East German guards gun down a young man trying to escape across the Berlin Wall into West Berlin and leave him to bleed to death. It was one of the ugliest incidents to take place at one of the ugliest symbols of the Cold War.
READ MORE: All the Ways People Escaped Across the Berlin Wall
The 1962 incident occurred almost a year to the day that construction began on the Berlin Wall. In August 1961, East Berlin authorities began stringing barbed wire across the boundary between East and West Berlin. In just a matter of days, a concrete block wall was under construction, complete with guard towers. In the months that followed, more barbed wire, machine guns, searchlights, guard posts, dogs, mines, and concrete barriers were set up, completely separating the two halves of the city. American officials condemned the communist action, but did nothing to halt construction of the wall.
On August 17, 1962, two young men from East Berlin attempted to scramble to freedom across the wall. One was successful in climbing the last barbed wire fence and, though suffering numerous cuts, made it safely to West Berlin. While horrified West German guards watched, the second young man was shot by machine guns on the East Berlin side. He fell but managed to stand up again, reach the wall, and begin to climb over. More shots rang out. The young man was hit in the back, screamed, and fell backwards off of the wall. For nearly an hour, he lay bleeding to death and crying for help. West German guards threw bandages to the man, and an angry crowd of West Berlin citizens screamed at the East German security men who seemed content to let the young man die. He finally did die, and East German guards scurried to where he lay and removed his body.
During the history of the Berlin Wall (1961 to 1989), nearly 80 people were killed trying to cross from East to West Berlin. East German officials always claimed that the wall was erected to protect the communist regime from the pernicious influences of Western capitalism and culture. In the nearly 30 years that the wall existed, however, no one was ever shot trying to enter East Berlin.
Between 1945 and 1988, around 4 million East Germans migrated to the West. 3.454 million of them left between 1945 and the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. The great majority simply walked across the border or, after 1952, exited through West Berlin. After the border was fortified and the Berlin Wall was constructed, the number of illegal border crossings fell drastically. The numbers fell further as the border defenses were improved over the subsequent decades. In 1961, 8,507 people fled across the border, most of them through West Berlin. The construction of the Berlin Wall that year reduced the number of escapees by 75% to around 2,300 per annum for the rest of the decade. The Wall changed Berlin from being one of the easiest places to cross the border, from the East, to be one of the most difficult.  The number of escapees fell further to 868 per annum during the 1970s and to only 334 per annum between 1980 and 1988. However, escapees were never more than a small minority of the total number of emigrants from East Germany. Far more people left the country after being granted official permits, by fleeing through third countries or by being ransomed to the West German government. During the 1980s, only about 1% of those who left East Germany did so by escaping across the border. 
|Escapes through |
|Total (+ 1961)||616,066||382,481||163,815||40,100||29,670|
Escapees had various motives for attempting to flee East Germany. The vast majority had an essentially economic motive: they wished to improve their living conditions and opportunities in the West. Some fled for political reasons, but many were impelled to leave by specific social and political events. The imposition of collective agriculture and the crushing of the 1953 East German uprising prompted thousands to flee to the West, as did further coercive economic restructuring in 1960. Thousands of those who fled did so to escape the clearance of their villages along the border. By the 1980s, the number of escape attempts was rising again as East Germany's economy stagnated and living conditions deteriorated. 
Attempts to flee across the border were carefully studied and recorded by the East German authorities to identify possible weak points. These were addressed by strengthening the fortifications in vulnerable areas. The East German Army (NVA) and the Ministry for State Security (Stasi) carried out statistical surveys to identify trends. In one example, a study was carried out by the NVA at the end of the 1970s to review attempted "border breaches" (Grenzdurchbrüche). It found that 4,956 people had attempted to escape across the border between 1 January 1974 and 30 November 1979. Of those, 3,984 people (80.4%) were arrested by the People's Police in the Sperrzone, the outer restricted zone. 205 people (4.1%) were caught at the signal fence. Within the inner security zone, the Schutzstreifen, a further 743 people (15%) were arrested by the border guards. 48 people (1%) were stopped – i.e. killed or injured – by landmines and 43 people (0.9%) by SM-70 directional mines on the border fence. A further 67 people (1.35%) were intercepted at the border fence (shot and/or arrested). The study highlighted the effectiveness of the SM-70 as a means of stopping people getting across the fence. A total of 229 people – just 4.6% of attempted escapees, representing less than one in twenty – made it across the border fence. Of these, the largest number (129, or 55% of successful escapees) succeeded in making it across the fence in unmined sectors. 89 people (39% of escapees) managed to cross both the minefields and the border fence, but just 12 people (6% of the total) succeeded in getting past the SM-70s. 
Escape attempts were severely punished by the East German state. From 1953, the regime described the act of escaping as Republikflucht (literally "flight from the Republic"), by analogy with the existing military term Fahnenflucht ("desertion"). A successful escapee was not a Flüchtling ("refugee") but a Republikflüchtiger ("Republic-deserter"). Those who attempted to escape were called Sperrbrecher (literally "blockade runners" but more loosely translated as "border violators").  Those who helped escapees were not Fluchthelfer ("escape helpers"), the Western term, but Menschenhändler ("human traffickers").  Such ideologically coloured language enabled the regime to portray border crossers as little better than traitors and criminals.  An East German propaganda booklet published in 1955 outlined the official view of escapees:
Both from the moral standpoint as well as in terms of the interests of the whole German nation, leaving the GDR is an act of political and moral backwardness and depravity.
Those who let themselves be recruited objectively serve West German Reaction and militarism, whether they know it or not. Is it not despicable when for the sake of a few alluring job offers or other false promises about a "guaranteed future" one leaves a country in which the seed for a new and more beautiful life is sprouting, and is already showing the first fruits, for the place that favors a new war and destruction?
