Berlin Wall

Origin of the Berlin Wall

Following the Potsdam Conference (July 17 to August 2, 1945), postwar Germany and its capital city, Berlin, were divided into four occupation zones—British, French, American, and Soviet. Although Berlin fell into the Soviet zone of occupation, technically it was jointly administered by the four victorious nations. As the Cold War emerged, the tensions between the former allies increased, culminating in the ending of the governing partnership in 1948 and the Berlin Blockade (June 24, 1948, to May 12, 1949), which was the Soviets’ attempt to gain control over the entire city of Berlin by cutting off any access to the western sectors, which were controlled by the Allies. Using the air corridors that, according to a November 1945 agreement, provided them free access to Berlin, the Western Allies—supported by Canada, New Zealand, and Australia—organized an “airlift” to provide supplies to people in West Berlin. By the time Joseph Stalin lifted the blockade, two different governments—one under Soviet control and the other under British, French, and American control—had been established for the ruling of East Berlin and West Berlin, respectively.

By late 1949, a German Democratic Republic (East Germany) was declared, with its capital in East Berlin, while Bonn became the capital of the correspondent Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). Throughout the Cold War, West Berlin remained a free city, a political enclave that was 110 miles from the border of West Germany. It was surrounded by East Germany, without being a part of it. Legally, the status of West Berlin was controversial; the city remained a military occupation zone until the 1990 reunification of Germany, but de facto, it functioned as one of the states of the Federal Republic of Germany, with a successful market economy and a democratic political system. Given, on the one hand, West Germany’s democratic political system and its successful economic growth and, on the other, the nondemocratic rule and the poor living standards in East Germany, many East Germans wanted to move to West Germany, and they began to use West Berlin as a gateway to freedom and economic prosperity.

According to the agreement reached at the Potsdam Conference, Berliners were free to travel between East and West Berlin. Taking advantage of this opportunity, East Germans would come to East Berlin, cross over to West Berlin, and then go to West Germany. It is estimated that between 1949 and 1961 more than 3.5 million East Germans left their country to head for the free world via West Berlin. For the leaders of the Soviet Union and East Germany, this not only negatively affected their prestige—since East Germany’s citizens were fleeing to the capitalist world—but it also presented an economic problem since the fugitives were primarily young and educated people. During the overnight hours of August 12, 1961, the East Germans closed the Berlin border, erecting barriers of barbed wire and fences that surrounded West Berlin along 155 kilometers. Later, a concrete wall was built. Western nations criticized in strong terms the building of the Berlin Wall, but as it was placed on East Germany’s territory, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization took no measure against it. However, on June 26, 1963, in a famous speech delivered in front of 450,000 West Berliners, U.S. president John Kennedy declared that the United States was ready to defend the free city of West Berlin if necessary. Between 1961 and 1991, West Berlin was a symbol of the free world.

The Berlin Wall and Its Victims

The wall was reinforced with antivehicle trenches, electrified signal fences, a “bed of nails,” floodlights, border patrol roads, 302 watchtowers, and 20 bunkers. Self-firing devices and mines—used elsewhere on the border—were not employed in Berlin. Thus, whoever wanted to flee East Germany through Berlin had to climb the inner wall, sprint across the death strip, and then climb over the second wall, which was 3.6 meters high and 120 centimeters thick. In 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, East Germany was making plans for the high-tech modernization of the wall, with installation of electronic sensors, motion detectors, acoustic sensors, and remote, low-light-level television cameras.

Even after the wall was built, East Germans continued to try to escape to West Berlin. Between 1961 and 1989, more than 100,000 people tried to cross the Berlin Wall. There are no definitive numbers, but it is believed that more than 600 of them died—shot by the border patrols, suffering fatal accidents during their escape attempts, or killing themselves when caught. More than 130 people were killed by border patrols, the first of them as early as August 1961. One of the first victims was 18-year-old Peter Fechter, who, on August 17, 1962, attempted to escape to West Berlin but was shot and left to bleed to death under the eyes of hundreds of witnesses. People caught trying to flee the country (if not killed during the attempt) were sentenced to months or years of prison sentences or hard labor. Relatives, colleagues, and friends of those who were caught attempting to cross the wall or of those who succeeded were under the constant surveillance of the militia and the Stasi (the secret police).

