Friday, August 19, 2011

The building of the Berlin Wall: 50 years on

On 3 August 1961, the leaders of the Communist bloc, the Comecon, met in Moscow. It was the heart of the Cold War. The US Bay of Pigs invasion failed a few months earlier, and in July JFK requested a 25 percent increase in military spending. The East still stood strong but it had a soft underbelly it needed to do something about: Berlin.

Divided by the Potsdam Conference after World War II, succoured by the 1948 blockade and institutionalised by the foundation of the FDR and DDR in 1949, Berlin remained a porous city. Over half a million crossed daily in to West Berlin to get their dose of capitalism. Many East Berliners went shopping or into the cinema and discos in the West, 60,000 commuters even worked there. There was no need for some to defect as they would rather live in the cheaper east as long as the exotic frills of the west such as panty hose and tropical fruit were available just a short U-bahn ride away. Westerners too enjoyed the fruits of the border. West German Deutsch Marks were exchanged into East German DM at a rate of 1:4 and that meant westerners could get goods very cheaply in the East.

But the East was losing most of its thought leaders. The gap in income between the two sides was stark and anyone with ambition wanted to be in the west. Although some were stopped on their way, hundreds of thousands made it across the border forever. By the early 1960s, East Germany had lost 2.5 million trained professionals, 15 percent of its population. The Comecon decided this had to stop before the labour force was completely drained. At 4pm on Saturday 12 August, East German leader Walter Ulbricht issued the order to close the border. At midnight on Sunday, police and armed forces began bolting the city shut. Not only did they build the wall in a day, but they shut streets, the railway and the S-Bahn and U-Bahn. The former pulsating heart of the city at Potzdamer Platz suddenly became a no-go zone.

But it was the wall that captured the imagination and defined the Cold War. It sprung up in the middle of the night. Trucks filled with soldiers and construction workers rumbled though the sleeping city and tore up telephone wires and streets to West Berlin, dug holes to put up concrete posts, and strung barbed wire all across the border. The 100km wall completely wrapped up West Berlin. When everyone woke up in the morning, there was widespread shock. Whichever side of the border you went to bed on 12 August, you were stuck there for decades.

The wall would go through four transformations in its 28-year history. It started as a barbed-wire fence with concrete posts, but after a few days, it was replaced with a permanent structure of concrete blocks, topped with barbed wire. A third version in 1965 was a concrete wall, supported by steel girders. The fourth version built by 1980 had 3.6m high and 1.2m wide concrete slabs with a smooth pipe across the top to stop people from scaling it. By 1989 there was a 91m No-Man's-Land, an additional inner wall, soldiers patrolling with dogs, a raked ground that showed footprints, anti-vehicle trenches, electric fences, massive light systems, watchtowers, bunkers, and minefields.

About 200 people were shot dead trying to cross this labyrinth and another 5,000 escape either over or under the wall. The only people legally allowed to cross the border were foreign tourists, diplomats and military personnel. There were three crossing points. Helmstedt, Dreilinden and a third at Berlin Friedrichstrasse. Based on the phonetic alphabet Helmstedt checkpoint was called Checkpoint Alpha, Dreilinden got Bravo and Friedrichstrasse got the name Charlie. On 25 October 1961, East German border guards at Checkpoint Charlie tried to check the identification as western soldiers entered the Soviet sector. The Americans said the Allied right to move freely had been violated and for 16 hours there was an imminent threat of war. The next day, both sides withdrew after Kennedy and Khrushchev hastily cobbled together an agreement.

While the Revolutions of 1989 were startling in the speed in which they succeeded, the fall of the Wall was the most stunning of all. On the evening of 9 November, East German central committee spokesman G√ľnter Schabowski made a surprise announcement: "Permanent relocations can be done through all border checkpoints between the GDR (East Germany) into the FRG (West Germany) or West Berlin." "As of when?" asked an Italian journalist. Schabowski hesitated and then improvised: "As far as I know ... as of now."

As locals decoded his bureaucratic announcement, it came as a shock to realise he meant the border was now open. The first East Germans tentatively approached it and found border guards were letting people cross. Within an hour, people from both sides crowded on to the Wall. Some brought hammers and chisels. Others simply hugged, kissed, cheered and cried. Schabowski, who was later imprisoned, said he remembered a Stasi member came to him and said: “Comrade Schabowski, the border is open. Nothing to report.”

Now the Berlin Wall is mostly gone and the few scraps that remain are tourist attractions. The East and West were reunited though the East continues to lag. Some argue Germany is much weaker as a united country with a reunification bill of €1.3 trillion. Yet despite the Trabants that still litter the streets, there are few people calling for the return of the DDR. The Wall the regime built was the supreme monument to the corrosive power of its paranoia and rampant distrust.

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