Is it not an act of political depravity when citizens, whether young people, workers, or members of the intelligentsia, leave and betray what our people have created through common labor in our republic to offer themselves to the American or British secret services or work for the West German factory owners, Junkers, or militarists? Does not leaving the land of progress for the morass of an historically outdated social order demonstrate political backwardness and blindness? .
[W]orkers throughout Germany will demand punishment for those who today leave the German Democratic Republic, the strong bastion of the fight for peace, to serve the deadly enemy of the German people, the imperialists and militarists. 
Republikflucht became a crime in 1957, punishable by heavy fines and up to three years' imprisonment. Any act associated with an escape attempt was subject to this legislation. Those caught in the act were often tried for espionage as well and given proportionately harsher sentences.  More than 75,000 people – an average of more than seven people a day – were imprisoned for attempting to escape across the border, serving an average of one to two years' imprisonment. Border guards who attempted to escape were treated much more harshly and were on average imprisoned for five years.  Those who helped escapees were also subject to punishment, facing prison terms or deportation to internal exile in faraway towns. Some 50,000 East Germans suffered this fate between 1952 and 1989. 
Refugees used a variety of methods to escape across the border. The great majority crossed on foot, though some took more unusual routes. One of the most spectacular was the balloon escape in September 1979 of eight people from two families in a home-made hot-air balloon. Their flight involved an ascent to more than 2,500 metres (8,200 ft) before landing near the West German town of Naila,  inspiring the 1982 film Night Crossing and the 2018 film Balloon. Other escapees relied more on physical strength and endurance. An escapee in 1987 used meat hooks to scale the border fences,  while in 1971 a doctor swam 45 kilometres (28 mi) across the Baltic Sea from Rostock almost to the Danish island of Lolland, before he was picked up by a West German yacht.  Another escapee used an air mattress to escape across the Baltic in 1987.  Mass escapes were rare. One of the few that succeeded took place on 2 October 1961, when 53 people from the border village of Böseckendorf – a quarter of the village's population – escaped en masse, followed by another 13 inhabitants in February 1963.  An unusual mass escape occurred in September 1964 when 14 East Germans, including eleven children, were smuggled across the border in a refrigerated truck. They were able to escape detection by being concealed under the carcasses of slaughtered and stuffed pigs being transported to the West. 
Those working on or near the border were occasionally able to use their privileged access and knowledge to escape. For the border guards, this presented special dangers, as their colleagues were under orders to shoot without warning if an escape attempt was made. The dilemmas they faced were highlighted in the May 1969 defection of a soldier and a non-commissioned officer (NCO) of the Grenztruppen. When the NCO made his escape, the soldier, Jürgen Lange, decided not to shoot him. As this exposed Lange to severe punishment by his superiors for disobeying the order to shoot, Lange made his own escape ten minutes later. When he reached the West German side, Lange found that his rifle had been sabotaged by his NCO to prevent him firing in the first place.  Soviet soldiers also sometimes escaped across the border, though this was very rare. Only eight such defections succeeded between 1953 and 1984. 
The traffic was not solely one-way thousands of people a year migrated from West Germany to East Germany. The East German press described such individuals as "west zone refugees" who were fleeing "political pressure", "growing unlawfulness", or "worsening economic conditions". Research carried out by the West German government found more prosaic reasons, such as marital problems, family estrangement, and the homesickness of those who had lived in East Germany in the past.  A number of Allied military personnel, including British, French, West German, and United States troops, also defected.  By the end of the Cold War, as many as 300 United States citizens were thought to have defected across the Iron Curtain for a variety of reasons  – whether to escape criminal charges, for political reasons, or because (as the St. Petersburg Times put it) "girl-hungry GIs [were tempted] with seductive sirens, who usually desert the love-lorn soldier once he is across the border." The fate of such defectors varied considerably. Some were sent straight to labour camps on charges of espionage. Others committed suicide, while a few were able to find wives and work on the eastern side of the border. 
From 1945 onwards, unauthorised crossers of the inner German border risked being shot by Soviet or East German border guards. The use of deadly force was termed the Schießbefehl ("order to fire" or "command to shoot"). It was formally in force as early as 1948, when regulations concerning the use of firearms on the border were promulgated. A regulation issued to East German police 27 May 1952 stipulated that "failure to obey the orders of the Border Patrol will be met by the use of arms." From the 1960s to the end of the 1980s, the border guards were given daily verbal orders (Vergatterung) to "track down, arrest or annihilate border violators." The GDR formally codified its regulations on the use of deadly force in March 1982, when the State Border Law mandated that firearms were to be used as the "maximum measure in the use of force" against individuals who "publicly attempt to break through the state border".  The GDR's leadership explicitly endorsed the use of deadly force. General Heinz Hoffmann, the GDR Minister of Defence, declared in August 1966 that "anyone who does not respect our border will feel the bullet." In 1974, Erich Honecker, as Chairman of the National Defense Council of East Germany, ordered: "Firearms are to be ruthlessly used in the event of attempts to break through the border, and the comrades who have successfully used their firearms are to be commended." 
East German border guards had a standard procedure to follow if they detected unauthorised individuals in the border zone. (Though the West Germans referred to the control strip as a "death strip", deadly force could be used at any location along the border – it did not depend on an individual's being in, or crossing, the control strip.) If the individual was less than 100 metres (330 ft) away, the border guard would first order: "Stop! Border sentry! Hands up!" ("Halt! Grenzposten! Hände hoch!") or "Stop, stand still, or I will shoot!" ("Halt! Stehenbleiben, oder ich schieße!"). If the individual was further away or on the Western side of the border fence the guard was authorised to shoot without warning. If the escapee was a fellow border guard, he could be shot immediately from any distance without prior warning. Border guards were instructed not to shoot if innocent bystanders might be hit or if the escapee had made it into West German territory, or if the line of fire was into West Germany. In practice, though, shots fired from East Germany often landed in West German territory. 
