The Great Berlin Wall: how Germany built and then demolished the main symbol of the Cold War
In just a few days, all of progressive humanity, and especially the German part of it, will surely be celebrating a landmark anniversary. On the evening of November 9, 1989, it was announced on GDR television that the authorities were about to open the border with the other, capitalist Germany. Tens of thousands of East Berliners gathered at the formerly virtually impregnable barrier that separated the two worlds, the two systems. The Cold War curtain was not really iron, but concrete, with barbed wire, machine gun towers, and checkpoints. While President Donald Trump is now trying to build his “Wall” to keep out unwanted guests, in the early 1960s, the leadership of the German Democratic Republic built a wall to prevent the entire population of the country from escaping to the coveted west. Thirty years ago this frontier, whose victims were dozens and hundreds of people whose only fault was their desire for a better life, finally fell. Onliner tells why the Berlin Wall appeared and how the winds of change tore it down.
A divided country
The Berlin Wall became perhaps the main tangible symbol of the Cold War precisely because it was entirely its creation. Defeated Germany became the main arena of confrontation between the former anti-Hitler coalition allies. A month after the surrender of the Third Reich in confirmation of the decisions of the Yalta Conference of February 1945, its territory was divided into four zones of occupation. The same fate befell the capital Berlin: there were four sectors for each of the victorious states (in addition to the USSR, the U.S. and Britain, France was also included). Germany was still being divided by the powers united by a common goal, but relations between them, or, more precisely, between the USSR and the representatives of the “Western world” soon began to deteriorate rapidly. At the same time, none of them had any intention of giving up their German share in favor of the enemy. Each side initially hoped to bring Germany completely under their control.
As early as 1946, the occupation zones (and Berlin’s sectors) were joined by the United States and Great Britain (the resulting entity was called Bisonia, but not after the bison, but from the Latin bi, for “two”). In 1948, France joined them (resulting in “Trizonia”), and a year later, the processes of political and economic separation from the Soviet Union led to the inevitable. On May 23, 1949, the Western powers unilaterally declared the creation of a new state on the territory of “Trizonia” – so the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) appeared. At the same time in the constitution of the FRG it was officially enshrined the desire to further include the Soviet zone of occupation in its composition.
Of course, Joseph Stalin and the German Communists who returned from Moscow and came to power in the east of the country could not be enthusiastic about this idea. After a little over four months, socialism struck back – the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was proclaimed on October 7, 1949. Thus, the division of Germany, which had lasted for 40 years, was formalized.
However, with all this formal and de facto formation of two separate countries with two governments and two opposite economic systems for another three years, the border between them remained virtually transparent. That is, any German could easily cross the demarcation line between West Germany and the GDR and suddenly turn from socialism into capitalism (of course, in rare cases there were also reverse stories). It was not until 1952 that this misunderstanding was corrected at Stalin’s invaluable personal instruction: the demarcation line, which had existed only on maps, began to turn into a full-fledged border that separated the most equitable of worlds from ideological enemies with all their temptations.
But the main paradox remained. West Berlin, the three allied sectors, still existed on GDR territory, and the Soviet Union was obliged under the Potsdam agreements to provide free access there from the FRG.
It was something incredible. In the middle of a country at the forefront of the socialist camp was an exclave of the capitalist enemy, where, in principle, absolutely any East German could enter. The public transport system was still unified, that is, a certain Franz could leave his apartment on Karl-Marx-Allee, the parade route of East Berlin, take the normal subway, ride a few stations, and get off at Kurfürstendamm, the sightseeing street of West Berlin. Moreover, this same Franz could easily go to West Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport, buy a plane ticket and fly to Germany, which was outrageous and rendered the border meaningless.
The GDR leadership had to put up with this state of affairs while it was building a new railroad bypass around West Berlin. Socialist Germany could not afford to close the transit traffic of its trains through Allied sectors, but as soon as the long-awaited bypass was ready, the German Communists stopped being liberal.
