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The Berlin wall not only separated a city, but families, ideas and the East and Western worlds. It was no architectural marvel, no proud landmark like the Great Wall of China but for 28 years the Berlin wall became a part of Berlin, Germany and the wider world. It was a profound symbol and became the gateway to the east during the cold war. Today marks 25 years since the fall of the Berlin wall and I for one will be marking it.
Now I could ramble on and on about the history of the Berlin wall. Indeed I have in the drafts I have written for this. For 28 years of history you wouldn’t think there would be so much to write about. I’m 25 and I would struggle to ramble on as I have done, however I will briefly advise of the history as it’s the stories I’m more interested in. The stories of people’s escape. The desire to leave the soviet union, be reunited with their family. These stories are what makes this a fascinating part of our recent history.
After World War II Germany was split up into four between the Soviet Union, America, France and Britain. Berlin was situated deep in the Soviet side and was also split into 4. Later the American, French and British side would join up their segments of Germany and Berlin as part of the rebuilding programme. There was some freedom of movement in Berlin. So why the need for a wall. It all boiled down to the people. The 1950s saw a great number of people leaving East Berlin and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) for West Germany or as it was known the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). 187,000 people fled in 1950 which increased year on year to 331,000 in 1953. The GDR could not survive if it didn’t have a workforce. So Stalin approved plans for a border not any old boarder but a “dangerous one” that Germans should guard with their lives. A barbed wire boarder was put up restricting the flow of traffic but border crossings remained open. Visits from East to West were allowed with passes however people used this loophole to leave for West Germany in fact it increased from 60% of leavers to 90% by 1958. By 1961 3.5 million East Germans had left for the West, around 20% of the GDR’s population.
At midnight on Sunday 13th August Walter Ubricht, then leader of the GDR had signed an order for the creation of a wall, a plan he had argued for previously yet denied any plans to carry it out. It is alleged that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev felt the idea of a physical boarder would allow them to “Squeeze the testicles of the west”. By Morning the police and army of the GDR closed border crossings and began to tear up the road. In its place a barbed wire border with a wooden wall. August 17th and the first elements of a 97 mile long brick wall began to be built around West Berlin. It was built well within the Eastern side so as not to spark tensions between East and West. Soldiers stood in front of the barrier with orders to shoot anyone that crossed. Western Governments did not try to stop the wall. It was a move with no resistance, no casualties and not a single shot fired. A 6 foot concrete wall topped with barbed wire and guard towers became phase one of the wall.
October 1961 saw tensions hit a peak between East and West. Allied Diplomats were given free movement between both sides of Berlin however at Checkpoint Charlie a western diplomat was refused entry to the East. This quickly escalated with tanks from both sides lining the street of Checkpoint Charlie. This event would become known as the “meeting of the tanks.” These superpowers were 250ft apart. For 16 hours the tanks faced each other. The scene unbearably tense. Both sides knowing one accidental shot of a gun could spark chaos. The tanks one by one backed away after talks between the White House and the Kremlin.
Within 12 months of the wall appearing 20 Escapees were killed. One in August 1962, an 18 year old boy, Peter Fechter who was shot in no man’s land spent an hour begging for help but no guard came. He bled to death whilst pleading for his life. Border guards were rewarded for preventing escape attempts with investigations launched into each successful escape which no doubt lead to punishment for border guards found at fault.
March 1962. The Müller brothers, Karl and Horst with their wives and children are desperate to join their brother Rudolf in the West. They climb down a subway shaft to try and flag down a train going between two Western stations. The train has to pass through part of East Berlin as part of its route. They make their way along the tunnel which luckily for them is deserted. A train approaches and Horst signals to the driver. The train slows down and stops then one of the carriage doors opens. The Western Berliners waste no time and scramble to help the family on to the carriage. They are then placed randomly throughout the carriage. All on board the train continues its journey under East Berlin. It passed five stations in the East all with police on the platforms. Once they passed through the fifth the conductor came and told them they had made it.
In May of the same year the Müller brothers draw up a plan to go back to East Berlin to get Rudolph’s wife and two children. This time they start to dig a tunnel to go 25 yards under the wall and no man’s land. The work was divided up into shifts. Four men per six hour shift, four shifts a day. They were just 8 feet below the border guards. At one point part of the tunnel collapsed but this didn’t stop them. 3 weeks later they broke through to the other side. Rudolph was given a gun before making his way to his family. He passed one guard who made no movement. Rudolph got his family and the guard stopped them on the way back. Rudolph had instructed his family to keep going. The guard walked towards him with gun in hand. Rudolph pulled the gun out and shot the guard. This alerted the guard tower who fired shots at Rudolph and his family. They went down the hole. The guards followed and started shooting down the hole. Luckily no one was hurt. The guard, 21 year old Reinhold Huhn however, died. A guilt that Rudolph continues to live with to this day. He says “No court can take that away from me, they could find be innocent or guilty three times over. I carry that guilt and I can never be free of it as long as I live”. By 1964 more than 70 tunnels had been dug from under the wall freeing more than 250 people. This then leads to the Stasi infiltrating groups who are plotting escapes to prevent the attempts happening.