The border guards were under considerable pressure to obey the Schießbefehl. If they shot escapees they were rewarded with medals, bonuses, and sometimes promotion. In one typical example, the killers of one would-be escapee in East Berlin in February 1972 were rewarded by being decorated with the "Order of Merit of the Border Troops of the GDR" and a bonus of 150 marks.  By contrast, failure to shoot or suspicion that a shooter had deliberately missed was punished. 
The Schießbefehl was, not surprisingly, very controversial in the West and was singled out for criticism by the West Germans. The West German authorities established a "Central Recording Office" to record details of deaths on the border, with the ultimate aim of prosecuting the offenders. This significantly discomfited the East German authorities, who repeatedly but unsuccessfully demanded the office's closure.  The GDR authorities occasionally suspended the Schießbefehl on occasions when it would have been politically inconvenient to have to explain dead refugees, such as during a visit to the GDR by the French foreign minister in 1985.  It was also a problem for many of the East German border guards and was the motivating factor behind a number of escapes, when guards facing a crisis of confidence defected because of their unwillingness to shoot fellow citizens. 
It is not known how many people died on the inner German border or who they were, as East Germany treated such information as a closely guarded secret. But numbers have risen steadily since unification, as evidence has been gathered from East German records. Current unofficial estimates put the figure at up to 1,100 people,  though officially released figures give a lower count for the death toll before and after the Berlin Wall was built.
People killed crossing the East German borders before and after 13 August 1961: figures as of 2000 
Before 13 August 1961 (1) After 13 August 1961 (1) Total (1) Total (2) Inner German border 100 271 371 290 Berlin border/Wall 16 239 255 96 Baltic Sea 15 174 189 17 GDR border guards 11 16 27 – Soviet troops 1 5 6 – Berlin ring road – – – 90 Aircraft shot down 14 3 17 – Total 160 753 916 519
(1) Figures from the Arbeitsgemeinschaft 13. August
(2) Figures from the Zentrale Erfassungsstelle für Regierungs- und Vereinigungskriminalität
There were many ways to die on the inner German border. Some escapees were shot by the border guards, while others were killed by mines and booby-traps. A substantial number drowned while trying to cross the Baltic and the Elbe river. Some died of heart attacks during their escape attempts in one incident, a baby died after its parents gave it sleeping pills to keep it quiet during the crossing.  A 2014 news report estimated that over 5,600 tried to escape via the Baltic Sea between 1961 and 1989, but fewer than 1,000 were successful. 
Not all of those killed on the border were attempting to escape. On 13 October 1961, Westfälische Rundschau journalist Kurt Lichtenstein was shot on the border near the village of Zicherie after he attempted to speak with East German farm workers. His death aroused condemnation across the political spectrum in West Germany he was a former parliamentary representative of the German Communist Party.  The incident prompted students from Braunschweig to erect a sign on the border protesting the killing.  An apparent mix-up over papers at a border crossing point led to the shooting of Benito Corghi, an Italian truck driver, in August 1976. Corghi was a member of the Italian Communist Party, which denounced the killing. The episode severely embarrassed the East German government and produced an unusual apology.  In one notorious shooting on 1 May 1976, a former East German political prisoner, Michael Gartenschläger, who had fled to the West some years before, was ambushed and killed by a Stasi commando squad on the border near Büchen as he tried to dismantle an SM-70 anti-personnel mine. When his body was buried it was described merely as an "unknown body fished out of the water". The Stasi's after-action report, however, declared that "before he could carry out the act [of removing the mine], Gartenschläger was liquidated by security forces of the GDR". 
Twenty-five East German border guards died after being shot from the Western side of the border or by resisting escapees or (often accidentally) by their own colleagues.  The East German government described them as "victims of armed assaults and imperialist provocations against the state border of the GDR"  and alleged that "bandits" in the West took potshots at border guards doing their duty – a version of events that was uncorroborated by Western accounts of border incidents.
In the year since the Wall went up, 20 people have died trying to escape to the West. West Berliners fall silent for three minutes at midday on 13 August 1962 to commemorate the Wall’s victims. Afterwards they protest by honking their horns. Horst Materna describes how many Berliners had accepted the Wall and already saw it as a part of everyday life.
East German soldier helps a little boy sneak across the Berlin Wall, 1961
East German soldier helps a little boy sneak across the Berlin Wall, August 13, 1961.
This is a photograph of an East German soldier helping a little boy cross the newly erected Berlin Wall the day it was built. A boy who’d gotten left behind in the chaos of people fleeing and families caught on different sides of the border. The soldier is young, and his eyes, looking warily over his shoulder, are full of fear. And yet, he persisted.
Despite being given orders by the East German government to let no one pass into East Berlin, the soldier helped the boy sneak through the barbwire. It was reported that the soldier was caught doing this benevolent deed by his superior officer, who removed the soldier from his unit. Hopefully, his punishment was minor and he wasn’t imprisoned or shot. Descriptions of this photo come with the caveat that “no one knows what became of him”.
But how did this little boy end up on the opposite side of the wall from his parents? According to Checkpoint Charlie Museum in Berlin, one of the boy’s parents, his father, was with the boy in West Germany visiting relatives while the rest of the boy’s family was at home in the East.
The prohibition against crossing sectors did occur overnight thus separating this family. The father believed that the boy should grow up with his mother, so he had the boy walk to the fence where this soldier lifted him across.
On the night between the 12th and the 13th of August 1961, the police and units of the East German army began to close the border and, by Sunday morning, the border with West Berlin was closed.
East German troops and workers had begun to tear up streets running alongside the border to make them impassable to most vehicles and to install barbed wire entanglements and fences along the 156 kilometers (97 miles) around the three western sectors, and the 43 kilometers (27 miles) that divided West and East Berlin.
