To be moved, as I was on my visit to Berlin, by the effect that the Berlin Wall had on the day to day lives of friends, neighbours and families it’s necessary to understand a little bit of history.
Following the defeat of Germany at the end of WWII the country was carved up by the victors into four occupied zones. The capital-Berlin, in the Soviet controlled sector- as the seat of control of the Allies was itself subdivided into four.
The intention was to govern Germany as a whole, but the cold war put paid to that. The Federal Republic of Germany (FRG-West Germany) was formed by the French, British and American zones. The Soviet zone became the German Democratic Republic. However the (GDR-East Germany) excluded the Allied controlled West Berlin, which although geographically isolated from the FDR.
West Germany thrived as a western capitalist country, East Germany did not. As a result many East Germans were compelled to take flight to the West. This however was not simply for economic reasons, but also to escape the political persecution experienced under the communist Soviet regime.
From it’s formation in 1949 until the erection of the Wall, huge numbers of professional and skilled workers travelled from East to West Berlin. The opportunities were so much better-and jobs were better paid. Conversely many citizens from the West travelled into East Berlin to benefit from cheaper prices in state subsidised stores. Significantly, huge numbers of East Germans were escaping to non-communist countries via West Berlin.
Such pressures meant that East Germany was threatened with economic collapse.
The solution was the Wall.
Construction of a barbed wire barrier began in 1961. Overnight, between 12 and 13 August 1961 the boundary between the Soviet zone and the western zone was sealed and secured by East German troops. Streets running alongside the barrier were torn to make them impassable to most vehicles. As well as dividing the city, the rest of West Berlin was completely surrounded. At the same time the entire border between East and West Germany was closed.
Later the barbed wire was built up into the full scale Wall. The National People’s Army (of the GDR) and the Kampfgruppen der Arbeiterklasse (Combat Groups of the Working Class) patrolled the East German side, with orders to shoot to kill anyone who tried to defect.
In 1962 a parallel barbed wire fence was erected in front of the East side of the wall with a 20m (or even wider) strip between it and the Wall. This became known as the “death strip”. There was no cover. In places it was mined and booby trapped with trip wires (as were parts of the whole East/West border). Where there were none, Alsatian dogs were left to roam wild, and hungry. With buildings in the strip of no-man’s land having been torn down, it offered a clear field of fire to the watching guards.
Overnight, families, friends, lovers were split. East Berliners were cut off, and West Berlin was left isolated (there remained a safe land and air route in and out).
Many lost their lives trying to escape from East to West. In August 1962, 18 year old bricklayer Peter Fechter attempted to flee with is friend Helmut Kulbeik.
Their plan was to hide in a carpenter's workshop, near the wall in Zimmerstrasse and, after observing the border guards from there, to jump out of a window into the death-strip. Then they were to run across it, and climb over the 2 m (six foot) wall topped with barbed wire into the Kreuzberg district of West Berlin near Checkpoint Charlie.
While both reached the wall, guards fired at them. Although Kulbeik succeeded in crossing the wall, Fechter, still on the wall, was shot in the pelvis in plain view of hundreds of witnesses. He fell back into the death-strip on the Eastern side, where he remained in view of Western onlookers, including journalists. Despite his screams, he received no medical assistance. He bled to death after about an hour.
Chris Gueffroy was the last person to die attempting to escape in Ferbuary 1989. His attempt was made with a friend, both of whom believed that the standing order to shoot to kill had been lifted. Climbing the last fence they were discovered and came under fire. He was hit in the chest by 10 shots and died in the border strip.
Only 10 months later, the Wall fell.
Standing in front of the remaining parts of the wall makes it’s history so very real. No more so than reading a graffiti message on it’s eastern side:
“To Astrid. Maybe one day we will be together.”