“Nobody has the intention of building a wall” East Germany’s head of state Walter Ulbricht, said in East Berlin on June 15, 1961. On August 12 of that same year, the government of the Soviet-backed German Democrat Republic, or “GDR” as East Germany was officially known, started to build what they called the “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart”. At first, it was a guarded barbed wire fence which later became a massive concrete barrier that cut off West Berlin, a Capitalist island moored deep in the Communist heart of the GDR, along a 111.9-kilometre border.
By the time the Wall went up, Germany had become two separate and ideologically opposed states – West and East Germany. Berlin, though surrounded by the rest of East Germany, was divided in two and was shared as the capital by both sides. The inner German border was closed in 1952 and Berlin remained as the main route for disaffected East Germans to emigrate to the West. The construction closed that loophole and cemented the nation’s split by a 106-kilometre-long and 3.6-metre-tall concrete segment that came to be known simply as “the Wall”.
To make sure the East and West Berliners could not easily meet and greet each other, it was guarded by 302 towers. The East German government issued shoot-to-kill orders to their border guards, all of whom were hiding in 20 fortified bunkers along the Wall. A wide area preceding the Wall known as the “death strip” made it easy for the guards to target and shoot defectors who were attempting the breach the Wall.
Berlin’s complex public transit networks, the S-Bahn and U-Bahn, were divided. Some lines were cut in half and many stations were shut down. Once the anti-vehicle trenches and other defences were completed the full physical separation was finalised. The Wall divided friends, families, and loved ones and triggered many personal stories, dramas, and tragedies.
The main purpose of the Wall was to stop the exodus of East Germans fleeing to the West. The emigrants tended to be young and well-educated. By leaving, they undermined the GDR’s economy and caused reputational damage to the Communist system. Before the Wall, 3.5 million East Germans defected to the West by first moving into West Berlin.
By August 1961, however, that path to freedom was sealed off by the Wall.
The limited connections between the two parts of one city were through a number of fortified and heavily guarded border crossings. These allowed visits by West Berliners and other Westerners into East Berlin. Visits by East Germans and citizens of other Communist countries into West Berlin were restricted and required special permits that were hard to get. The most famous was the checkpoint at the corner of Friedrichstraße and Zimmerstraße known as Checkpoint Charlie. New crossings were later opened to allow West Berlin waste to be transported into East German dumps.
The West referred to the Wall as the “Wall of Shame”, a term coined by West Berlin’s Mayor Willy Brandt, one of the key German politicians during the era of the Wall. Brandt had turned the city from an isolated Capitalist exclave into the West’s showcase window display. It was the first thing East Germans saw when coming to West Berlin from their cold, grey existence behind the Iron Curtain. As Chancellor, Brandt later famously told East Germans, “Above all, don’t shoot at your fellow countrymen!”
Serving as a physical barrier to defection from the East, the Wall ideologically divided Germany and the world. The GDR’s leaders described the West as Fascist. The Soviets’ view of the West was more moderate, but the two camps had to assume and say the worst about each other. The Wall came to symbolise the Iron Curtain – the ideological divide that went through the hearts and minds of millions of people on the two sides of the barrier. Until November 9, 1989, a person’s worldviews, education, opportunities, and fortunes were likely determined by which side the of the Iron Curtain you were born in.
Not everyone in the East accepted their destiny – 5,000 people successfully defected to West Berlin by illegally crossing the border. Some of those escapes were incredibly creative as daring. The number of people who died trying to cross the Wall has been estimated at well over 200, with at least 140 being confirmed.
The GDR had always been a satellite of the Soviet Union, which after World War II was the occupying power in eastern Germany. Particularly in the country’s Communist circles, many saw the Soviets as their friends. For the Soviet Union, the GDR was its key outpost in Europe. It also served as a military buffer – the Soviets had 800 military garrisons there with half a million soldiers.
That concrete barrier in the middle of Europe had a personal meaning for me, just as it had for many others. I was born in Ukraine in 1968 when it was the Soviet Union. I escaped from there in my 20s. My girlfriend at the time was German and her family was split, living on both sides of the Wall. Starting in 1965, only elderly pensioners could travel and move to the West, and even though the visits of relatives for important family matters were also allowed, young East Germans were typically not allowed to leave their country.
In the 1980s, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev proposed changes to the Soviet system and many East Germans were looking at Gorbachev’s reforms with the hope that changes would come to their own country. At that time, however, the GDR was led by the Eastern Bloc’s most hardline head-of-state, Erich Honecker, a retrograde Communist Party boss who refused to introduce any sort of reforms in East Germany. Honecker led of the GDR for more than 18 years before he was eventually forced to resign in 1989, just prior to the Wall coming down, after failing to heed Gorbachev’s warning that East Germany needed even more openness and structural reform than the Soviet Union.
No one who woke up 30 years ago ever expected to see people tearing down the Wall. That day, the East German government was to announce the easing of travel regulations for citizens of the GDR. Evidently, not being properly briefed, the newly appointed spokesman hesitantly announced, “It comes into effect immediately” while forgetting to mention that “it” was supposed to include a lengthy visa application process.
When GDR officials attempted to backtrack on the announcement and called on citizens to queue at the migration office, it was too late. Crowds of East Germans arrived at the Wall to find confused guards who were still under orders to shoot lost control and opened the barriers. United, East and West Germans celebrated that night, hugging, singing, and dancing on the Wall. Willy Brandt summed up the moment when he said the next morning, “What belongs together will grow together.”
Since the fall of the Wall, Berlin has been the fastest-changing and trendiest European cities. It is one of the world’s most inspirational hangouts for artists and a magnet for young people and start-ups.
The Berlin Wall Memorial, located on the strip of the former border, explains the history of the city’s division and also pays tribute to the victims of Communist regime. Another part of the Wall has been turned into what is known as East Side Gallery – the 1,316 metre long, open-air art gallery on the banks of the Spree. It is the longest continuous section of the Berlin Wall still in existence and a place where artists comment on political changes with their art.
There is also a certain nostalgia for the Wall and for how simple the world had been when it was defined by the Wall. A recent survey showed that every third Berliner considers the building of the Wall to have been “not wrong”. Actors dressed as border guards pose for pictures with tourists and old East German Trabant cars shuttling visitors between Cold War-era sites.
Geopolitically, East Berlin was the furthest that Moscow was ever able to extend into Europe. Since the fall of the Wall, the former Warsaw Pact countries, the Baltics, and Ukraine all pushed for and gained independence. Their movement westward ultimately broke the Soviet Union. Russia has, as a result, lost its buffer against the West and its national strategy now is to move its frontier as far into Europe as possible and for Ukraine to become Moscow’s key ally in the process.
The West does not have the option of assuming that Russia’s interests comes from good intentions or will stop in Ukraine. To paraphrase writer P.S. Baber: There are four kinds of people in the world. Those who build walls. Those who protect walls. Those who breach walls. And those who tear them down.
Even though the Wall fell 30 years ago, many non-physical and ideological boundaries that divide Europe still remain, despite the world having become more complex. The Wall’s history and the stories of people desperately trying to cross over it to freedom, as well as the diversity and exuberance of today’s Berlin, inspire the hope that human progress is irreversible.
As one of the art pieces on a section of the Wall at the East Side Gallery states: “Many small people, who in many small places do many small things, can alter the face of the world.”