The barrier was built inside East Berlin or East German territory to ensure that it did not encroach on West Berlin at any point. Generally, the Wall was only slightly inside East Berlin, but in a few places, it was some distance from the legal border. Later, the initial barrier was built up into the Wall proper, the first concrete elements and large blocks being put in place on 17 August.
Opening the Berlin Wall
Jaeger called the boss yet again, he said. But his superior had contacted his own boss again, but no one in command knew what to do.
"My boss told me in no uncertain terms that he had no more orders," Jaeger said. "I was practically left on my own."
Jaeger, who was 18 years old when he first joined the East German army, witnessed the wall being built in 1961. He knew that the situation could easily get out of hand.
A few days before, East German leader Egon Krenz had been visiting Moscow to discuss his country's deteriorating situation with Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev, who had made it clear that the Soviet leadership opposed any use of force against the East German people.
Instead, Krenz was told the Politburo should do everything possible to stabilize the situation and bring people around.
Krenz had barely been back to East Berlin when East German border guards were instructed to avoid the use of firearms on any account, a drastic change from the "shoot to kill" order that had been existing for many years.
For once in his long career, Jaeger did not know what to do.
The situation outside his command post became nastier by the minute.
People were screaming and shouting. They wanted to be let through the wall that had kept them from the Western world and the situation was escalating dramatically.
He thought it would not be long before people would turn violent against a handful of border guards outside the command post, who were helplessly confronted by thousands of angry East Berliners now.
That's when Jaeger decided, shortly after 11 p.m., to give the order, "Open the gate," making the checkpoint at Bornholmer Strasse the very first one to let a couple thousand East Berliners through into West Berlin.
Most of those people, who had been gathering there for a couple of hours, returned shortly.
For the most part, they just wanted to see what it was like there and if the Politburo was telling the truth, for once, when Politburo members announced that East Germans were free to travel.
Other checkpoints were also opened in the course of the night of Nov. 9, 1989, but the one under Jaeger's command was the first to let many thousand easterners through the gates into the West, most of them just to experience and enjoy their sudden freedom of movement.
- In 1979 two East German families - the Wetzels and Strelzyks, four adults and four children in total - flew from Thüringia to Bavaria using a secretly made hot-air balloon
- In 1986 East Berliners Karsten Klünder and Dirk Deckert reached Danish waters in the Baltic after setting off on surfboards with home-made sails
- In 1988 the Kostbades - a family of four - paddled a tiny rubber dinghy 111km (69 miles) across the Baltic to the West
- The Bethke brothers all fled to the West in novel ways: Ingo got there by crossing a river on an air mattress with a friend Holger used a bow and arrow to fire a cable across the Berlin Wall, and zip-wired to the West and in May 1989 Ingo and Holger flew two ultra-light planes over the Wall, picked up brother Egbert, and flew back to the West
- In 1964 West Germans risked their lives by smuggling 57 East Germans to the West via a tunnel they had dug under the Wall - later dubbed "Tunnel 57"
The heavily guarded border stretched for about 1,400km, from the Baltic Sea to Czechoslovakia. It had mines, tank traps, barbed wire and watch-towers.
East Germany - officially called the GDR - fortified it to halt an exodus of people from the Soviet-controlled zone to West Germany.
The Berlin Wall: everything you need to know
It is just over 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, East Germany’s concrete solution to the mass haemorrhaging of its citizens to the west across the open border of West Berlin at the height of the Cold War. For 28 years following the fateful border closure on Sunday 13 August 1961, the edifice which inspired the novels of John le Carré and Len Deighton had become a fixture in the Cold War landscape, threatening death to any daring to cross it.
Why was the Berlin Wall built?
In the 1950s, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) – that part of Germany which had been the Soviet Occupation Zone in the post-WW2 division of Germany – was threatening to bleed dry, as one in six people fled, usually in search of work under West Germany’s ’economic miracle’ (but in some cases fleeing political or religious persecution). The GDR desperately wanted to halt this so-called ‘brain-drain’, so in August 1961 the East German communists were given the go-ahead by Moscow to close the border and build a physical barrier. The fact that the west did not officially recognise the so-called ‘GDR’, coupled with the risks of escalation, meant that the decision could only come from the Kremlin.
The Berlin Wall turned the usual function of walls – to keep people out – on its head this wall was solely to keep its citizens in.
What was life like in East Berlin before the Wall? What events led to the Wall being built?
In 1952 East Germany had sealed its mainland border to West Germany, along the river Elbe and in the mountains of the Harz, with barbed wire and fire zones (where all vegetation was cut back within 100m of the border to allow guards an unencumbered field of fire). But there was an unpluggable leak in the centre of the GDR, in the four-power city of Berlin, whose three western sectors were still protected by the US, Britain and France under post-war agreements which Moscow was unwilling to flout.
The Soviets had already tried to force the Western powers out during the Blockade of 1948–49 but were foiled by the famous Anglo-American airlift. The communists closed the sector boundary temporarily after the abortive insurrection in East Germany in June 1953, but within weeks it was open again.
So, throughout the 1950s East Germans could simply walk across from East to West Berlin. Underground trains still rumbled below. Once across East Germans, who might otherwise have feared being stopped at the overland border, could fly over it from Tempelhof in the US sector out to the Federal Republic.
Day-trippers could come and visit the neon delights of West Berlin, buying the latest records and maybe even a pair of jeans, before disappearing back east. By 1961 there were also around 60,000 so-called Grenzgänger, Cold War commuters who lived in one half of the city and worked in the other, many of them women members of the ‘scrubbing-brush brigade’, working the grey economy for a few hard deutschmarks. Some young East Germans had even learnt to play the border, for instance young men targeted for military service, who ‘contaminated’ themselves with a short stay in the west.
West Berlin was also the base for dozens of Western espionage agencies, exploiting its position behind the Iron Curtain. The CIA and Britain’s SIS (Secret Intelligence Service) appeared in the mid-1950s to have pulled off one of the Cold War’s biggest signals intelligence coups with their eavesdropping tunnel under the sector boundary to tap Soviet cable traffic, until it was revealed that the KGB, the Soviet Union’s intelligence agency, had known all along through their MI6 super-mole, George Blake.
