Cold War and the Berlin Wall
Imagine, if you can, waking up some morning to find a wall running down the center of the main street of your town, cutting your city in half. No one may cross from one side to the other, regardless of family situations, jobs, or schooling. To do so, would be to risk death. Furthermore, imagine that on one side of the wall people are permitted to do all the normal things that free people expect to do, and they may go and come at will. But on the other side many freedoms are taken away from the people.
This is what happened in the city of Berlin, once the proud capital of Germany, in 1961. The Berlin Wall was erected by the Communist government East Germany to keep East German citizens from escaping to the repression that became known as the Wall of Shame. Hundreds of people died trying to cross it. Thousands of lives were disrupted.
Situation after WW II
After WWII Berlin was divided into 4 sectors. The largest sector was the Russian sector. The western sectors belonged to Great Britain, France, and USA. After Nazi Germany surrendered, the 4 allied countries signed a treaty called “the Potsdam Agreement”, which determined the borders for Germany and Berlin.
The Attempt to Strangle Berlin
On June 21, the three Western powers decided to unite their zones into a single unit, with the goal of forming a West German state the following year. In addition, they announced a decision to issue a new West German currency.
Unable to get the Soviets to agree to a single occupation currency for the entire city, and unwilling to use a Soviet-issued currency, the Western powers announced that West German marks would be used in Berlin. Angered, the Soviets introduced a currency of their own into the city on June 23. The next day, they began to impose a blockade on Berlin.
Demanding that all Western troops leave the city, the Soviets shut off all land access to the western sectors. Roads and railways were blocked. Barges could no longer use the canals, and the power lines that carried electricity from East Berlin to the western sectors were turned off. The Soviets were trying to bring Berlin to its knees. West Berlin was an island in communist East Germany. Cut off from all over the world, the western sectors could probably have kept going for no more than six weeks.
The only way to go was up.
On June 26, 1948, planes from all over the world were employed to begin an airlift to fly 8,000 tons of food and other daily necessities to the 2.5 millions West Berliners. Cross sectional view of flight into Berlin as of September 1948.This arrangement allowed for landing at the rate of one plane every 3 minutes. Later, two levels were used with spacing that allowed for landing at the same rate. Goods were sometimes dropped from the air by parachute to save landing time.
By early 1949, the Soviets, realizing that they had failed in their attempt to force the Allies out, were looking for a way to save face. Finally, they agreed to end the blockade. On May 11, 1949, when the Soviets turned the electrical power back on, the lights came on all over Berlin for the first time in more than a year. At midnight on the next day, the Soviets reopened land and water routes into Berlin. However, the airlift continued until September 30 to build a backlog of supplies. The airlift had saved Berlin from Soviet takeover and had taught valueable lessons in air traffic control. Cost of the effort in human lives totaled more than 65 U.S., British, and German personnel, including 31 Americans.
Creation of NATO
To prevent further aggression by the Soviet Union, the North Atlantic treaty Organization (NATO) was created on April 4, 1949. The Charter members included the United States, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Italy, Portugal, Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Greece and Turkey joined in 1952, West Germany in 1955, and Spain in 1982. This was the first time that the United States participated in a defensive alliance during peacetime. The countries banded together to collectively provide national security- Article 5 of the NATO charter states, “The parties shall agree that an armed attack against one or more of them…shall be considered an attack against all of them.” But NATO also promoted political, social, and economic ties among the members.
The blockade also sped the desire of the Western powers to establish an internal government for the western zones of occupation. The Western-occupied territories in Germany adopted a constitution on May 23, 1949, establishing the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), with a multiparty system. And on August 14, 1949, the West Germans voted in national elections for the first time since 1932, with 78% of eligible voters participating. The German Democratic Republic (GDR), or East Germany, was born on October 7, 1949. It was dominated by the Communist Socialist Unity Party (SED).
On paper, the constitution of East Germany was similar to that of West Germany. The authority rule was to lie in the parliament, the People’s Chamber. All citizens over 18 were given the right to vote. But elections in East Germany lost all meaning because the government chose candidates and voters merely came out to demonstrate their “approval.” Participation was often less than voluntary, as many workers were marched to the voting places. The election results were guaranteed. In fact, all important decisions were made by the government, and no dissent was allowed.
With the two governments and their officials in place, the curtain was ready to go upon a difficult forty-year struggle.
The Wall of the Shame
Until August 1961 the border between East and West Germany is opened and daily half a million people cross the border from one part of the city into the other. Many East Berliners go into the cinema or discos in the West. Women get the first seamless panty hoses in the West, tropical fruits are only available there. By early 1961, as many as 1,000 people a day, flee East German communism for a better life in the capitalist West. At the same time, the leaders of the Communist parties meet in Moscow from August 3 until Aug. 5, 1961 and they decide to close the open border between East and West Berlin to “protect citizens of East Germany from capitalism.”