The Stasi’s far-reaching surveillance was an important factor that helped erode East Germans’ sense of security and privacy. Stasi, whose headquarters was in East Berlin in Normannenstrasse, was reported to be one of the most effective and repressive secret police in Cold War Eastern Europe. One of its main tasks was to spy on East Germany’s population through a complex network of secret agents and informants to identify and stop any opposition to the political regime. In this context, preventing border breaches (including in Berlin) was a major concern. By 1989, Stasi had 97,000 employees, of which 15,000 worked at Normannenstrasse, from where, through the 14 regional offices in East Germany, they administered the Stasi’s operations overseas and surveillance of the population at home. It is estimated that in East Germany (including East Berlin) there was a secret agent or informant for every 63 persons. The level of suspicion was very high, and even the most innocent activity could raise the Stasi’s concern that the person intended to leave the country illegally, violating Article 213 of the criminal code—“Illegal Border Crossing.”

People who had relatives in the West (including in West Berlin), who got mail and phone calls from the West, who filed applications to leave East Germany legally and permanently, or who filed applications to temporarily visit the West were suspected of intending to leave the country illegally and of opposing the regime. They were therefore placed under surveillance—their letters were opened and photocopied, and the envelopes were ironed shut; observation posts were established around their houses; informants were employed; telephones were tapped. However, it is believed that in East Berlin (as well as in East Germany) it was not mail or telephone surveillance that had the most important role in monitoring individuals suspected of intending to illegally leave the country or to oppose the regime but the informants.

In 1963, Nikita Khrushchev, leader of the Soviet Union (first secretary of the Communist Party and prime minister), declared that the Berlin Wall was a success. Many people from both East Germany and West Germany, however, hated what it represented. Often they wrote and painted on the wall their feelings, making the wall famous for its graffiti. On the eastern side, approaching the inner wall was not allowed, with the area near it being declared a restricted zone. On the western side, however, by 1989, the outer wall became a giant canvas covered with comments, figures, and slogans. Although the East German authorities periodically covered the graffiti (much of which was political and anticommunist), the multicolored graffiti was rapidly redone.

The Fall of the Wall

In August 1989, Hungary opened its border with Austria, and more than 13,000 East German tourists used this opportunity to flee to Austria via Hungary. In September 1989, the “peaceful revolution”—a series of peaceful demonstrations against the political regime in East Germany—began. In October, the East German prime minister Erich Honecker resigned, and the new prime minister, EgonKrenz, decided to offer East German citizens visas for West Germany. On November 9, 1989, the authorities issued a decree allowing citizens to freely travel to West Germany if they had a visa. Announcing this in a press conference, Gunter Schabowski, Minister of Propaganda, declared that the measure would take effect immediately. The news was broadcasted in both German states. A huge crowd of East Berliners gathered at the wall’s six checkpoints and demanded that the guards open the gates. As nobody in East Germany was willing to order the guards to use deadly force against the crowd, at 10:45 p.m. the gates were opened, and the people crossed over, with little if any identity checking. They were greeted in West Berlin with flowers and champagne. In June 1990, the East German military began to tear down the wall. On October 3, 1990, the two German countries reunified. Today, only several sections, fragments, and observation towers still stand along the former path of the Berlin Wall, and some fragments are in museums in Germany or abroad.

Elena Dragomir

See also Cold War ; Police State ; Surveillance During the Cold War ; Totalitarian Surveillance Societies

Further Readings

Bruce, Gary, The Firm: The Inside Story of the Stasi. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Hertle, Hans-Hermann and Maria Nooke. The Victims at the Berlin Wall. A Biographical Handbook. Berlin, Germany: Ch. Links Verlag, 2011.

Ladd, Brian. The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Rottman, Gordon L. The Berlin Wall and the Intra-German Border, 1961–89. Oxford, England: Osprey, 2008.

Smyser, W. R. Kennedy and the Berlin Wall: A Hell of a Lot Better Than a War. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.