Western intelligence also interviewed thousands of defectors arriving at the Marienfelde transit camp. Little did they know that one of their own German associates, Götz Schlicht, was a Stasi double-agent – no wonder Berlin became known as the city of spies and counter-spies! When the leader of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev threatened the four-power status of the city with his famous Ultimatum in 1958 – which gave the western powers six months to vacate the city before turning it over to the East Germans as part of their rightful capital – the west, and the US in particular, dug in their heels once again. By 1961 the new US president, John F Kennedy, was even threatening nuclear retaliation if West Berlin were touched.
The GDR had therefore run out of ‘territorial’ options to stop the brain-drain by 1961. The Volkspolizei could not pull every suspected defector off trains headed for Berlin the Stasi could not investigate every tip-off and it was clear that West Berlin would not be negotiated off the geopolitical map. A more simple but drastic solution was needed. At a press conference in June East German leader Walter Ulbricht famously reassured journalists that “no-one has the intention to build a wall”. Whether this was a Freudian slip (no correspondent had asked about a wall!) or a Machiavellian ploy to encourage a stampede for the exit, it had the desired effect. To halt the exodus that was filling western transit camps to capacity, the East German communists were finally permitted by Moscow to close the border in August 1961 and build a physical barrier.
What was the Berlin Wall made from?
In a top-secret operation, observing radio silence, East German police and militia established a human cordon all along the margins of West Berlin. East German troops formed a second echelon and Soviet army units a third. Assured by their Stasi forward observers in West Berlin that the western military presence would not react, the border forces went from erecting provisional wire-mesh fences to a more solid breeze-block wall, topped with barbed wire.
Western commentators, including West Berlin’s mayor Willy Brandt, immediately drew parallels with Nazi concentration camps. The early wooden guard towers looked all-too like something from the recent past. Indeed, Willi Seifert, commander of the GDR’s interior troops tasked with erecting the barrier, had himself been a concentration camp inmate under the Nazis.
The GDR portrayed it as a border that saved the peace, even filming spy dramas such as For Eyes Only (1963) which tried to convince eastern viewers that NATO had been planning a pre-emptive strike on East Germany. Few were convinced. When US President Kennedy visited the Wall that year he was visibly shocked, changing parts of his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech at the last minute to underline the west’s bleak view of the ‘Wall of shame’.
How long was the Berlin Wall?
All told, the border installations around West Berlin zig-zagged for 163 kilometres, or just over 100 miles. Around 100km of this was covered by an actual wall, mainly at the inner-city interface, with another 50 or more kilometres made up of heavy wire mesh around West Berlin’s green border with the Brandenburg countryside. Mines were sown in the ground or strung along certain sections of fencing, not removed until the 1980s.
The remainder of the border was made up of existing cemetery walls or house facades, including the sinister bricked-up windows along the Bernauer Straße. In the mid-1960s the structure was modernised, and received an anti-grip tube along its top, before becoming the final ‘Border Wall 75’ in the mid-1970s, when a series of L-shaped, pre-fabricated monoliths regularised its appearance. At 3.6 metres tall, it had been scientifically demonstrated by a troop of East German army athletes to be unscalable and unvaultable without artificial assistance.
Listen to Hester Vaizey explore how the fall of the Berlin Wall affected East Germans:
How many people were killed trying to cross the Wall?
The Berlin Wall claimed the lives of at least 140 people. The first was 58-year old Ida Siekmann, who died on 22 August 1961 after jumping from a third-storey window in the famous Bernauer Straße, whose house-fronts constituted the border. Two days later, 24-year old Günter Litfin was machine-gunned in the waters of the inner-city docks now overlooked by Berlin’s main railway station.
The most public incident occurred on 17 August 1962 when two teenage East Berlin boys sprinted across no-man’s land near a border crossing-point nicknamed Checkpoint Charlie. One made it over, but 18-year old Peter Fechter was shot in the back and collapsed. Western photographers leaned over, calling on guards to rescue the unfortunate teen, but he was left to bleed out at the foot of the Wall, the guards apparently afraid of retaliatory fire from the west.
Yet not all escapes were such clear-cut tragedies. One would-be escaper had been a part-time Stasi informer who missed his good times in the west. Failing a consolation entrance exam into the secret police, Werner Probst then decided to leave once and for all. Slipping into the River Spree one night in October 1961, close to the iconic Oberbaum Bridge, he was picked out in the water by a searchlight and shot just short of the far bank.
Another nocturnal fire-fight three years later involved a tunnel that had been dug from West Berlin into a back yard on the far side. (Visitors to the Berlin Wall Memorial today can trace its path marked in the former no-man’s land.) Tunnellers had emerged inside an outside lavatory which offered convenient cover: 57 escapers ‘went’ but never returned. But their luck could not hold forever. Alerted by Stasi informants, armed border troops arrived, and in the ensuing confrontation one guard, Egon Schultz, was caught in the crossfire, hit in the shoulder by a West Berlin escape helper’s pistol and in the chest by a comrade’s Kalashnikov rifle. Only after the Cold War did it emerge that he had been killed by friendly fire. Indeed, over half of the 25 border guards killed at the border were shot by their own side.
The last people killed trying to cross the Berlin Wall were Chris Gueffroy, shot in February 1989, and Winfried Freudenberg, whose homemade hot-air balloon came to grief a month later. Yet far more persons escaped than were killed at the Berlin Wall. In the early sixties, escapers jumped from rooftops, abseiled from windows, burst through the Wall in improvised armoured trucks and steam locomotives, and hijacked ferries. But the numbers escaping dwindled from the thousands in the early 1960s to a handful each year by the 1980s. Yet, even in 1988 there were still around half a dozen escape attempts each month, more than half of which were successful, usually involving guards defecting, building workers exploiting repairs on the ‘front line’, or civilians using ingenious collapsible ladders to defeat the wall.
