With the aim of preventing East Germans from seeking asylum in the West, the East German government in 1961 began constructing a system of concrete and barbed-wire barriers between East and West Berlin. This Berlin Wall endured for nearly thirty years, a symbol not only of the division of Germany but of the larger conflict between the Communist and non-Communist worlds. The Wall ceased to be a barrier when East Germany ended restrictions on emigration in November 1989.
The Wall was largely dismantled in the year preceding the reunification of Germany.
The victorious Allies agreed to give most of Eastern Germany to Poland and the USSR, and then divide the rest into four zones of occupation. However, they could not agree of whether or how to reunite the four zones. “As Cold War tensions grew, stimulated in part by the German situation itself, the temporary dividing line between the Soviet zone in the East and the British, French, and U.
S. zones in the West hardened into a permanent boundary.
In 1949, shortly after the Western powers permitted their zones to unite and restore parliamentary democracy in the Federal Republic of Germany, the Russians installed a puppet regime of German Communists in the East, creating the German Democratic Re-public.”(Niewyk, 1995) According to Galante (1965, p.
vii) “a city is the people who live in it. Berlin is 3,350,000 people in twenty boroughs. A rich city of factories, an airy city of farms and parks and woods and lakes…On Sunday, August 13, 1961 Herr Walter Ulbricht stopped that. He built the Wall.
” One reason for the building of the Wall was due to the more than fifty-two thousand East Berliners who crossed the border everyday to work in West Berlin. These people were referred to as the “grenzgaenger or border crossers.” “East Berliners said the grenzgaenger were parasite who should stay and work on the East side of the boundary, for the benefit of Communism and the prosperity of the German Democratic Republic.”(Galante, p.
3) Gelb (1986, p.3) states, “Berlin was where the Cold War began with a Soviet blockade, where Soviet and American tanks faced each other virtually snout-to-snout for the first time, and where the grisly game of nuclear brinkmanship was introduced.” The Wall was constructed of concrete and steel and barbed wire. It was 28 miles long, if straightened it would measure 103 miles long, dividing on of the greatest cities in the world.
On side was painted white and one side was covered with graffiti. “But there is more to the Wall than just this wall. Behind it, one hundred yards deeper into Communist territory, is another concrete barrier almost as formidable. The leveled area between the two is a desolate, dangerous no-man’s-land, patrolled by kalashnikov-toting guards, dotted with free-fire machine-gun emplacements, and sown in places with landmines.
It is punctuated with 285 elevated watchtowers, more suited to prison camps than city centers, and by a series of dog runs where ferocious, long leashed Alsatians effectively run free. It is not a safe place to be.”(Gelb, p.4) Approximately 5000 people managed to escape to the West, 80 died trying.
There is no known record of anyone trying to escape in the other direction. “The poor quality and construction is a result both of the speed with which the first sections were erected and the fact that no foundation was prepared.”(Galante, p.8) On August 13, 1961, East German troops began stretching coils of barbed wire across the border checkpoints between East and West Berlin, inhibiting free transit between the two sectors as guaranteed under the Four-Power Pact that governed the city.
Within days the wire was replaced by 28 miles of compressed rubble, “and now the historic Berlin Wall became a hideous symbol of the economic and political schism in Germany.”(Cate, preface) For 28 years the Berlin Wall kept people in, and kept people out. It separated friend and family. It divided a nation, a continent, a world.
The story of seventeen-year-old Ursula Heinemann who “still had not recovered from the shock of being separated from her mother. Although she was certain that she had done the right thing in escaping to the West, she was nagged by a sense of guilt.”(Cate,(1978), p.3) Many people saw the Wall as “grim and forbidding, the Wall snakes the city of Berlin like the backdrop to a nightmare.
“(Gelb, p.3) After the Wall came down, East German teachers had to plan new curricula more in line with the schools in the West. “For now, the opportunities were less notable than the problems. Thousands of East German emigrants were already sleeping in West German army barracks, nursing homes, high-school gymnasiums, and even converted cargo containers.
“(Anderson,(1989), p.33) The first cracks came in May, when the Hungarian government opened its border with Austria. East German officials were furious because this meant that East German refugees now had a new route to freedom. Up to 2 million of East Germany’s 16.
5 million were ready to flee if the chance was offered. As reform spread across Eastern Europe, the Stalinist regime of Erich Honecker refused to budge. In January, Honecker said the Wall would stand for a hundred years. When Soviet leader Gorbachev visited East Berlin he tried to convince Honecker to accept liberalization, Honecker still stood strong to his beliefs.
Demonstrations erupted throughout Germany, with thousands taking to the streets demanding a share of Gorbachev’s restructuring, and the right to travel. Violent police attacks on demonstrators only fueled the people’s anger and brought hundreds of thousands more into the streets. Czechoslovakia opened its border for East Germans traveling to the West, and 30,000 refugees emigrated in 48 hours. On November 7, the entire East German cabinet resigned, on the 8th, the Communist Party Politburo and Central Committee resigned.
And on the 9th the Wall came down at the stoke of midnight. When the news of the Wall reached the West German parliament, “the legislators spontaneously burst into patriotic song.”(Bornstein,(1990),p.23) “Exhausted by weeks of political stress in which decades-old policies were reversed daily, overwhelmed by the mobs demanding immediate exit, and noticing Western television crews waiting on the other side, the commanding officers gave way to the masses and opened all the gates.
“(Borneman,(1991), p.2) “Economic union has powerful implications both inside and outside Germany. Rebuilding the East German derelict economy will tie up perhaps $650 billion West German capitol, raising interest rates and very possibly fueling inflation throughout European Community.”(Garrard,(1990), p.
23) On Sunday, 18 March 1990, East Germans held the first free election on their territory since 1933-“the first fully free election in Eastern Europe since the Second World War.”(Borneman, p.229) The wall opened because its reason for existence had disappeared. The East German regime erected it in 1961 to stem the flow of refugees to the West.
In a paradox of history, the same government was forced to open the Wall in a desperate, last-ditch effort to stop an even more massive wave of deflections in 1989. References Borneman, John (1991). After the Wall. U.
S.: Basic Books, Inc. Cate, Curtis (1978). The Ides of August.
New York: M. Evans & Company, Inc. Galante, Pierre (1965). The Berlin Wall.
New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. Gelb, Norman (1986). The Berlin Wall. New York: Times Books.
Bornstein, Jerry (1990). The Wall Came Tumbling Down. New York: Outlet Book Company, Inc. Heaps, W.
A. (1964). The Wall of Shame. New York: Meredith Press.
Niewyk, D.L. (1995). Groliers Multimedia Encyclopedia.
Garrard, Margaret (1989). Facing Up to the German Question Newsweek, pp. 51-52 Anderson, Harry (1989). A Mixed Blessing for Bonn Newsweek, pp.
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