The “Anti-Fascist Defensive Shaft”
Under the wise leadership of Walter Ulbricht and Wilhelm Pick, the GDR began to build a classical model of socialism with state-owned enterprises and collective farms. In the FRG, Konrad Adenauer and Ludwig Erhard chose the dead-end path of capitalism (according to the communists, of course), but somehow achieved impressive success in it. In a historically short period – by the end of the 1950s, the economy of West Germany was once again the largest in Europe (despite the fact that a large part of the country was part of the GDR). East Germans saw this Wirtschaftswunder (“economic miracle”) and understood it all. By 1961, the progressive German state of workers and peasants had left in the direction of the FRG 3.5 million people, about 20% of its population, and these were for the most part the best cadres of engineers, doctors, teachers and skilled workers. A lot of young people also went there (starting from 1952, mostly via West Berlin). The “brain drain” took a disastrous turn: in 1959, 144,000 people left the GDR. In 1960, 199,000 left, and within seven months of 1961, 207,000 East Germans left. Naturally, the leadership of the party and government did not intend to tolerate it. In addition, Berlin became the spy capital of Europe. The degree of confrontation between the USSR and capitalist countries after May 1960, when the American U-2 with Francis Gary Powers at the helm was shot down in the skies near Sverdlovsk, grew steadily.
As soon as the isolation of West Berlin became technically possible, permission was obtained in Moscow, and that very day came quite unexpectedly for the civilians of the city.
The order to isolate West Berlin was signed by Walter Ulbricht, first secretary of the SED Central Committee, on Saturday, August 12, 1961, and immediately after midnight a cordon of military personnel and members of voluntary “battle groups” of East German companies began to appear on the borders of the American, British and French sectors. On Sunday morning the inhabitants of the city, who as usual wanted to go to the socialist or capitalist part of Berlin, were no longer able to do so. The usual means of transport were also blocked: the S-Bahn (city railroad) and the U-Bahn (subway).
The original fence was quite symbolic: spirals of barbed wire were simply laid along the demarcation line. Sometimes the border was formed by ordinary houses. In these early days, some East Berliners were still able to escape to the west. The most famous example was that of 19-year-old Hans Konrad Schumann. On 15 August 1961, he stood guard at the perimeter of West Berlin and seized an opportunity to jump over the wire fence and rushed to a nearby police car. A photographer from the west did not hesitate and snapped a photo of the entire process. Soon this footage became famous as a symbol of the advent of a new era.
The Berlin Wall: the history of creation and fall
The Berlin Wall is the most iconic border fortification in the history of the twentieth century. This fence became a symbol of the separation of two worlds and the division of Europe into opposing political blocs. To this day, the specter of the Berlin Wall haunts the world.
What led to the emergence of the Berlin Wall
The construction of the Berlin Wall is a direct consequence of the global confrontation that began after World War II. This confrontation is known to the public as the Cold War. Let’s look at how the events that led to the construction of the Berlin Wall unfolded.
- 1945 – After the defeat of Nazi Germany, Berlin was divided into four zones of occupation. The eastern zone was controlled by the Soviet Union, while the three western zones were controlled by the United Kingdom, the United States, and France.
- June 1948 – the French, U.S. and British zones of occupation in Germany are united. This is followed by the beginning of the blockade of West Berlin by the Soviet Union.
- May 23, 1949 – the proclamation of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) in the territory controlled by the Western Allies.
- October 7, 1949 – The German Democratic Republic (GDR) is proclaimed in the territory under Soviet control.
- 1952 – beginning of strengthening the borders of the GDR. The border with West Berlin remains open, so those who wished to leave East Germany went there.
- 1957 – The FRG introduces the Halstein Doctrine, which entails breaking off relations with any country that recognizes the GDR.
- 1958 – Nikita Khrushchev announces the abolition of Berlin’s international status.
- 1960 – The GDR imposes restrictions on German citizens’ visits to East Berlin.
- August 12, 1961 – The border between the GDR and West Berlin is closed.
- August 13, 1961 – All crossing points are closed and the barbed wire fence is installed. The closure of the border began at 01.00. At that time, nearly 25,000 members of “battle groups” occupied the border line. In the documents, the project appears under the name “Chinese Wall II”.
In 1945-1961. 3.5 million people left the GDR, which was about 20% of the population of East Germany. Higher wages in the FRG encouraged GDR citizens to migrate to the West. The outflow of population from the East was the main catalyst for the creation of the Berlin Wall. In addition, GDR authorities often complained about “provocative” border violations and the activities of anti-communist groups.
Historians are still arguing about how the idea and scheme for the division of Berlin originated. German researcher Martin Zabrow believes that the main initiator of the wall was the then GDR leader Walter Ulbricht, who explained his proposal as saving East Germany. The old politicians put all the responsibility on the Soviet Union, thus absolving themselves of the blame.
The Construction of the Wall
The construction of the wall began on August 15, 1961. The barrier was built of concrete blocks and hollow bricks. The construction was guarded by the frontier guards. Officially the wall was called “antifascist protective rampart”.