What does the graffiti on the Berlin Wall mean?
The Berlin Wall’s smooth surface became beloved of western graffiti artists who fought running battles with border guards’ whitewashings. New York hip hop-inspired artist Keith Haring became a coveted spray artist Frenchman Thierry Noir specialised in colourful, primitivist Wall art.
For some former East German dissidents, however, such graffiti trivialised or aestheticised the Wall, leading one group of masked vigilantes to paint a white ‘delete’ line through the DayGlo, until they were seized by a border guard snatch squad through one of the secret doors built into the Wall. (Many forgot to their cost that the five metres on the western side of the Wall also belonged to East Berlin!) Other artists employed elaborate trompe l’oeil effects to camouflage the concrete behind, and countless thousands of tourists signed and dated their presence at the Wall or declared their undying love to their significant other in felt-tip pen.
What was life like on either side of the Wall?
Enclosed West Berlin became something of a mad, bad playground, attracting drop-outs and avant-gardists, who could enjoy a frisson of Cold War danger (but with little actual danger). “We can be heroes”, sang David Bowie, in a song composed at the Hansa recording studio overlooking the Wall in Kreuzberg, where Bowie was neighbours with his partner-in-crime, Iggy Pop, but “just for one day”. Uli Edel’s semi-documentary Christiane F. (1981) gives a good sense of the seedy urban chic of 1970s West Berlin around its drug scene at the Bahnhof Zoo, or Ian Walker’s Zoo Station (1987) documents one journalist’s frenetic travels back and forth through the Cold War looking-glass.
The Wall maintained its lure to the alienated as some late Cold War westerners no longer thought that the west was necessarily the best. Punk band the Sex Pistols found their nihilistic match in it. In ‘Holidays in the Sun’, John Lydon engaged the eastern guards in an existential staring competition, threatening, in an act of paranoid Cold War paradox, to go “over the Berlin Wall, before they come over the Berlin Wall”.
On the eastern side of the Wall, East Berlin punks were complaining of “too much future”. The communist state still claimed to be exercising tough love for the common good. Living standards had risen by the mid-1960s, as the GDR was able to stabilise its workforce. East Berliners could be visited for the first time by West Berlin relatives at Christmas in 1963, but the eastern authorities were taking no chances and tailed incomers with mass surveillance teams. Yet, western visitors noticed a certain defensive pride among East Germans, who did not want to be patronised by ‘Besser-Wessis’ from the so-called ‘Golden West’.
Freedom of travel remained an issue, however. Holiday destinations within the eastern bloc began to shrink in the 1980s, when Poland became a no-go destination as the Solidarity movement blossomed there [a social movement that embodied the struggle against communism and Soviet domination, and ultimately helped lead to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe], followed by Russia under glasnost [Soviet policy of open discussion of political and social issues instituted by Mikhail Gorbachev which began the democratisation of the Soviet Union].
Many of the ambitious thirty-somethings, who back in the 1950s would have moved out and up in West Germany, felt blocked within the rigid hierarchies of “real existing socialism” behind walls. Certain goods such as cars and telephones always remained in short supply with waiting lists of up to 10 years – unimaginable in the instant-gratification west. Exotic fruits such as tangerines were reserved for Christmas only, and jokes circulated about why the banana was curved (because for 28 years it had to make a detour around the GDR…).
What events led to the Berlin Wall being torn down?
Things deteriorated in the 1980s. An energy crisis was about to engulf the eastern bloc, as Russia insisted on payment for its oil in hard currency. The advent of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 also posed a political reform challenge to the hard-line leadership under Erich Honecker. When Politburo member Kurt Hager pronounced that if a neighbour changed their wallpaper one did not need to follow suit, it became clear how out of touch the party leadership were becoming.
Iain MacGregor revisits some of the most dramatic events associated with the history of the Cold War barrier, the Berlin Wall:
What really accelerated the unravelling of the GDR, however, was the dismantling of the Iron Curtain elsewhere, on the border between Hungary and Austria in the late spring of 1989. A loophole was created which led to a renewed exodus, that was then hastily blocked again. But the genie was out of the bottle. Hopeful East German emigrants began to camp out in West German embassies across the eastern bloc. Demonstrations by would-be leavers also started inside the country, focused on the city of Leipzig, where regular Monday prayer meetings at the Nikolaikirche church took on an increasingly dissident hue.
Even more dangerous to the GDR were the Hierbleiber, those determined to “stay here” and change the Workers’-and-Peasants’-State from within. Crunch-time occurred on 9 October 1989, when Leipzig’s security forces held back from a physical confrontation with the 70,000 demonstrators. East Germans had lost their fear. The GDR’s 40th birthday celebrations that month continued to be disrupted by mass counter-demonstrations wishing to see not the flourishing, but the end of state socialism.
On 9 November 1989, however, upheaval degenerated into farce. A rudderless East German regime was about to commit one of history’s greatest miscommunications. Battered by mass demonstrations, the party Central Committee had resigned en masse that day, but attempted one final act of damage limitation: citizens would be allowed to apply for passports for travel to the west for the first time in 28 years. But what had been designed as a delaying tactic, tying up citizens in red tape, turned into a stampede for the exit.
At a now famous press conference, the party’s press spokesman, Günter Schabowski, who had not been fully briefed, read out the new dispensation, but when asked by foreign correspondents when this came into effect he looked uncertain, then shrugged: “immediately?” West German early evening news bulletins, all avidly consumed by East German viewers, announced that the Wall was open by midnight tens of thousands of East Berliners had swamped the border checkpoints whose Stasi guards realised that the game was up. The Berlin Wall had fallen.
What remains of the Berlin Wall today? What does it look like?
