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The Berlin Wall divided Europe and was an offence against humanity

Posted in Communism, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

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This edited article about the Berlin Wall first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 598 published on 30 June 1973.

Berlin Wall,  picture, image, illustration

Escapees trying to cross the border between East and West Germany after the wall was built in 1961; some succeeded, while others were shot down by East German border guards; picture by Graham Coton<

On the morning of Sunday 13th August, 1961 an old man lay asleep in his home in the village of Rhondorf. Exhausted by a hectic election campaign and by mounting criticism, Konrad Adenauer, Chancellor Of West Germany, tossed fitfully. His bedside telephone shrilled suddenly. News had come from Berlin that a barrier had been built, sealing off the East German frontier. Chancellor Adenauer listened quietly. Two hours later he went to Mass. But although he continued to remain calm for the rest of the day, he knew, as the world knew, that the ever-tense situation in Berlin had been tightened to breaking point.

Why was the Berlin wall built?

At the end of the Second World War Berlin had surrendered to Russian forces and so lay within the area of Germany claimed by Russia, which became the East German Republic. The city itself, however, was quartered between French, British, Russian and American commands. It became the scene of a trial of strength in 1947 when the Soviet Union attempted to blockade the western sector; the siege was only overcome by a massive airlift. Early in 1961 the Russians again threatened western access to the city but it was the East German Republic which brought matters to a head.

Since the early days of the republic numbers of East Germans had “voted with their feet,” by fleeing over the border from east to west Berlin to seek political refuge in West Germany. By 1961 the flow had risen to over a thousand a day. It was a direct result of the policies of repression and brutality imposed by the regime of Walter Ulbricht the East German president. The effect of the mass emigration was to reduce drastically the labour force in East Germany and to ruin plans for the expansion and improvement of the East German economy.

Attempts were made to discourage workers from East Berlin from travelling to jobs in the western sector. First they were threatened; then they were attacked; and finally they were forbidden outright. But the flow of refugees continued. In the first three weeks of July 21,000 fled to the west. It was then the East German president decided to act; he would seal off permanently the principal escape route. Ulbricht met Krushchev, the Russian leader, in Moscow and asked for permission to build a barrier along the frontier between East and West Berlin; he was, after all, a dutiful servant of the Kremlin.

Surprise Move

The building of the wall caught the West German and indeed the western powers completely off-balance. Their spy networks had no knowledge of what was happening. There was evidence of massive movements of police, troops and building materials into the city, but each intelligence service which tried to add up the facts at its disposal came to a different answer. Then, on the 13th, they learned the true purpose of the activity.

Deep ditches were dug along all but a dozen of the roads between the east and west zones of the city; heavy lorries with thousands of tons of bricks and concrete slabs, which had been rushed into the city under cover of darkness, backed up to the border and the foundations of the wall were laid.

At first it was an unimpressive barrier, only 4 to 5 feet high. But it grew. It rose to 12 and then to 15 feet, surmounted by barbed wire and protected on its eastern side by trenches. Later in the year houses overlooking the wall were pulled down, creating a wide field of fire for the frontier guards. This made attempts to reach the wall suicidal and the cleared areas were christened ‘death trips.’

While the wall went up the rest of the world waited to see what Germany and the occupying powers in Berlin would do. If the onlookers expected immediate action, they were disappointed. Chancellor Adenauer’s calm reception of the news and his refusal to alter his Sunday routine, typified the low-key response of the western powers. Willy Brandt, Adenauer’s main political opponent called for more positive action. He flew to Berlin and wrote to President Kennedy, but he did not get the action he wanted.

Three days after the building of the wall, Adenauer made his first full statement. The wall, he said, was `a declaration of bankruptcy on the part of the sixteen-year-old tyranny.’ He called for negotiations to solve the Berlin question in a sane and civilised manner. He did not visit the city for over a week. The Berliners were hurt by his attitude; but he clearly did not want to provoke any incidents which might lead to blood-shed on a large scale.

The western powers in Germany were similarly cautious. The local governors took two days in which to make a protest against the wall and their respective governments took four. Eventually President Kennedy of the United States sent his vice-president, Lyndon Johnson, to Berlin. Johnson pledged the lives, the possessions and the honour of the United States in protecting the freedom of Berlin. He also gave away gifts of fountain pens and bars of chocolate. More encouraging to the West Berliners than Johnson’s words, his pens or his candy, were the American troops who sped along the autobahn to Berlin and the tanks which rolled up to “Check-point Charlie,” the one and only remaining crossing place for foreigners between West and East Berlin.

But the manoeuvres were too late. In trying to keep cool and encourage the West Berliners to do the same, the western powers had missed their chance to intervene effectively. The wall was already a formidable obstacle. The western powers could do nothing but watch as a trickle of refugees tried desperately to cross the concrete barrier.

And try they did. They climbed over it, tunnelled under it and tried to crash through its weakest points. Month after month, western newspapers carried hair-raising tales of escapers who had made it – and agonizing accounts of the fate of those who failed. For East Germans caught planning and executing escapes were punished ruthlessly. In 1964 an East German cycling champion was sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labour for helping refugees. Four days after the anniversary of the building a particularly brutal incident occurred. A young East German, Peter Fechter, was shot and left for an hour to die on the eastern side of the barrier which he was trying to cross. There were occasional interludes when relatives were allowed to visit each other across the wall, but for most families it was a cause of heartache and hopelessness.

And yet, brutal though it was in conception, in the end President Ulbricht’s plan worked. Once the wall had been built and once the West had shown clearly that it had no method of retaliation, the population of East Germany gradually came to accept it. Their dream of reunification had gone; so too had any ideas of escape. Slowly a sense of qualified loyalty to the East German Republic developed. While East Germans still resented the oppressive system by which they were governed they began to take a pride in the social and economic achievement of their state, instead of thinking themselves the poor – very poor – relations of the westerners. After 1963 East Germany, like West Germany, had its economic miracle.

The result has been that at last relations between East and West are easing. Crossing the wall is no longer impossible. And recently leaders from East and West Germany sat together at a conference table. Nevertheless it will be a long time before the great scar of concrete and waste ground that disfigures Berlin vanishes completely.

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