News

Berlin Wall Anniversary Sparks Look At History

Cover of Frederick Taylor's
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.
Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOAi
X
August 31, 2015 2:17 AM
Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.

VOA Blogs