The Wall disappeared with unseemly haste. It was dismantled by the border troops who had built it, with the help of heavy-lifting equipment from Britain’s Royal Engineers garrisoned in West Berlin. Initially, small sections were lifted out to create makeshift checkpoints. Some monoliths with particularly eye-catching Wall art were even auctioned at Monte Carlo in June 1990 in order to raise cash for a new East Berlin mayoralty seeking new revenue streams. Much was ground up for aggregate.
Today, visitors can see a long section of the eastern Wall at East Side Gallery, where international artists were invited in 1990 to decorate it with a series of frescoes. The most authentic section is to be found at Bernauer Straße, where the official monument to the Wall is located. Visitors can peep through the hinterland wall at the rear to see the so-called ‘death strip’ of raked sand and the paraphernalia of total control, including a guard tower and fluorescent lighting which could allegedly be seen from space as a halo around the western half of the city.
But there is also the hustle and bustle of Checkpoint Charlie where tourists can visit the slightly eccentric Haus am Checkpoint Charlie, filled with escape memorabilia, including even the white line jack-hammered out of the roadway at the famous intersection between two worlds, at which US tanks in 1961 had played chicken with their Soviet counterparts.
Yet, as with much of the Cold War, all is not what it seems. The military checkpoint hut is not real, but a replica of the one from 1961. And for a Euro or two you can be photographed next to an actor in period uniform. The Cold War, in these uncertain times, seems to be making a come-back.
What is the significance of the Berlin Wall today?
The Berlin Wall was almost unique in that it was designed to keep people in. Conversely, the so-called ‘peace walls’ built in Belfast after 1969 were made to keep sectarian communities apart for fear of rioting the Israeli separation barrier was built to keep out a terrorist threat and Donald Trump’s Mexican wall (or is it a fence?) is supposed to keep out illegal economic migrants from south of the border. Walls that keep in their own populations, however, soon fall foul of the human rights enshrined in the United Nations, including, crucially, freedom of movement.
Already in the 1960s the East German regime had realised that it was now dealing with a captive audience, with no safety-valve of exit to the west, and so had to make some concessions for co-existence with its citizenry. In 1973, when the GDR was admitted to the UN, it found itself trapped into a liberalisation which had already created many humanitarian ‘holes’ in the Wall before 1989.
In the longer perspective, the history of the Berlin Wall shows that walls do not work. In the age of electronic media, East Germans were still connected to an outside world – including by the BBC whose radio broadcasts and mountains of listeners’ letters from East Germans are preserved at Reading-Caversham. The Wall itself simply became a lightning conductor of discontent. The physical separation of two Germanies for a generation certainly left its mark: speech patterns and even body language were different. East German teens’ use of the intensifier ‘urst’ – meaning ‘mega’ – completely mystified westerners, as well as a party jargon which described flags as Winkelemente or ‘wave elements’. Western brashness was seen by easterners as symptomatic of the Ellenbogengesellschaft or ‘elbow-ahead society’, which could not quite get the hang of queuing. It was former mayor of West Berlin, then chancellor of the Federal Republic, Willy Brandt, who maintained nonetheless that “what belongs together will grow together”. This claim has perhaps proved the most optimistic since 1989.
It is noticeable that the alt-right Alternative für Deutschland has in 2019 been polling best in the eastern states of the former East Germany, areas which still feel left behind since unification in 1990 and fear what they see as Islamist inundation. But the European Union’s steadfast defence of the principles of freedom of movement in the face of Brexit is certainly also a legacy of the Cold War. Angela Merkel herself grew up and worked behind the Berlin Wall and the view from her office window must remind her every day where it once stood, just yards away.
Patrick Major is professor of modern history at the University of Reading and author of Behind the Berlin Wall: East Germany and the Frontiers of Power (OUP, 2009) and ‘Listening behind the Curtain: BBC Broadcasting to East Germany and its Cold War Echo’, Cold War History (2013)
‘Who lives to remember?’: Trauma of two boys shot dead crossing the Berlin Wall lingers on
I t was just after dark when the two boys tried to make a run for it over the wall. Jorg Hartmann was slight and thin, a 10-year-old with longish blond hair that made many mistake him for a girl. The other boy, 13-year-old Lothar Schleusener, was the son of an electrician and a seamstress. Both lived in the working class Friedrichshain district of Berlin.
No one knows exactly what prompted the two neighbours to make the risky and dangerous dash across the frontier in the Treptow district that evening in 1966. The day before, Jorg had asked his grandmother for the address of his father, who lived on the other side of the increasingly formidable barrier of concrete and barbed wire that had been dividing the city, in West Berlin. Lothar also had enquired about family living on the other side.
According to court testimony three decades later, a border guard on the Eastern side said he “opened fire because he did not know what else to do and felt this was his duty”. He unleashed 40 rounds, before climbing down and finding that he had shot at children, claiming he was “totally shattered” by the realisation.
Jorg died immediately, while Lothar was taken to a police hospital where he succumbed to his gunshot wounds later that day, after an interrogation.
West Berlin newspapers and radio cited security officials and witnesses of the shooting, sometimes describing one of the victims as a girl. It was among the darkest periods of the Cold War, with western and Soviet proxies fighting each other for advantage all across the world, each camp accusing the other of violations of human rights and moral corruption.
Berlin Wall anniversary – in photos
1 /20 Berlin Wall anniversary – in photos
Berlin Wall anniversary – in photos
Berlin Wall anniversary – in photos
Berlin Wall anniversary – in photos
Berlin Wall anniversary – in photos
Berlin Wall anniversary – in photos
Berlin Wall anniversary – in photos
Berlin Wall anniversary – in photos
Berlin Wall anniversary – in photos
Berlin Wall anniversary – in photos
Berlin Wall anniversary – in photos
Berlin Wall anniversary – in photos
Berlin Wall anniversary – in photos
Berlin Wall anniversary – in photos
Berlin Wall anniversary – in photos
Berlin Wall anniversary – in photos
Berlin Wall anniversary – in photos
Berlin Wall anniversary – in photos
Berlin Wall anniversary – in photos
Berlin Wall anniversary – in photos
Berlin Wall anniversary – in photos
The death of the two boys was a potential scandal. Adults attempting to surmount the Berlin Wall were fair game for the phalanxes of East German soldiers and border guards safeguarding the perimeter from an elaborate network of watchtowers. But children and pregnant women were off limits.
