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Wall That Couldn't Stop History Remembered 50 Years Later

  • Doug Johnson

Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl sits amid pupils next to a piece of the Berlin Wall next to his home in Ludwigshafen August 9, 2011.

Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl sits amid pupils next to a piece of the Berlin Wall next to his home in Ludwigshafen August 9, 2011.

For years, the German boulevard known as Bernauer Strasse ran through nearly the middle of Berlin, north to south. It was a street of commerce, where families grew up and friends met.

Then, quite suddently in 1961, East German police started doing something very strange. Through the middle of the street, they began methodically laying brick after brick; cinder blocks held together with an abundance of mortar.

Right before people's eyes, the Berlin Wall was being born.

"I remember it going up - it wasn't a big surprise to anybody," says Gene Mater, then the news director at Radio Free Europe and now a scholar at the Freedom Forum in Washington. "The most dramatic moments [were] what happened in the Bernhauer Strasse. There were all these apartment buildings...and workmen in there knocking out all the windows and bricking them up. And so suddenly the apartment houses becamse part of the wall. And so no longer could they not get to freedom, the couldn't see it."

From 1961 - starting first as brick and barbed wire before graduating to serious concrete - the Berlin Wall kept the people of East German from fleeing to the West...in addition to making many "Westies" feel a little more than trapped.

Many people tried to cross the wall - few successfully. From 1961 to 1989, it was a physical barrier that became a symbol of the gulf between West and East, between capitalist Europe and the U.S. and communist Russia.

In 1988 Erich Honecher, the East German head of state, boasted the wall would last 50 to 100 more years. A few months later, he was ousted from office, and the wall began to fall.

Gene Mater was there to see the Wall go up - and he was there to see the wall come down. People who lived on either side of it, he says, came to ignore it - "You reach a point where you sort of forgot about that wall. It was there, but you didn't want to see it."

Few, if any parts of the wall still exist in Berlin. After its fall, parts were broken up and shipped all over the world. The largest segment, in fact, is at the Freedom Forum's "Newseum" - where Gene Mater still gets to see the Wall on a daily basis.

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