The birth and death of the Berlin Wall

Updated: Nov 10, 2014, 14:26 PM IST

Akrita Reyar

While world history is littered with instances of division, demarcations and spiteful borders, rarely do nations or peoples show the maturity to heal, mend and reunify. Perhaps the most potent among the symbols of separation, as also of the will of the people to bring down barriers for a united future is the Berlin Wall.

During World War II, while the US, UK, France and the Soviet Union had joined hands to crush the Nazis, it was clear that the basis of their friendship was purely geopolitical. In principle, while the first three were democracies and open economies, the Soviet Union was totalitarian and socialist. The idiosyncrasies of such a coalition and the inherent contradictions in continuing such an association revealed themselves soon enough. Friend of convenience Soviet Union turned foe of the other allied forces and ensured that a line be drawn between the Communists and the Capitalists. The area of Berlin which fell in the Soviet plate became East Berlin and the region held by the allies became West Berlin despite it being located in the territory of Communist East Germany.

It goes without saying that the territory held by the three allies, which came to be known as West Germany, was modeled to become a free market economy, while East Germany came under the iron grip of Russia and became not just a closed economy but a closed country. Despite the best of assurances in the East about the just distribution of wealth and equal opportunity to all, in reality there was loot and exploitation of the country’s resources to benefit the patriarch Soviet Union with little fresh investment in the industry and infrastructure.

Most importantly, freedom had become a casualty. Stifled by the oppressive regime, the immigration trickle became a mass exodus and East Germany began to lose not just capital, but also thousands of skilled workers. As migration from East Germany via West Berlin was the easiest escape route, the idea of installing an obstruction to stop physical movement came up – this was to be the Berlin Wall or Berliner Mauer, as called in native German. Raised at 1.05 am on August 13 in 1961, its tale of construction borders on the ridiculous. The plan was to be put into action with alacrity. Soldiers by the hundreds were sent to the demarcation points, with cement, fence wire and spades; where they dug holes, raised iron and cement bars, and wove barbed wires through them. The work was completed that night itself. When Berliners woke up; lo and behold, there was a wall running through the city!

Everyday movement for work or play was suddenly brought to a halt. People to people contact was lost. Life in the West continued to flourish, while there was deprecation and misery in the East. Over the decades, differences between the West and the Soviet Union accentuated. Russia was the powerful leader of the Communist bloc and felt it to be its right to take under its wings all nations that followed its ideology. The country spread its net of influence wide, as it did its Army. The wall was progressively consolidated. The wire fence was strengthened between 1962-65, it was turned into a mass of concrete in the whole of decade between 1965-75 and given the shape of a border wall (or Grenzmauer 75) from 1975 to well into the 80s.

Its entire span was 155 km, of which about 43 kms was what we recognize it to be - the 12 feet high and 4 feet thick concrete blockade. This was basically made of two walls with an area in between called the ‘death strip’ which was heavily guarded with floodlight, dogs, trenches, electric fences and towers. The consequence was that movement from East Germany to West Germany became even more difficult. There were some special entry or check points which remained the sole connection routes between the East and the West, among them the most famous was Checkpoint Charlie, mostly used by officials or people bearing special permits. There were some successful and many unsuccessful attempts by the people of the East to crossover to the West. Because scaling the wall meant a ticket to freedom, the Berlin Wall became symbolic of confinement. 

As the grasp of the Soviet Union slackened and it began to face an internal crisis, Communism too collapsed in several countries like former Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland. US President Ronald Regan challenged Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 to “tear down the wall” so as to give more freedom. It was a thought that didn’t go down too well with the Communists. East German leader Erich Honecker vowed in January 1989 that the wall would stand for “another 100 years”. But conditions were changing fast. Civil unrest began to brew in East Germany and there was a full-fledged ‘Peaceful Revolution’ in September 1989. As a consequence, German Democratic Republic’s leader Honecker had to resign by October.

Suddenly after a politburo decision, an official announcement was made on November 09, 1989 that all check posts across the Berlin Wall were going to be thrown open. While the date of the opening of gates was meant to be November 17, a chance error in the announcement put the order into effect immediately. People in the thousands began to gather at these points to see for themselves whether unchecked movement had indeed been allowed.

On finding the news to be true, the mob turned into an oceanic surge, and people began in a spontaneous and completely unpremeditated way to chip away at the wall with hammers and sickles while the world watched the celebrations on television sets. By the time the night ended, lo and behold, the Berlin Wall had vanished!

Germany reunified 11 months later.