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

Building the Berlin Wall

48  years ago today, the world witnessed the birth of one of the most iconic and enduring symbols of the Cold War.


13th August 1961: On this morning 48 years ago,  residents of the German capital Berlin awoke to find barricades had been erected across their city overnight, dividing East from West. These hastily constructed barbed wire barriers later assumed more permanency when they were rebuilt as a solid concrete structure that came to be known as the Berlin Wall.


In essence, Berlin had already been divided for 16 years,since the post-War Potsdam Conference (July-August 1945), where the respective leaders of the victorious Allied powers (the USA, USSR and UK) formally agreed on the division of occupied Germany, and the German capital Berlin (which lay deep within the Soviet area of control), into four separate ‘zones of influence’.  As their wartime camaraderie quickly faded and the Cold War took hold, tensions soon became evident, as had been demonstrated by the Berlin Blockade (1948) and the Soviet crackdown on workers revolts in East Germany in 1953. The Berlin Wall, however, was something new. On the 12th August SED leader Walter Ulbricht signed an official order closing the border, and as a result, on the morning of 13th August 1961, residents of East Berlin awoke to find barriers cutting across streets and through neighbourhoods,  dividing them from their friends and family in the Western sector. Police and soldiers were on the streets patrolling the barricades, while most people reacted with confusion and after 15 years of communism, resigned acceptance, as some rather bemusedly waved to their former neighbours, people they could still see, but no longer reach. Berlin was now divided, not just ideologically and politically, but physically. On 15th August the first concrete blocks were laid, and construction of the famous wall began.


The Building of the Berlin Wall:



The border dividing Berlin soon developed from the rather rudimentary barbed wire rolls hurridly unfurled, to its more common recognisable form: comprising a 27 mile long concrete structure, marked by periodic watchtowers and staffed by armed guards who had orders to shoot anyone attempting to breach the wall on sight, while other guards undertook foot patrols along its perimiter, accompanied by trained guard dogs. Travel between East and West was only possible through official checkpoints, with a special travel permit issued by the SED required. The reality meant that most East Berliners would remain ‘walled in’ for the next 28 years, as the SED publically proclaimed that leaving the GDR was ‘an act of political and moral backwardness and depravity’, although this didn’t stop the SED sometimes forcibly shipping dissidents off into exile to West Berlin, essentially using it as a dumping ground for ‘troublesome elements’ within the GDR.


1963: US President Kennedy makes his famous ‘Ich Bin Ein Berliner’ speech in West Berlin:



The official East German justification for the Berlin Wall was that it was an ‘anti-fascist protection mechanism’ built to protect East Berliners from evil outside forces that threatened to undermine the stability of their ‘socialist people’s paradise’. In truth however, the wall was clearly erected to keep people in, rather than to keep people out. Between 1949-1961 almost 2.5 million East Germans had left for the West, and in July 1961 alone, shortly before the border was closed, 30,000 citizens of the GDR had crossed Berlin to enter the Western zone. Figures such as this meant the GDR risked ‘collapse by emigration’. This mass-exodus of Germans from East to West is the most popularly cited reason for the building of the Wall, and while it is clearly a valid argument, a recent book throws some new light on Ulbricht’s decision to close the border. In Driving the Soviets Up The Wall: Soviet-East German Relations 1953-1961 (2005, Princetom University Press) Professor Hope Harrison uses evidence from recently declassified Soviet and GDR documentation to argue that part of Ulbricht’s rationale behind building the Berlin Wall was to increase tensions with the West and thus ensure the Soviets were obligated to continue supporting the GDR. Overnight, the division of Berlin became a fait accompli and while the Western powers issued verbal condemnation of Ulbricht’s actions, they were unwilling to take any firm action that may risk a confrontation with the USSR (Kennedy was said to have remarked that ‘a wall is better than a war’ when told about developments in Berlin).


June 1987 – US President Ronald Reagan makes his famous speech demanding ‘Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!’ at the Brandenburg Gate:



For the next 28 years, the Berlin Wall would act as the principal symbol of the Cold War division of Europe. Between its initial erection in August 1961 and the fall of the Wall in November 1989, many East Germans attempted to breach the Wall and cross into the West despite the obvious dangers:  using forged documentation, concealed in vehicles or even simply trying to climb over the wall and run across the border. Some were successful, but many others were not: official estimates state that around 136 people lost their lives in attempts to breach the wall, however earlier this week an activist  group estimated that the total number of people killed trying to flee from East to West Germany between 1945 and 1989 could total up to 1,347 (see here and here for further details about  these figures).


With so much attention focused on commemorating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall in November this year, itcould be easy to overlook the anniversary of  it’s initial construction, but earlier this week the 48th anniversary of the building of the Wall was commemorated in Berlin. On 12th August a service was held at the Chapel of Reconcilliation, part of the Berlin Wall Memorial Centre on Bernauer Streeet (the scene of some of the most dramatic attempts to escape ‘over the wall’), while in a separate ceremony a plaque was unveiled in memorium of some of the Wall’s victims, people who died trying to escape into West Berlin. Speaking at this memorial service, German Pastor Manfred Fischer perhaps summed up the legacy of the Wall most poignantly, when he stated that the Berlin Wall ‘divided our city right through its heart. It divided Germany. It divided Europe‘.



August 14, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | 1 Comment