Remarkably, on the day construction of the wall began, 19-year-old border guard Konrad Schumann jumped over the barrier at his section, becoming the first refugee from the GDR after the border was officially closed. A year later, 18-year-old builder Peter Fechter attempted the same feat, but was shot and killed on the spot.
By 1989, the Berlin Wall has become a complex complex of 155 kilometers of concrete fence.
The length of the fence under electric power was 127.5 kilometers. The height of the wall reached 3.6 meters.
The border fortification was rebuilt several times. At first it was made of stone, then of reinforced concrete. The last large-scale reconstruction took place in 1975.
Special checkpoints were established for foreigners and citizens of the FRG. Residents of the GDR were not allowed to cross the border. The border guards were instructed to shoot anyone who tried to cross the wall illegally.
Despite the strict controls, escapes continued. Sewer pipes and digging tunnels were used for this purpose. One of these tunnels was 12 meters deep and 140 meters long. Planes and balloons were also used to escape.
In 1965, the Holzapfel family climbed to the roof of a building in East Berlin and threw down a rope. On the other side of the border, the rope was caught by refugee relatives and held until everyone descended into West Berlin.
According to Russian researchers, the attempt to cross the wall killed 192 people, about 200 were wounded and more than 3,000 arrested. More than 5,000 successful escapes have been recorded.
The Fall of the Berlin Wall
Long before the destruction of the famous barrier, postcards with the slogan, “The Wall must be taken down!” were being sold in West Berlin. In the 1980s, political leaders from various countries called for the destruction of the wall. Thus, in 1987, during a speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate, American President Ronald Reagan appealed to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to destroy the wall.
Reasons for the fall of the Berlin wall
The fate of the wall was decided by the democratic changes that began in the countries of the socialist commonwealth in the mid-1980s. Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies played a key role in these events. The authorities of the FRG, in turn, began to attempt to unify Germany. Negotiations between Germany and the Soviet Union began in 1988.
The easing of the border regime between Austria and Hungary in the spring of 1989 was the first indication that the wall was about to break down.
Recall that Hungary was part of the Warsaw Pact bloc, one of the main opposing sides in the Cold War. During the summer of 1989, 10,000 GDR citizens migrated through the territory of Hungary to the Federal Republic of Germany.
In October 1989, the fall of the Soviet regime in the GDR was announced. On November 9, the new government announced that it could cross the border without hindrance.
How it happened
GDR citizens could obtain visas on November 10, but as early as the evening of November 9, thousands of Germans headed for the border. At first, the border guards tried to push back the crowd, but were forced to open the border. On the other side of the wall, thousands of Germans had gathered. What was happening resembled a mass holiday, so it is November 9 is considered the date of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
About 2 million citizens of the GDR visited West Berlin during the 10-12 November. The wall did not come down in one day. First, the barrier was dismantled to create more crossing points. And the Berliners came with their tools to pick up pieces of the wall as a memento.
The official dismantling began in the summer of 1990.
The border fortifications around Berlin were removed in two years.
What’s left of the Berlin Wall
Fragments of the Berlin Wall are scattered around the city. Not only where the border was, but also in various museum exhibits. The remains of the once fearsome structure have become a tourist attraction. Let’s list the most famous of them.
Berlin Wall Memorial Complex
This is one of the few surviving sections of the Berlin Wall. It is located near the Bernauer Strasse subway station. The memorial covers 1.4 km of the former border line.
In addition to the border structures, the monument to the partition of the city and the Chapel of Remembrance, dedicated to the people who died trying to escape to West Berlin, can be seen here. There is also an information center with an exhibition of artifacts.
Exposition on Potsdamer Platz
During the existence of the GDR, Potsdamer Platz was divided by the Berlin Wall. The authorities decided to keep some concrete slabs with inscriptions and graffiti. Information boards are situated next to them.
East Side Gallery.
In 1990, an open-air gallery, nowadays known as the East Side Gallery, was opened on a section of the Berlin Wall on Mühlenstrasse. It presents an artistic reflection of many political events of the twentieth century.
The length of the gallery is 1,316 m. In addition to the paintings and graffiti, there are many inscriptions that convey the atmosphere of the fall of the wall.
This is the border checkpoint at Friedrichstrasse 43-45, erected after the partition of the city. Checkpoint Charlie was not only a checkpoint, but also a place of exchange for spies and military officials. It now houses a museum.
The fall of the Berlin Wall was an event that marked a monumental change in the world. It is true that the geopolitical problems symbolized by this structure have not disappeared. This proves once again how difficult it is for humanity to heed the lessons of history, no matter how illustrative they may be.