News

    Berlin Wall Anniversary Sparks Look At History

    Cover of Frederick Taylor's "The Berlin Wall - A World Divided 1961-1989"
    Cover of Frederick Taylor's "The Berlin Wall - A World Divided 1961-1989"

    Multimedia

    Audio

    <!-- IMAGE -->

    November 9 marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. We spoke with British historian Frederick Taylor, an expert on the Berlin Wall, author of the book The Berlin Wall - A World Divided 1961-1989, about what prompted East German authorities to build the wall in the first place.

    Under the terms of the 1945 Yalta Agreement, the victorious allies of World War II divided Germany into four sectors, or zones of occupation: the American, British, French and Soviet zones.

    About 160 kilometers inside the Soviet zone lay Germany's war scarred capital Berlin. The city was also divided into four sectors along the same lines as Germany.

    As the post-war period went from months into years, tensions emerged between the Soviets and the three Western allies. In 1949, the Western zones of Germany split from the communist, Soviet-allied government in East Germany - the area that surrounded Berlin.  Historian Frederick Taylor.

    "Berlin, sitting inside the Soviet zone - a kind of Trojan horse, if you will, of capitalism as the Soviets and their German communist allies saw it - became this symbol of a Western way of life continuing to exist inside what was increasingly the frozen and repressive Cold War Soviet bloc," said Frederick Taylor.
     

    <!-- IMAGE -->

    Taylor says a border was built between East and West Germany.

    "By 1952, in fact, there was a fortified border where you could be shot for trying to cross it from East to West," he said. "But in Berlin, because of the peculiar status of the city as a military-controlled area - and it continued to be controlled by military law, even after the two German states were set up - there were checkpoints and so on but people could actually travel pretty easily between East and West Berlin. This meant that East Germans, who were tired of the kind of poor standard of living and the lack of freedom in the communist-ruled East Germany, which by 1951 in fact was poorer than it had been four, three years earlier, not richer - could do so."

    Taylor says between 1949 and 1961, East Germany - out of a population of 17 million - lost around two and a half million people to West Germany.

    "In effect, what was obvious to the East German government and indeed, eventually, to their Soviet masters, by the end of the 1950s, as we go into 1960-61, was that their country was bleeding to death - bleeding its best and its brightest to the West," said Taylor. "So something had to be done about it. And the question was what."

    The historian says East German leaders had options.

    "They could have offered reforms, they could have offered a more efficient and productive economy," he said. "They could have offered the kinds of political freedoms and freedom of movement that most educated and civilized people require. But of course they didn't - they were attached to the Stalinist model of a command economy, now found in very, very few places in the world, possibly only in North Korea and Cuba, really."

    Taylor says the East German leadership felt the only way to stop the exodus of East Germans to West Germany, was to build a physical barrier. And they decided to do it between East and West Berlin.

    The historian says on the night of the 12 to the 13 of August 1961 - a weekend - tons of wood, cinder blocks and barbed wire were funneled into East Berlin.

    "Basically what they did first was to run barbed wire around everything, block many cross-streets that went from East to West Berlin with concrete tank trap material and cinder blocks," explained Frederick Taylor. "There were guards every few yards watching the workers who were putting up these barriers and basically they did the whole thing in less than 12 hours. By Sunday morning, the morning of Sunday August the 13th, 1961, everybody woke up, East and West Berliners alike and found that essentially, a barrier had been built. It wasn't yet a wall - it was a fence, a barbed wire fence with cinder blocks to block the streets and prevent vehicles getting through."

    Taylor says the barbed wire beginnings of the Berlin Wall divided overnight, with savage finality, neighborhoods, families and friends.

    "Wherever you were on that night, you had to decide what to do," he said. "If you were a Westerner staying in the East, they'll let you back - no question about that. If you were an Easterner staying in the West, say with relatives - which of course, it was a weekend, actually - a lot of people, several thousand in fact, were staying in the West and they had to decide what to do: to go back to their families or to stay in the West. Many, many of them decided to stay with considerable sacrifice. But also, simply there were neighborhoods - the new barrier ran literally down the middle of streets."

    The historian says it was about a week later that the first proper wall-like structure was constructed, south of the Brandenburg Gate. When fully built, the wall was about 43 kilometers long where it cut through the center of Berlin and more than 110 kilometers long as it divided West Berlin from East Germany. In addition, there were more than 300 watchtowers, as well as minefields, floodlights and guns that fired automatically.

    Taylor describes the feeling of many East Germans.

