Just after midnight on August 13th 1961, East Germany’s government ordered the closure of all borders with West Berlin. As the sun rose, Berliners were awoken by the sound of trucks, jackhammers and other heavy machinery. Watched by Soviet troops and East German police, workmen began breaking up roads, footpaths and other structures, before laying temporary but impassable fencing, barricades and barbed wire. They worked for several days, completely surrounding the western zones of Berlin and cutting them off from the city’s eastern sectors. Within three days, they had erected almost 200 kilometres of fence line and barbed wire. The East German government’s official name for the new structure was Die anti-Faschistischer Schutzwall, or ‘anti-fascist protective wall’, though it soon dubbed the Berlin Wall. East Berlin said the wall was necessary to keep out Western spies and West German profiteers, who it claimed were crossing the border to buy up state-subsidised East German goods.
The erection of a wall around West Berlin made headlines around the world, though it was not entirely unexpected. Western powers immediately went on high alert, in case the lockdown of Berlin was a prelude to an invasion and occupation of the city’s western zones. Six days later, US president John F. Kennedy ordered American reinforcements into West Berlin; more than 1,500 men were transported into the city along East German autobahns (the American, British and French access routes into West Berlin were not closed). Anticipating another Soviet blockade, Kennedy also ordered a large contingent of US planes to be relocated to West Germany. Some experts considered the Berlin Wall an act of aggression against Berliners in both zones, and demanded strong action. Kennedy, however, was more sanguine, suggesting that a wall “is a hell of a lot better than a war”.
The wall grows stronger
As weeks passed, the Berlin Wall became more sophisticated – and more deadly. By June 1962, the East Germans had erected a second line of fencing, approximately 100 metres inside the first wall. The area between both fences was called ‘no-man’s land’ or the ‘death strip’, as under East German regulations, any unauthorised person seen there could be shot without warning. Houses located within the ‘death strip’ were destroyed and leveled. The area was floodlit and covered with fine gravel that revealed footprints, preventing people from sneaking across unnoticed. Features that overhung the ‘death strip’, like balconies or trees, were booby-trapped with nails, spikes or barbed wire. In 1965, following a number of escape attempts where cars or trucks were used to punch through the fenceline, the wall was replaced with pre-fabricated sections of concrete. It was this 3.4-metre high concrete barrier that became famous as the Berlin Wall.
Needless to say, crossing the border between the two Berlins became even more restrictive. Prior to the late 1950s it had been comparatively easy for West Berliners to visit relatives with a day pass to the Soviet zone. Traveling in the other direction was more difficult; East Berliners wanting to cross the city had to show a government permit, and these were difficult to obtain. Elderly East Berliners found it easier to obtain these permits, since their defection was not considered detrimental to the East German economy. Those with business ties or immediate family in the West could be granted permits – though these permits were often denied or revoked without reason. The Berlin Wall could be legally crossed at several points, the best known of which was ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ in Friedrichstrasse.
East Berliners without government permits made many attempts to cross the wall illegally. Some tried climbing, scampering or abseiling over the wall – however the fortifications, barbed wire and Grepo (armed border police) made this a dangerous activity. Ramming through the wall or checkpoints in vehicles was a common tactic – until the East Germans rebuilt all roads approaching the wall as narrow zig-zags, preventing vehicles from accelerating. Others tried tunneling under the wall or flying over it, using makeshift hot-air balloons, with varying levels of success. Around 230 people died making the attempt. In 1962 Peter Fechter, an 18-year-old East German factory worker, was shot in the hip by a border patrol; Fechter bled to death in the ‘death strip’ while helpless onlookers on both sides watched impotently. Siegfried Noffke, who had been separated from his wife and daughter by the wall, tunneled underneath it, but was captured and machine-gunned by Stasi agents.
‘A monument to communist failure’
The Berlin Wall and the closed borders in Berlin became physical symbols of the Cold War. To the west, the Wall constituted powerful propaganda: evidence that East Germany was a failing state and that thousands of its people did not want to live under communism. US secretary of state Dean Rusk called the Wall “a monument to communist failure”, while West German mayor Willy Brandt called it “the wall of shame”. In Washington, there was debate and equivocation about how the US should respond to the erection of the Berlin Wall. Ever the realist, Kennedy knew that threats or shows of aggression might provoke a war between the US and USSR. He instead focused his attentions on West Berlin, hailing it as a small but determined bastion of freedom, locked inside an imprisoned state. Kennedy visited West Berlin in 1963 and was greeted by ecstatic crowds, which cheered wildly and showered his motorcade with flowers and confetti. In the Rudolph Wilde Platz (later renamed the John F. Kennedy Platz), the US president told a rapt audience:
There are many people in the world who really don’t understand, or say they don’t, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin. There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin. And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. ‘Lass sie nach Berlin kommen’ – Let them come to Berlin… Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all men are not free… All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words: ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ (I am a citizen of Berlin).
1. The Berlin Wall was an attempt to halt the flow of people, particularly skilled workers, from communist East Berlin.
2. Construction began overnight in August 1961 with the erection of wire fences, followed by larger concrete walls
3. The West viewed the wall as evidence that Soviet communism was failing: East Germany was now a prison state.
4. The wall was heavily fortified and guarded. Despite this, many Berliners tried to cross it, some killed in the process.
5. The Berlin Wall would stand for almost three decades as a tangible sign of the Iron Curtain and the divisions between the Soviet bloc and the democratic West.