The Berlin Wall, built in August of 1961, was a physical symbol of the political and emotional divisions of Germany.
The Wall was built because of a long lasting suspicion among the Soviet Union on one side and Western Europe and the United States on the other. Once World War II was over, these Allies no longer had a common purpose to hold them together. Their differences became less hidden and more irreconcilable. The Western Allies quickly realized they couldn’t “kick a dog when its already down”, and that Germany was in desperate need of help.” Therefore, the Allies’ aim was to rebuild Germany’s economy. The Soviet Union disagreed with this plan immensely, and instead they became busy with setting up Communist dictatorships in their conquered areas, such as the zone of East Germany. This major difference among these powers marked the beginning of the Cold War. The war was not of physical battle, but of international diplomacy. Germany now became the prize struggle between enemies.
In response to the numbers of people who fled the communist world to the free world, East Germany built a wall that cut across the heart of Berlin. It was an improvised structure, thrown up overnight. In the months and years to follow, it would harden into a massive barrier of concrete blocks, barbed wire, machine gun towers, and minefields. The Wall became 103 miles long, and it was approximately ten to thirteen feet high. It cut across 193 roads, and it sealed West Berlin not only from the rest of the city to the east, but from all of East Germany. “A second wall was eventually built 100 miles to the east of the original wall. 293 watchtowers, 66 miles of antivechicle trenches, hundreds of killer guard dogs, countless searchlights, alarms, and self-firing guns were all used to keep East Germans form leaving.” (Mirabile 7)
In the night of August 12, Walter Ulbricht of East Germany, had his troops unroll their barbed wire “to protect the frontier…from American spies and the criminal slave traders of West Germany.” (Galante 1) On the morning of the 13th, Berliners awoke to discover telephones line dead between West and East Berlin and train services at a standstill. Families were separated, for the Wall had run through parks, public areas, and even buildings.
The Wall did not hold them back from freedom. According to reports, official figures show that more than 400 people died trying to flee. Human-rights activists say that the true figure could be closer to 800. Many of these escape attempts were dramatic. People leapt form windows, tunneled and crept through sewers, rammed through the gates in steel-plated trucks, crawled through mud, and swam the icy waters of the city’s rivers and canals. Even though the Wall created international crises, divided families, and spawned villains and gangsters, it also produced its heroes. Brave men and women who lived in the shadow of the Wall found ways to elude Communism.
Escape soon became harder. The barbed wire was replaced with concrete slabs. Waterways were blocked by underground fences. Windows along the borders had bricks instead of glass. Getting across became increasingly difficult, and it required ingenuity as well as determination.
In the first year alone, 14 attempts were made to breach the wall through driving into it. Many drove through legal checkpoints. Twice, East Germans escaped in a car so low that it could be driven right under the horizontal bars at the crossing points. Vertical bars were added to make it even more impossible. Many escaped in cleverly designed hiding places in cars driven by West Germans who could cross the border legally. Three escaped using Soviet Union military uniforms that a friend had sewn for them. Peter Fechter, an eighteen year old boy, was one of the first who tried to scale the wall outright. The East Germans shot him down while West Berliners heard Fechter’s cries for help for nearly an hour.
Escapees tried to get under the Wall using sewer systems. (It soon became blocked by watchful East German police) In 1962, NBC, the American Public television network, provided funds to dig a tunnel from Bernauer St., in East Berlin, to Schoenholzer St., in West Berlin. “That September, the TV network filmed the escape of fifty-six refugees before flooding shut down the tunnel.” (Mirabile 10) Probably the longest and the most famous tunnel was the one built in 1964 by Wolfgang Fuchs. This tunnel was Fuchs’s seventh, and it was 140 ft. long, almost 40 ft. below the city, and about 28 inches high inside. It took six months to build, and 57 people were able to use it before it was discovered.
Man’s intelligence and ingenuity was constantly being tested to cross the Wall. “One man threw a hammer and a line from the roof of a building, pulled a cable, and with his wife and son, slid down it in a homemade chair lift to safety on the other side.” (Mirabile 11) Another man built his own submarine to drag him across the Baltic Sea to Denmark. Two families flew from East Germany to West in a homemade hot-air balloon. All these people wouldn’t let a Wall ruin their lives. They wouldn’t let a Wall keep them from a life of freedom. They wouldn’t let a Wall crush their hope.
For 28 years the Berlin Wall stood as a grim symbol of the gulf between the Communist East and the Non-Communist West. When Hungary opened its borders with Austria, over 12,000 people escaped in a period of three days. It was reported that about 5,000 people made it safely, and about 5,000 people were captured.
A wave of democratization swept throughout Europe, and at the same time East Germany’s communist leadership was slowly but surely becoming ousted from power. Finally on November 9, 1989, at 10:00 at night, the German leader Egon Krenz ordered the Wall to be opened. After twenty-eight years, two months, and twenty-seven days, Berlin once again became a city.
The old Berlin Wall, was a stark symbol of the human cost of the Cold War, a stark reminder of the political division of Europe, and a monument to the political failure of East Germany.
” Freedom is indivisible, and when man is enslaved, all are not free…All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin. And therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words Ich bin ein Berliner- I am a Berliner.”
John F. Kennedy- Remarks upon signing of the Golden Book in Rudolph-Wilde-Platz, West Berlin, Germany, June 26, 1963. (Galante 277)
Editors of Time-Life Books. The Nuclear Age. Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1990.
Galante, Pierre. The Berlin Wall. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1965.
Long, Robert Emmet. The Reunification of Germany. New York: The H.W. Wilson Company, 1992.
Mirabile, Lisa. The Berlin Wall. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Silver Burdett Press, Inc., 1991.
Spada, Dorothy. Die Stuttgarter Zeitung. The New Book of Knowledge. Grolier Incorporated, 1986.
” Berlin Wall” http://www2.winona.msus.edu/ghistory/berlinwa.htm
” Kennedy at the Berlin Wall” http://www.nara.gov/exhall/originals/kennedy.html
” The Berlin Wall” http://msnbc.com/onair/msnbc/timeandagain/archive/berlin/default.asp
” The Fall of the Wall” http://home.cdsnet.net/-howard/berlin.htm
” The Fall of The Berlin Wall” http://www3.northstar.k12.ak.us/schools/nph/twt/berlin/berlin1.htm