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Berlin Wall Anniversary Sparks Look at History

This undated 1962 file photo shows an East German People's Republic Army soldier observing a worker as he erects the Berlin Wall near Bernauer Street in Berlin, Germany.
This undated 1962 file photo shows an East German People's Republic Army soldier observing a worker as he erects the Berlin Wall near Bernauer Street in Berlin, Germany.

November 9th marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

We spoke with British historian Frederick Taylor, an expert on the Berlin Wall and 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 Two 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 capital Berlin. The city was also divided into four sectors along the same lines as Germany.

Tensions Between Soviets and Western powers

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 said “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.”

Taylor said 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. 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,” said Taylor.

“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,” he said.

Exodus From East Germany

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,” he said. “So something had to be done about it. And the question was what.”

The historian said East German leaders had options.

“They could have offered reforms, they could have offered a more efficient and productive economy. They could have offered the kinds of political freedoms and freedom of movement that most educated and civilized people require,” he said. “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 said 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.

Berlin Wall Erected

The historian said on the night of the 12th to the 13th of August 1961 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. 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,” said Taylor.

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

Families and Neighborhoods Divided

“Wherever you were on that night, you had to decide what to do. 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 said 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 described the feeling of many East Germans.

“It’s the great tragedy of this time. 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,” said Taylor.

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.

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    Andre de Nesnera

    Andre de Nesnera is senior analyst at the Voice of America, where he has reported on international affairs for more than three decades. Now serving in Washington D.C., he was previously senior European correspondent based in London, established VOA’s Geneva bureau in 1984 and in 1989 was the first VOA correspondent permanently accredited in the Soviet Union.