    "It's the great tragedy of this time," said Taylor. "It was the dashed hopes, the disappointment, the claustrophobia, the ghastly feeling of this lack of freedom of movement, the freedom to breathe, the freedom to feel, I think - that when I talked to people who lived through all that, that's always the most striking thing. I think it's very hard for us to understand."

    For the next several decades, East Germans tried to escape to freedom by using various methods, from climbing the wall to tunneling underneath it. Chances of making it were slim. But Taylor says people were willing to risk everything for the promise of a better life that lay just beyond the Berlin Wall.

     

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Turkish Kurd Islamist Rally Stokes Tensionsi
    X
    April 29, 2016 12:28 AM
    In a sign of the rising power of Islamists in Turkey, more than 100,000 people recently gathered in Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, to mark the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. The gathering highlighted tensions with the pro-secular Kurdish nationalist movement. Dorian Jones reports from Diyarbakir.
    Video

    Video Turkish Kurd Islamist Rally Stokes Tensions

    In a sign of the rising power of Islamists in Turkey, more than 100,000 people recently gathered in Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, to mark the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. The gathering highlighted tensions with the pro-secular Kurdish nationalist movement. Dorian Jones reports from Diyarbakir.
    Video

    Video Pakistani School Helps Slum Kids

    Master Mohammad Ayub runs a makeshift school in a public park in Islamabad. Thousands of poor children have benefited from his services over the years, but, as VOA's Ayesha Tanzeem reports, roughly 25 million school-age youths don't get an education in Pakistan.
    Video

    Video Florida’s Weeki Wachee ‘Mermaids’ Make a Splash

    Since 1947, ‘mermaids’ have fascinated tourists at central Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs State Park with their fluid movements and synchronized ballet. Performing underwater has its challenges, including cold temperatures and a steady current, as VOA’s Lin Yang and Joseph Mok report.
    Video

    Video Somali, African Union Forces Face Resurgent Al-Shabab

    The Islamic State terror group claimed its first attack in Somalia earlier this week, though the claim has not been verified by forces on the ground. Meanwhile, al-Shabab militants have stepped up their attacks as Somalia prepares for elections later this year. Henry Ridgwell reports there are growing frustrations among Somalia’s Western backers over the country’s slow progress in forming its own armed forces to establish security after 25 years of chaos.
    Video

    Video Bangladesh Targeted Killings Spark Wave of Fear

    People in Bangladesh’s capital are expressing deep concern over the brutal attacks that have killed secular blogger, and most recently a gay rights activist and an employee of the U.S. embassy. Xulhaz Mannan, an embassy protocol officer and the editor of the country’s only gay and transgender magazine Roopban; and his friend Mehboob Rabbi Tanoy, a gay rights activist, were hacked to death by five attackers in Mannan’s Dhaka home earlier this month.
    Video

    Video Documentary Tells Tale of Chernobyl Returnees

    Ukraine this week is marking the 30th anniversary of the world's worst nuclear accident, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Soviet officials at first said little about the accident, but later evacuated a 2,600-square-kilometer "exclusion zone." Some people, though, came back. American directors Holly Morris and Anne Bogart created a documentary about this faithful and brave community. VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko reports from New York on "The Babushkas of Chernobyl." Carol Pearson narrates.
    Video

    Video Nigerians Feel Bite of Buhari Economic Policy

    Despite the global drop in the price of oil, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has refused to allow the country's currency to devalue, leading to a shortage of foreign exchange. Chris Stein reports from Lagos businessmen and consumers are feeling the impact as the country deals with a severe fuel shortage.
    Video

    Video  Return to the Wild

    There’s a growing trend in the United States to let old or underused golf courses revert back to nature. But as Erika Celeste reports from one parcel in Grafton, Ohio, converting 39 hectares of land back to green space is a lot more complicated than just not mowing the fairway.
    Video

    Video West Urges Unity in Libya as Migrant Numbers Soar

    The Italian government says a NATO-led mission aimed at stemming the flow of migrants from Libya to Europe could be up and running by July. There are concerns that the number of migrants could soar as the route through Greece and the Balkans remains blocked. Western powers say the political chaos in Libya is being exploited by people smugglers — and they are pressuring rival groups to come together under the new unity government. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
    Video

    Video Russia’s TV Rain Swims Against Tide in Sea of Kremlin Propaganda

    Russia’s media freedoms have been gradually eroded under President Vladimir Putin as his government has increased state ownership, influence, and restrictions on critical reporting. Television, where most Russians get their news, has been the main target and is now almost completely state controlled. But in the Russian capital, TV Rain stands out as an island in a sea of Kremlin propaganda.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora