Germany would have meant a crisis in the Eastern Bloc and the potential collapse of Communism. And that could easily have meant nuclear war.

In June 1963, nearly two years after the Wall had been built, President Kennedy visited Berlin, cementing the bond between the city and the West which had become so strong since the Berlin Blockade. He took with him Lucius Clay, the US General who had been in control of West Berlin at the time of the Airlift. And it was there that Kennedy made his famous speech which finished with the words: ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’, so often mis-translated as ‘I am a donut’. He actually said what he meant to say, namely, ‘I am a Berliner’. The people of West Berlin went wild, knowing they were special and playing a key role at the front-line of the Cold War. No other city played such an interesting and important role in world affairs as did Berlin between 1945 and 1989.

If you are looking for a fascinating place to go for a holiday then miss out the trendy, loud places and head off to Berlin – you won’t regret it.

Berlin, Mauerbau

 The building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 – serious lumps of concrete and barbed wire. (Author: Helmut J. Wolf; Unknown; Source: here)

 

Find out more

TV: ‘Cold War’ (CNN) and ‘Berlin’ by Matt Frei (BBC)

Books: ‘The Berlin Wall: My part in its downfall’ by Peter Millar; ‘The Berlin Wall’ by Frederick Taylor; ‘Berlin Game’ by Len Deighton; ‘The Wall: The People’s Story’ by Christopher Hilton

 

 

 

 

 

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