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On the night of August 13, 1961, police officers strung barbed wire along the border of East Berlin to keep East German citizens from fleeing to West Germany. During the previous half year about 160,000 refugees had escaped from the German Democratic Republic (GDR), bringing the total to over three million who had sought a better life and more freedom in West Germany. Because the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had failed to neutralize the western sectors of the former capital of Germany in the Berlin crisis of 1958, he allowed the East German leader, Walter Ulbricht, to seal the border under the guise of protection against capitalist subversion to stop the outflow.
The barrier gradually was turned into an insurmountable concrete wall that averaged 12 feet high and 96 miles long, dividing neighborhoods, streets, and even houses. An elaborate system of fortifications with a back wall, a minefield, a jeep road, guard dogs, watchtowers, and searchlights made the wall impenetrable, and those who wanted to get out had to build tunnels, break through with trucks, fly across in balloons, or forge passports. More than 125 people died in the attempt because the border guards had orders to shoot all escapees. Because the GDR had built the wall on its side, angry Western governments could only insist on their right to cross at Checkpoint Charlie and reassure the residents of their sectors that they would not abandon them. In 1963 President John F. Kennedy expressed his solidarity with the words “I am a Berliner.”
The political effect of the wall was ambivalent. In the short run it increased cold war tensions, culminating in the Cuban missile crisis. In the medium term it stabilized the Communist regime by closing off the “exit” option and forcing East Germans to come to terms with the dictatorship of the SED (Socialist Unity Party). The wall also compelled West German leaders to accept the existence of a second German state and sign agreements with it to permit some travel through a handful of crossing points such as Friedrichstrasse. In the long run, however, the ugly edifice demonstrated symbolically that the GDR was forced to imprison its people because it remained rather unpopular. Anti-Communist leaders never tired of demanding, like President Reagan in 1987, “Mister Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
The inhumanity of the wall eventually prompted its fall. Many East Germans continued to try to leave, supported by a West German policy that recognized them as citizens and paid ransom for their release. When the Hungarian government opened its Austrian border in the summer of 1989, tens of thousands fled, sparking mass demonstrations among those left behind in the GDR. Because that democratic awakening overthrew Erich Honecker, his successor, Egon Krenz, attempted to initiate a more liberal travel policy. Its premature announcement on November 9 inspired citizens to mass at the crossing points and force them to open, thus toppling the wall. Not only East and West Berliners but many people around the world celebrated its fall, which signified the collapse of communism and allowed Germans to reunify and Europeans to reunite.
- Hertle, Hans-Hermann, Konrad H. Jarausch, and Christoph Klessmann, eds. 2002. Mauerbau und Mauerfall: Ursachen, Verlauf, Auswirkungen. Berlin: Ch. Links.
- Hilton, Christopher. 2001. The Wall: The People’s Story. Stroud, U.K.: Sutton Publishing.
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