The View East

Central and Eastern Europe, Past and Present.

50 Years On – Commemorating the Construction of the Berlin Wall


This weekend marks fifty years since construction of the Berlin Wall began. Sunday August 13th 1961 became known as ‘Stacheldrahtsonntag’ (‘barbed wire Sunday’) as soldiers hastily constructed makeshift barriers across the city, but what began as little more than an impromptu barbed wire fence soon evolved into an increasingly impenetrable system of metal and concrete walls, which cut across neighbourhoods, dividing families and essentially trapping nearly 17 million people inside the GDR. For further information about the events surrounding the construction of the wall, including video footage from August 1961, please see my previous blog post Building the Berlin Wall.


Between 1945-1961 around 2.4 million people (15% of the population of the GDR) fled across into West Berlin, with this recent exhibition providing a fascinating depiction of their experiences in West German refugee camps in the 1950s. During the 28 years between the wall’s construction in 1961 and its collapse in November 1989 however, guards stationed along what quickly became known as ‘dead mans zone’ operated a ‘shoot to kill’ policy, with over 600 people thought to have died while trying to breach the wall.


Was the Berlin Wall Necessary?

Speaking ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Wall’s construction, British Foreign Secretary William Hague today described the building of the Wall as ‘one of the darkest days for post-War Europe’.  In 1961 however, reactions to the wall were fairly muted, both within and beyond Germany. While there were some protests (particularly in West Berlin) most Berliners quietly carried on with their lives as far as possible, seeming bemused by and resigned to the sudden appearance of the wall, rather than outraged. Russell Swenson, who was stationed in Berlin with the US Army in August 1961, described the confusion he witnessed among citizens of Berlin: ‘Nobody expected it; that’s why there was no plan to do anything about it … I don‘t think people thought it was going to last very long, certainly not 30 years’.


In 1961 the East German authorities claimed the wall was necessary as an ‘anti-fascist protection barrier’ to protect against ‘subversive activity’ from the West. In a Letter sent by Soviet authorities to the governments of the USA, UK and France dated 18 August 1961, they claim that: ‘West Berlin has been transformed into a center of subversive activity diversion, and espionage, into a center of political and economic provocations against the G.D.R., the Soviet Union, and other socialist countries’. It has long been accepted that the primary motivation behind the wall’s construction was to stem the growing exodus of people leaving East Germany however, something which was both politically embarrassing and economically damaging for the communist authorities, with those leaving primarily comprised of younger, skilled citizens, amounting to a ‘brain drain’.


The idea that the Berlin Wall was ‘necessary’ still appears to hold some weight today, fifty years after its construction and 22 years after its collapse. This weekend, members of Germany’s Left Party (the successors to the East German SED) are debating a motion to officially accept that the building of the wall was an ‘inescapable necessity’. Perhaps more surprisingly however, around a third of Berliners also maintain that there was some justification for its construction – in a Forsa survey published in the Berliner Zeitung earlier this month, while 62% of those surveyed rejected the ‘necessity’ of the wall, 25% expressed the view that construction of the wall was ‘necessary and justified in part’ while a further 10% saw its construction as fully justified, to stem the exodus to the West and stabilise the political situation in Germany in the face of growing Cold War tensions.


In a recent article in History Today, Fredrick Taylor also believes that the wall was perceived as necessary – or at least, very convenient – by the Western powers, certainly more so that their condemnatory rhetoric suggested at the time. Despite a brief stand off between Soviet and American tanks in Berlin, overall the Western reaction to the wall’s construction was decidedly muted. Taylor details how, distracted by domestic and other pressing foreign commitments, Western statesmen and diplomats were largely ambivalent towards the permanent division of Berlin. Not only were the Western powers clearly unprepared to risk going to war to prevent the division of Germany, Taylor claims, but many privately saw the wall as a satisfactory solution to the ‘German problem’.


Mauer im Kopf: the ‘Wall in the Mind’


When the Berlin Wall collapsed in the autumn of 1989 it was largely obliterated, in part due to high numbers of Mauerspechten or ‘wall woodpeckers’ (souvenier hunters who chipped away at the remnants of the wall) and in part due to a concerted political effort to remove the wall from view and push ahead with reunification as quickly as possible. A few scattered sections of the wall remain standing today – most notably at Bernauer Strasse which functions as the official memorial to the wall – but visitors to Berlin increasingly maintain that it is difficult to pinpoint where the Wall formerly stood; where ‘West’ became ‘East’. To mark the 50th anniversary of the Wall’s construction SPIEGEL ONLINE have compiled an interesting interactive slideshow of photographs depicting life before and after the Wall here.


Many people believe that the speedy disappearance of the wall created a lack of opportunities for Vergangenheitsbewältigung or ‘coming to terms with the past’ in East Berlin. The growth of Ostalgie (nostalgia for East Germany) in recent years has led to suggestions that while the wall may have been physically removed, a less tangible barrier remains – a Mauer im Kopf  or ‘wall in the mind’. Veena Venugopal believes that ‘it is clear that even though the Berlin Wall came down 22 years ago, it is still a defining force in the life of Berliners’.


In another recent poll where respondents were asked about lingering divisions between east and west Germans nearly 22 years after the Wall was torn down, 83 percent of those surveyed said they thought there was still an ‘invisible wall’ running through the country, while only 15 percent said they thought the differences between those who had lived in the West and the East had been surmounted.


These enduring divisions appear to be fuelled primarily by post-communist disappointment, political stereotyping (with ‘East’ Germans accusing ‘West’ Germans of arrogance while some former ‘Wessies’ see ‘Ossies’ as backward and stupid) and economic insecurity. The ‘brain drain’ halted by the Berlin Wall soon revived after its collapse: between 1989 and 2005 more than 1.6 million predominantly young (with 60% aged under 30) educated and skilled Eastern Germans left for better prospects in the West. Today unemployment in some areas of the former East are three times as high as in the West.


Commemorating the Construction of the Berlin Wall


Certain aspects of Berlin’s recent past remain highly charged issues and I previously wrote a short piece relating to the contested nature of memorialisation and commemoration in Berlin here. Today Berlin is a popular tourist destination with an estimated 5.5 million visitors to its memorials and contemporary history museums per year. A thriving and lucrative tourist industry has developed around Cold War Germany, but some events – such as the infamous ‘Trabi safaris’ which allow tourists to tour the route of the wall while driving ‘one of the last relics of real-life socialism’ while experiencing traditional Cold War-style checks by costumed border guards  –  have resulted in complaints about the ‘Disneyfication’ of Berlin, serving to trivialise and distort important aspects of its history for entertainment value.


A campaign has recently been launched for a new ‘Cold War Centre’ in Berlin which would aim to construct a dominant narrative pertaining to commemoration and remembrance of divided Germany. Some have suggested that the use of socialist symbols should be legally restricted, akin to the Nazi swastika. Others suggest that sections of the Wall should be properly reconstructed to stand as a visible and enduring memorial to the divisions in Germany’s recent past. The recent announcement of work to stabilise the best preserved remains of the Berlin Wall along Bernauer Strasse (financed by funds seized from the SED after German reunification in 1990), has led to calls from Axel Klausmeier, Manger of the Bernauer Strasse memorial, for the remains of the Wall to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


In the coming days numerous events have been organised to mark the 50th anniversary of the Wall’s construction. On 13 August Chancellor Angela Merkel and other leading German politicians are attending an official ceremony at the Berlin Wall memorial on Bernauer Strasse. Further information about commemorative activities in Berlin can be found here, with a full programme in English here.



August 11, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | 7 Comments