The Idiots Guide to Everything: The Berlin Wall

Posted on September 13, 2012




            The Berlin Wall. There aren’t many more things in the recent history of man that are remembered with such hostility, so much so that people look back and think, ‘just what was that all about?’. How could a city, a European capital city no less, be physically divided so easily and so quickly by a wall? What made the leadership of East Germany so desperate to cut itself off, so desperate to create this rampart? What was the opinion of the west, and why didn’t they do more than the odd speech in an attempt to assist the cut off people of West Berlin? Read on, young padowan.


After World War 2, Berlin held a unique status in the world. It was a city that was half controlled by the western allies of the United States, Great Britain and France, but it lay in the middle of Soviet occupied East Germany. It stood as a focal point for international tensions in the cold war, as the two opposing ideologies lived side by side, capitalism next door to communism. As with many of the countries in eastern Europe at the time, political and economical conditions in East Germany (GDR) were bleak, to say the least. Forced collectivization of agriculture and repression of private trade had left the people poor and ever more looking towards the west. More and more people were defecting the west via the open door of West Berlin, and it is thought that as many as 3 million managed to escape in this manner before the building of the wall. In the first 8 months of 1961 alone, around 160,000 East Germans fled. With its economy in serious danger and a constant flow of brain power. The population was shrinking, and something had to be done.


The Soviet leadership had long seen West Berlin as a disease, as a malignant tumour in the middle of the socialist east. The leader of the GDR at the time, Walter Ulbricht, had been in discussion with Nikita Kruschev for a time about the possibility of strengthening the border, of making it harder and harder for East Berliners to defect. International politics were incredibly tense at the time, and Krushchev had been long demanding that the western allies left West Berlin. The idea of wall had been bandied about for a while, and in the summer of 1961, permission was finally given to the GDR to begin construction. In the early hours of Sunday, August 13th 1961, the GDR acted.  Streets were torn up, barricades were erected throughout the city and many public transport lines were disturbed. Thousands of friends and families were instantly torn apart, as East Berliners were no longer able to head west, including around 60,000 commuters. In total, a makeshift wall crossing around 160km was put up around West Berlin, and within weeks this makeshift wall had become more elaborate and almost impenetrable. Whilst the GDR called the wall the ‘Anti-Fascist Protection Wall’ (Antifaschisticker Schutzwall), it was clear for the world to see that it was designed to keep the population of East Germany within its own borders, to prevent massive emigration and defection to the west.


How did the West respond to this dramatic and drastic action? Far from being angered and completely against the construction as would be expected, the leaders of the Allies were secretly pleased with its construction. Kennedy in particular was not overly bothered by it. In many ways, it solved the problem of Berlin. The reaction of the west was non existent, because the three main policy essentials of Berlin were not affected. These being the presence of Allied troops, free access to Berlin and the self determination of West Berlin. Because these three main points were not affected, the west allowed the wall to be established and to evolve. And evolve it did.


In May 1971, Eric Honecker (former head of the STASI) took over East Germany, and set about making the country even tougher to escape from. In the first 12 months of the wall, 20 people were killed attempting to escape. People were still managing somehow to get across, with increasingly clever methods. Honecker made steps to put an end to this once and for all, and devised an almost evil obstacle course for would be escapees. The wall itself was replaced with a new wall made up of L shaped concrete segments that were 4 metres high, topped with a smooth concrete tube that was impossible to grip. Behind this was an illuminated control area, klnown as the death strip. This included trenches to stop vehicles and excessive amounts of barbed wire. The area was also heavily mined, and there was a corridor with rabid dogs. The area was covered in sand, which showed all the footprints of escapees. This was as much for the guards as the escapees, as it made it impossible for a guard to turn the other cheek when someone attempted to defect. The guards were set in watchtowers that flanked the area, with instructions to shoot to kill on sight. If anyone managed to make it this far, there was then a second wall to scale before freedom could be achieved. It was not only the wall that evolved as a desperate security measure at this time. The STASI itself was greatly expanded, so as to stop attempted escapes before they were even set in motion. The STASI ended up involving one in every seven East German citizens, making if one of, if not the most comprehensive and successful secret police organization in history.


Contrary to popular belief however, the majority of people did not see themselves as being trapped within the borders of their own country. Mostly, they were envious of other countries ability to travel. This did not mean the wall was welcomed, and the wall was almost constantly covered in all manner of graffiti, giving it the famous look that everyone recognises to this day.


By the early 1980’s, despite the aims of the wall, the GDR was bankrupt and looking for any ways that it could make some sort of money. This led to the country actually selling dissidents to the west, to stop the annoyance that their constant escape attempts gave the country. Loans and cash came in, but this didn’t change the desperate financial position that the GDR found itself in. Some of the obstacles in the death strip started to be removed. At the same time however, a new super wall was planned, that would include automatic guns and all manner of new electronic detection devices, ruling out the chance of human error. As with most things in the east, everything changed in 1985 when Mikhael Gorbachev took over the Soviet Union and began to set in place talks of peace and reform.


With these history changing reforms came the relaxing of border restrictions in Eastern Europe. When neighbouring Hungary opened its borders in 1989, there was a huge amount of Eastern Germans who fled the country via this route. The dam was about to break. After weeks of talks, the East Berlin communist leader Gunter Schabowski said that the border would be open for private trips. In what could almost be seen as a slip of the tongue, he said this would come into effect immediately. The onrush began. There was immediate confusion as no one had bothered to inform the border guards, but they could not stop the flood. The wall as a restrictive border between east and west was no more, and East Germany as a state practically disappeared. Less than a year later Germany was reunified, and the wall was confined to the history books.