The Berlin Wall

Woman in West Berlin after waiting three hours to see relatives in East Berlin over the wall

One of the grossest ironies of history is that the German Democratic Republic was intended to be a beacon of communist light in Europe, where German workers would be free and prosperous like never before. Instead, only 22 years into its existence the GDR had to build some of the world's heaviest border defenses to keep its own people from fleeing. Between 1949 and 1961 an estimated 2.5 million people left East Germany. In 1961 the Wall was built, and between then and 1989 only an estimated 5,000 people made the same journey. Around 200 more were killed and thousands wounded in the attempt.

When the Allied armies carved up the German Reich at the end of World War II, each controlled a section of the country but also a section of the capital, Berlin, which was deep inside the broader Soviet-controlled territory. After the establishment of the two German states the Americans, British, and French refused to abandon the western part of the city to the Soviets. This enclave became a popular destination for East Germans after the GDR closed off the border between the two German states in 1952. Some sought their families from whom they'd been forcefully separated. Some sought economic and social freedom in the western Federal Republic of Germany.

In 1952 the GDR ringed the Western sector with barbed wire, clearing a no-man's land and uprooting people who lived in the area. Yet they still continued to lose citizens to the FRG through West Berlin until 1961, when construction began on the Berlin Wall. East German border guards were stationed all around with orders to shoot anyone attempting to cross it. Later, a “death strip” was built between the first wall and another wall deeper into GDR territory. Anyone crossing this space would be visible to East German border guards. A siege had begun, initiated by the GDR against its own citizens.


While necessary to stop the loss of enterprising East Germans, the Wall was an embarrassment to the communist world; if communism was such a good idea, why was it necessary to pen citizens in? It is this question President John F. Kennedy asked in his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech:

Freedom has many difficulties, and democracy is not perfect. But we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in—to prevent them from leaving us.

East German border guard

He continued:

While the wall is the most obvious and vivid demonstration of the failures of the Communist system—for all the world to see—we take no satisfaction in it; for it is, as your Mayor has said, an offense not only against history but an offense against humanity, separating families, dividing husbands and wives and brothers and sisters, and dividing a people who wish to be joined together.

In answer to this criticism, communist propaganda referred to the wall as an “antifascist protection barrier,” but even ordinary East Germans saw through this flimsy effort. They were moved when Kennedy pointed out that “one German out of four is denied the elementary right of free men, and that is to make a free choice.”

Peter Fechter

Peter Fechter's last moments
Many of them still sought to make that free choice, and sadly some paid dearly for it. Those trying to cross were shot, and those who survived the shooting were imprisoned. The first casualty of the Berlin Wall was 18-year old Peter Fechter.

Fechter and his friend Helmut Kulbeik attempted a crossing on August 17, 1962, and while Kulbeik was successful Fechter was shot while he was on the wall. He fell back into the death strip, critically injured. He screamed and bled for an hour before dying. Witnesses on each side were prevented from helping him out of fear for the other side; only after he died was his body retrieved by East German border guards.

Eighteen is a young age: hopes and dreams are just beginning to coalesce, and education, family, and career are still in the dim future. Peter Fechter lost his bid to escape the tyranny of the GDR and flourish in the FRG. A memorial now stands in Berlin reading

Peter Fechter
...he only wanted freedom.

Successful Escapes

Not all those bold enough to try to cross were killed. Many clever ways were found to reach West Berlin. These included jumping or gliding on wires from nearby buildings, tunneling, flying in gliders or small planes, driving a low-lying car under a Checkpoint Charlie barrier, and even flying in a homemade hot air balloon.

It's difficult for people in the comfortable West to imagine, but all these escape attempts were made knowing what the penalty was for being discovered: in addition to the guns of the border guards, there were attack dogs and explosive devices planted in the death strip in case the guards missed an escapee. The “antifascist protection barrier” was a grim reminder to East Berliners of how oppressive their communist government was.

Yet 5,000 were still willing and able to reach the freedom of the West across the terrifying wall.

The Fall

The inherent defects of communism made life for ordinary people in communist countries miserable and uncertain. The cruelty of dividing families and friends with the wall was immediately obvious, but it took years before the unsustainability of the political and economic system was as obvious. By the 1980s clandestine cultural imports and underground movements had weakened the already weakening grips communist governments held on their citizens.

On August 23, 1989, Hungary lifted its border restrictions, allowing several thousand East Germans to escape into Austria. This led to mass anti-government demonstrations in the GDR, which in turn led to the resignation of GDR strongman Erich Honecker. His replacement, Egon Krenz, decided to allow appropriately-regulated travel to West Germany. However, his Minister of Propaganda botched the announcement of the instructions on November 9th and declared that GDR citizens were able to visit West Berlin. This was the last straw for the border system: East Berliners swarmed the checkpoints and the overwhelmed border guards were forced to allow them through. The meeting of the East Berliners and West Berliners at the checkpoints is one of the happiest moments in German history.

The end of the Berlin Wall

The government of the GDR was doomed on November 9, 1989. Both East and West Berliners expected free passage for East Berliners, and the government in the East slowly crumbled until October 3, 1990, when the two Germanies were formally reunited, the free West absorbing the decayed communist East.

The German Democratic Republic was founded with great expectations. It would be free and prosperous. It would replace years of exploitation, first by capitalists and then by national socialists, with a justly governed economy. Nobody expected that East Germans would ever have to be caged in, and that people would risk injury, prison, and death for a chance to breathe the free air of West Berlin.


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