Shortly after midnight on August 13, 1961, police and soldiers in Communist-controlled East Berlin moved swiftly through the streets of the darkened city, taking up positions on roads leading to the West. Within hours, all traffic had been blocked. Trains had stopped running. Telephone connections between East Berlin and the West had been cut. Then, over following weeks and months, a massive concrete and barbed-wire barricade rose along the border between East Berlin and West Berlin. The city of Berlin, once proud capital of Germany, was divided by an impenetrable barrier that was patrolled by day and night by armed soldiers and guard dogs. The wall was unlike any barrier in history. Instead of being built to keep people out, its purpose was to keep people in.
Escape to the West
As the Wall grew higher and higher, the desire of many East Berliners to escape confinement also grew.
The chances of anyone actually getting over the Wall were dismally poor, but those who wanted to be free continued to try.
Jumping to Freedom
One of the first escape methods that Berliners used was to jump out of windows in apartment houses that were directly beside the Wall, landing in the western zone. When East German police boarded up the first-
floor windows in the buildings, people used the second-floor windows. When the second-floor windows were sealed,
escape attempts were made from third- and fourth-floor windows. West Berlin firemen held nets and tried to catch the people as they leaped or
swung with ropes. Some people managed successful jumps, others fell to their deaths.
Climbing the Wall
One of the most dangerous methods to escape was to climb the Wall. At first, people could escape by throwing the rope over the top and hoping it would either catch on something or be caught by a helpful West Berliner. Then the East banned the sale of rope and twine that was strong enough to hold a human being. But attempts to climb the Wall continued. One ingenious butcher strapped bacon, sausage, and veal roasts around his body and hurled himself over the barbed wire the barbed wire. His wares acted wares acted as a protective shield, absorbing bullets
One of the most well known people who tried to get over was Peter Fetcher, age 18, who tried to climb over the wall on August 17, 1962. A border guard saw him and started to shoot. He reached the top, but he was unable to lift his body over the barbed wire, and for a minute, he remained crouched on the Wall, unable to go farther. Then he toppled back on the wrong side and lay there bleeding. West Berliners who had seen Peter on the top of the Wall rushed to the area, but they could do nothing to save him. The West Berlin police and the U.S. guards at Checkpoint Charlie nearby could not help because they were forbidden to set foot in the East. Newspaper reporters and photographers joined the crowd, some people even tried to climb the Wall, but the guards threw tear gas into the crowd. Tension was mounting. People shouted at the East German and American guards to do something. One U.S. lieutenant said to the crowd, “Sorry, but this isn’t our problem.”
After Peter’s death, riots broke out in West Berlin. Stones, bottles, and bits of scrap metal were thrown at the East German border guards, but the incident also negatively influenced the attitudes that many Berliners had about the Americans.
Under the Wall
The first underground escape route was the sewers of Berlin. During 1961, a number of people fled by groping through a network of sewer lines that ran under the border. However, the East German police located all the sewer manholes and cemented them shut.
After that a large network of tunnels was built. They were dug mostly by college students but many people used them. The first known successful tunnel was dug in a grave yard. People brought flowers to a grave, then they would drop out of sight and would never be seen on this side of wall again. The route worked well until a woman in one of the groups took her baby but left the baby’s carriage outside. Guards spotted the carriage sitting outside the tomb, became suspicious, and found the tunnel. They destroyed it with a demolition charge.
Tunnels were built all over town. As soon as one was discovered, another one was started. However, tunneling also created a new but contemptible enterprise. Some tunnel builders began to charge each escapee large sums of money, while others would agree to help people escape and then betray them to the East German police.
Escape by Water
Berlin’s canals and rivers were still open to navigation, and at first they provided a perfect escape route. One group of people, which included several people who could not how to swim, used inflated tubes to cross the Teltow Canal just two days after the border was closed. They made so much noise that it was believed that the guards had simply pretended not to see them. But the next day, searchlights and machine guns were installed at different points along the canal and its branches. And a motorboat, equipped with a searchlight, began to patrol the waters.
Through the Air
Escape by air was more common outside the city, in remote rural areas where people could fly into West Germany without attracting attention. In the early 1970’s, Barry Meeker, an American helicopter pilot, flew three missions into East Germany to bring refugees out. Flying at treetop level to avoid radar, he revved up his speed and roared past the guard towers along the border. He managed to get several people out before he was wounded on his third and final mission.
Through the Wall
In December 1961, a train engineer stowed his family and some of his friends on a train and drove it right through the last stop in East Berlin and onto the West. The East Germans then tore up the tracks near the border, closing off this escape route.
Other people used trickery to get through the Wall. An East Berlin woman brought flowers to the guards and then, as she handed the bouquet over, turned and bolted for the border.
A guard ran after her, shouting for her to stop-and escaped to the West himself.
One of the most ingenious escapes was accomplished by a young photographer. He convinced the Soviet authorities that this date, twelfth anniversary of the founding of the East German Democratic Republic, might be fittingly observed by paying tribute to the border guards who were so effectively performing their duties in protecting East Berlin from Western spies and saboteurs. He arranged that a group of attractive women would be photographed at Checkpoint Charlie, in the act of presenting bouquets of flowers to the guard. He snapped one photograph after another and with each picture moved closer and closer to the white line marking the border. Just as the guard called out to him, “Be careful that you don’t step across the line!” he turned and ran into the West.