April 17th 1963. Wolfgang Engels steals an armoured personnel vehicle and drives 20km through the streets of East Berlin. He is followed by the border guards and drives at through the barbed wire fence, across no mans land and into the wall. He found himself still on the Eastern side of the wall so climbed out and on top of the car. Guards were shooting as he climbed over the top. The adrenalin surging through him, so much so that he didn’t fell a bullet go in to his side. The barbed wire shredding into his hands and legs. West Berliners on the other side rushed to help him and took him to aa hospital well within the West. This attempt lead to further reinforcements of the wall. 12ft high L shaped concrete and steel slabs each weighing three tones with a curved top making it near impossible to grip were installed so as to prevent vehicles from crashing through the wall.
June 1963 sees President Kennedy visit West Berlin famously saying (although incorrectly) “As a free man I take pride in the words Ich bin ein Berliner.” He further remarked that seeing the wall with his own eyes showed him its true brutality.
May 1971 saw a new leader of the GDR Erich Honecker, perceived as a moderate the wall became a symbol of his absolute control. The border at this point had 1,000 watch towers, 50,000 guards, 60,000 automatic guns connected to trip wires, long beds of nails and mine fields. Escape seemed impossible. As the 70s moved on the divided Germany played a stand-off role in the Cold wall. Both sides brought in nuclear weapons and posted them on their sides of Germany.
June 12th 1987. President Reagan issues a challenge to Mikhail Gorbachev in his infamous speech at the Brandenburg Gate. Reagan wanted Gorbachev to show willing in his desire to increase freedom in the East by asking him to “Tear down this wall”. Reagan had defied advice from several of his aids by including this challenge. It was felt such a challenge could increase tensions or indeed embarrass Gorbachev. These four words are arguably the most famous of the Regan Presidency. Whether it would have any impact was yet to be seen.
The Bethke brothers; Ingo and Holger were all set to rescue their third brother Egbert in 1989. Ingo who was a border guard had carefully made his way across the mine field in No man’s land and then swam across the river to the other side. Holger created a zip wire from one block of flats to another using a bow and arrow. The third attempt would see the first two brothers fly microlight aircraft to Treptower park. One would land to pick up Egbert and the other would circle with both flying back. They were safe in the knowledge that border guards were not allowed to shoot at air targets and that to get permission could take forever to have the order to shoot run up the chain of command. 4.22am on May 26th the brothers had put together their aircrafts and began the rescue. They contacted Egbert via radio who had to remain silent inside a bush. Having to avoid an unexpected traveling circus on landing they collected Egbert and took off for the return flight. They touched down outside the Reichstag at 4.38.
In October 1989 Erich Honecker resigned as leader of the GDR predicting the wall would stand for another 50 or 100 years. He had even had plans for a hi-tech security system in the wall with inferred lasers, vibration detectors with automated chemical sprays designed for less human intervention. After the borders between Austria and Hungary which meant East Germans could go to Austria via Hungary which also triggered similar events in Czechoslovakia there were protests for border restrictions to be lifted in East Germany The mass exit of East Germans to the West through Hungary and Czechoslovakia was silently tolerated by new GDR leader Egon Krenz. Krenz decided to allow for the refugees he would relax border controls for them and further decided to allow travel for East Germans to the West. This was decided on the 9thNovember and was to take affect from the 10th. East Berlin party boss Günter Schabowski was tasked with announcing this however having been left out of the discussions he was not up to date. He announced the changes but gave no further instructions or when it was to happen. A journalist asked when the restrictions would be lifted to which Schabowski replied “As far as I know effective immediately, without delay.” The press ran with this announcement of the borders being fully open with immediacy. East Berliners proceded to the six checkpoints overwhelming border guards who were franticly looking for instructions from their seniors. At 10.45pm Harald Jäger, the commander of one of the border crossings announced the gates would be open allowing people to pass without identity having to be checked. Western Berliners were waiting at the other side with flowers and champagne. Freedom was celebrated and people started to chisel away at the wall. Almost as quickly as the wall was put up it fell. On the 3rd October 1990 Germany was reunified.
The wall saw 40,000 escapes, 75,00 prosecuted for attempting to defect, 1,300 Died 136 of them in Berlin.
As someone who was born behind the iron curtain, deep in the belly of Soviet Europe I owe a lot to this day in history. For the tearing down of the wall allowed the west to look in to the east and see the devastation that the soviet union had caused in countries like Romania.
25 years on Germany now has a President and Chancellor both from the former Eastern GDR in Joachim Gauck and Angela Merkel. A momentous day in European and world history. Remember, remember the 9th of November freedom, chisels and collapse.