This edited article about the Berlin Wall originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 737 published on 28 February 1976.
For more than 14 years the wall has divided Berlin into east and west, an ugly barrier of concrete equipped with all the deadly paraphernalia of imprisonment: barbed wire, watch towers, searchlights, machine guns, ditches, armed patrols and dogs.
The Berlin Wall and East Germany’s fortified border with West Germany provide the most macabre meeting place for capitalism and communism. In Berlin itself, the contrast is even stranger, for West Berlin, with its factories, office blocks and gay night-life, offers the only example of western life and freedom inside a communist country tucked away 100 miles (160 km) from the West German frontier.
Since the East Germans built the wall in the late summer of 1961, thousands of refugees have found sanctuary in West Berlin after dodging bullets as they scrambled over the barricade or tunnelled beneath it. But for some the dash for freedom ended in death. Some 70 people have been shot down by East German guards in the shadow of the wall; along the frontier, guns and mines have claimed about 100 other lives.
The hard statistics compiled in West Berlin showed that in the years that followed the building of the wall, more than 161,000 people fled from East Germany. About 35,000 of them beat the wall or crossed the formidable frontier between the two countries. Of those, 2,684 were East German soldiers and 533 of them braved the Berlin Wall successfully.
The rest of the fortunate fugitives reached Western Europe after travelling thousands of miles through other East European countries. But how many were caught? The question remains unanswered, though it is known that there are about 7,000 political prisoners in East Germany, of whom 4,500 were charged with escape attempts.
West Berliners look back in bitterness at August 13, 1961, when the wall began to snake across their city. Human contacts between both parts of the city were cut and the trains linking the city were stopped. About 60,000 people living in East Berlin suddenly found they were unable to reach their offices or factories in the western part of the city. Check points were established and traffic through them was stringently checked by the East Germans. A year later, one of the worst tragedies to underline the awfulness of the wall gained world headlines. Peter Fechter, an 18-year-old East Berliner, was shot down by East Berlin frontier guards who let him bleed to death at the foot of the wall.
In the past decade, a new method for securing freedom for East Germans has been adopted by the West German government in Bonn, which has been paying millions of pounds to secure the release of political prisoners held in East German jails.
In 1974 and last year the Bonn government paid out more than £28.5 million for about 4,000 long-term East German prisoners. At a price ranging up to £7,600, a head, the West German government has handed over many more millions in “kopf geld” or “head money” to the East German regime.
Although the Bonn government regards the transaction as the worst kind of sordid commercialism, this new vogue in human traffic is justified on humanitarian grounds.
But compromise has always been necessary in maintaining relationships between the West and East Germans, particularly so in Berlin where a complex situation, born at the end of the last war, continues to persist.
Indeed, it was not until 1972 that the rights and responsibilities of the three Western powers in West Berlin (USA, Britain and France) were confirmed when their foreign ministers met the Russian foreign minister, Mr. Andrei Gromyko, to discuss the future of the beleaguered city.
They finally agreed that there should be unimpeded traffic on the autobahns, waterways and air corridors linking West Germany with West Berlin. The vital arteries connecting the city with the Federal Republic comprise three air corridors, three railway lines, highways and two inland waterways. Part of the responsibilities of the Allied powers has been to guarantee free access to West Berlin.
But the East Germans have always controlled the cross-country links, with the Russians keeping watch on the air corridors where in early days airliners were sometimes “buzzed” by Soviet fighters.
Often in times of tension, cars and lorries have been held up and searched by the East Germans seeking spies, escaping political prisoners or just looking for propaganda material.
The foreign ministers also agreed that there should be better opportunities for West Berliners to visit friends and relatives on the eastern side. Apart from rare exceptions and special arrangements made sparingly for passes at Christmas and Easter, West Berliners are now able for the first time since 1961 to visit East Berlin whenever they wish. The same facility applies to East Germany itself from which they have been banned since 1952.
Under the new arrangements, they may stay a maximum of 30 days a year with additional visits allowed in cases of urgent family matters. Tourist trips are also permitted by the East Germans.
In fact, in the first year following the Four Power agreement, 3,660,000 West Berliners had crossed the border or visited other parts of East Germany.
In addition to these improvements, the Four Power pact declared that the ties between West Berlin and the Federal Republic would be maintained and developed. This confirmed the established practice of maintaining political, economic and financial links while accepting that West Berlin remained separated from the constituent part of West Germany and would not, in the future, be governed by Bonn.
This spotlights the strange position of West Berlin in relation to the Federal Republic. While Bonn regards the city as part of West Germany – its 11th “Land” or province – the supreme authority in West Berlin remains with the three Western Powers. Their joint organisation is known as the Allied Kommandatura, which claims the right to be competent for the whole of Berlin, a situation which collapsed in 1948 when the Russians walked out of it.
In West Berlin’s special position, the federal laws do not automatically affect the city, which only adopts those containing “Berlin clauses”. It has its own “parliament” which appoints directly the 22 West Berlin MPs to the Bonn parliament.
West Berlin also receives financial aid from Bonn. Indeed, West Berliners enjoy various privileges for working in the city, including special bonuses to their pay and tax relief.
So while life is currently better than it has been for many years, much has still to come to simplify the complex position of West Berlin. And politicians believe that not until the wall is taken down will there be any real chance of East and West coming to terms.
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