“I am a Berliner”
Construction of the Wall was completed in 1963, and West Berlin was sealed off. In June of that year, President John F. Kennedy flew into the city. Torn paper, rice, and flowers showered from windows and rooftops as the president’s limousine made its way through the city. People stood on the top of automobiles and buses, clung to lampposts, and climbed trees to
catch sight of the U.S. president. No American leader had ever been greeted with such joy and obvious popularity. After his inspecting the Wall from on the top of a platform at Checkpoint Charlie, he made a speech to the large crowd. He entranced himself by saying: “All free men, wherever they 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).
Every U.S. president after him dutifully visited Berlin, and in 1987, R. Reagan asked Gorbachev “to open the Brandenburg Gate.”
The years between building the Wall and the 1980s also saw changes in politics and leaders, both in the West and the Communist world.
West Berlin continued to hold the status of both a city and a state of West Germany. But it was not fully a part of West Germany because four Allied powers remained in occupation. The Western Allies would not sign a treaty that would formally end their occupation, because to do so, they would have to recognize East Berlin as a separate country with Berlin as its capital. However, by the end of 1973, sixty-eight countries had established full diplomatic relations with East Germany. Others would follow suit.
Soon even the United States was dealing with East Germany.
Helmut Kohl became chancellor of West Germany in 1982 and helped lead his country out of a recession. By the mid-1980-s, it had emerged as one of the richest countries in the world.
In 1985, Michail Gorbachev was chosen first secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. He introduced two policies that, he said, would bring new life to the country and turn economy around. The first was glasnost (openness). After years of repression, the Soviet people could criticize their government, strict emigration control was relaxed, new literary magazines began to appear on the scene, and the theater and the arts began to thrive once again. People also began to learn more about their own country and the outside world.
Gorbachev’s second policy was perestroika, or restructuring. It encompassed a range of economic, political, and social reforms. Taken together, these changes would vastly reduce the central government control of the economy, even permitting a measure of private enterprise. And they would involve Soviet citizens more directly in their government, bringing a measure of democracy to the country. When Gorbachev said openly that people would no longer be persecuted for their political beliefs, his words sparked hope in many Eastern European countries. In 1989, Poland’s freest elections in half a century led to a new government that included Communist and Solidarity members. Hungary, too, was taking steps toward greater economic and political freedom.
Then, in mid-1989, Hungary became the first Soviet-bloc country to open its borders with the West. East Germans, who were permitted to travel to Communist-ruled states such as Hungary, suddenly found an escape route. From Hungary, they could travel freely to neutral Austria and then to West Germany.
In September 1989, East Germans formed a group called New Forum to challenge the Communist political monopoly, and they began to hold weekly demonstrations in the city of Leipzig. In early November, more than 500,000 people took part in a peaceful march that ended in East Berlin’s Alexanderplatz. The Fall of the Wall
On the evening of November 9, the government abruptly announced that thee border between East and West Germany- and between East and West Berlin- would be opened. In East Berlin, people began to go to the Wall to see if that what they had heard was true. It was. Within two hours of the announcement, the trickle of people was turned into jubilant crowd.
By midnight, thousands of East Berliners were walking, biking, or driving to cross points in the Wall and entering the western half of the city-something that just a few hours earlier, they could only a dream of. The celebrations continued all through the night and into the morning. People began to dance on the top of the Wall. Others blew trumpets, embraced, and laughed while tears streamed down their faces. The ringing of chisels and hammers could be heard as people began to chip away at the once-impregnable barrier.
The Next Step
Reunification would be no simple matter. The Germans had to unscramble two separate governments, coordinate telephone and rail systems, and understand the entirely different philosophies that had guided East and West. While the West was enjoying a healthy economy and a high standard of living, the East Germans had lived much more modestly. The average monthly income in West Germany was more than 3,000 West German marks, while in East Germany it was less than 1,300 East German marks. For example, only seven percent of East Germans had telephones in their homes, compared with ninety-eight percent of West Germans. Prices for food and other goods were also radically different in the two Germanys. Late in 1989, Chancellor Kohl outlined a ten-point plan to produce a confederation of East and West Germany. It began with aid for East Germany. After a freely elected government was installed in the East, the two countries would move toward economic and political union. One Germany, One Berlin
In February 1990, World War II Allies agreed to hold talks about the reunification of Germany. At midnight on October 3, 1990, as the flag of the Federal Republic of Germany was unfurled in front of the Reichstag building in Berlin, East Berlin formally became part of West Germany.
The question remains: Can people of the world cooperate to prevent future generations from going through the pain that Berlin suffered?.
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Epler, Doris M., THE BERLIN WALL, Brookfield: The Millbrook Press, 1992 -
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