In subsequent weeks East German authorities attempted to erase not only the memory of the incident, but also of the boys themselves.
Though many heard the stories of two boys shot near the wall on West Berlin radio, most were too afraid to speak out, fearing reprisals. The guards involved in the shooting were sworn to secrecy, according to later court testimony and Stasi documents recovered years after the incident.
But the deaths and the effort to suppress all memory of the killings transformed the lives of those touched by it. Even 30 years after the fall of the wall, an event marked this weekend with celebrations throughout Berlin, the deaths continue to reverberate, serving as a reminder of the cruelty of perhaps the most infamous borders of the 20th century.
“My whole family was taken away from me and I couldn’t say goodbye,” says Annette Moeller, Jorg’s half-sister. “Every day my aunt would come home, I would go out and greet her. One day it wasn’t my aunt. It was a man in a black leather jacket and a black sedan. He said, ‘Get in the car.’”
Berlin is now a unified and thriving city, the capital of Germany, and emerging as a de facto centre of power of Europe as well as an increasingly important global crossroads. But for 44 years following the end of the Second World War, it was a divided city occupied by western powers and the Soviet Union.
West Berlin was an island of capitalism and western culture in the middle of Communist East Germany, and, after attempts to starve it out by the eastern powers failed, it became a conduit for eastern bloc citizens to escape to the west.
Alarmed by the flood of its citizens fleeing into the sectors controlled by the United States, United Kingdom and France, East Germany began erecting a massive wall surrounding West Berlin in 1961.
For foreigners visiting Berlin, the wall became a novelty. The crossing at Checkpoint Charlie became famous in popular culture as a site of espionage and intrigue. But most ordinary people crossed between the two sides via the public transit station at Friedrichstrasse, crossing over the wall and walking through passport control for day-long visits.
For Germans, the wall was brutal and ugly, 96 miles of concrete that cut off subway and tram lines, divided families, and separated friends from each other.
“The wall was a razor blade in the flesh of the people,” says Hans-Peter Spitzner, a former refugee from East Germany. “It symbolised the division of our people. When you looked out on to West Berlin, you realised you were living in a prison and you could see the other side.”
Thirty years ago, Spitzner, a schoolteacher, convinced a US soldier visiting East Berlin to bundle him and his seven-year-old daughter into the boot of his car to make a daring escape attempt to West Berlin.
He made it. He was lucky. Dozens of East Germans were killed trying to cross the wall, or tunnel under it. Many drowned in the Spree river. More were caught and arrested, serving long sentences in prison.
East German authorities immediately attempted to cover up the deaths of Jorg and Lothar. Jorg’s body was cremated and buried before relatives were told of the death Lothar’s was handed to his parents for burial.
Jorg’s mother Ursula had psychological problems, says his sister Annette, now a 55-year-old retired laboratory technician in Berlin.
Along with another brother named Michael, Annette and Jorg were mostly in the care of their aunt and grandmother. But the death of Jorg worsened her mum’s condition, says Annette.
“It pushed my mother over the edge,” she says. “It definitely worsened her psychological state. After the incident, she was put into a psychiatric institution.”
Apparently worried that Jorg’s relatives might speak out about the killing, East German authorities sought to tear the family apart.
Despite papers granting Jorg’s grandmother, Erna Hartmann, and aunt, Ingrid Schutt, custody of the children, the surviving kids were taken away and put in orphanages.
Annette says she recalls crying and screaming as she was stuffed into a car. Eventually her aunt and grandmother got permission to visit her, but were then permanently barred after trying to take her away.
“I was separated from my mother, grandmother, aunt and brother,” she says. “They stole my childhood.”
After about one and a half years, she was adopted by the family of a member of the East German Communist Party. She says her new parents were loving and kind. But whenever she mentioned that her brother had been killed crossing the wall, she was told to remain silent.
“My new parents told me to keep quiet about it,” she says. “They said I was too young to remember. But I kept saying it: ‘I had a brother who had been killed crossing the wall.’”
Ursula Mariana Mors had a secret. She was Jorg’s primary schoolteacher. And she was immediately suspicious of the official story about his death: Jorg had allegedly drowned in a lake, and Lothar was said to have been electrocuted.
Though Jorg was not the brightest student, Mors happened to know for a fact that he was an excellent swimmer, and wouldn’t have been foolish enough to try to go swimming in a lake in March.
Mors remembers Jorg as a somewhat troubled boy, but quiet and well-behaved. She remembers his blond hair and bright blue eyes, and quite liked him even if he didn’t get the highest marks. She began asking questions about what happened to him, voicing doubts about the official account.
The director of her school summoned her into his office. “He told me, ‘You mustn’t ask questions or say what you know,’” she recalls, during an interview in her apartment in the Steglitz district of Berlin. “‘You must only say he drowned in a lake.’”
The conversation terrified Mors. It was as if they were trying to erase the boy and what happened to him from the annals of time.
She scribbled down everything she knew about the boy on a brown piece of paper: the names of his relatives, what kind of child he was, the grades he achieved at school, the phone numbers of his relatives, and a physical description of him.
“I recorded it all because I knew that one day there would be a prosecution,” she says.
And she and her husband then resolved that they too would escape East Germany. They packed up some belongings and pretended to go on holiday to Hungary. With the brown piece of paper in her belongings, the pair snuck across the border to Austria, and eventually made their way to West Germany, where they rebuilt their lives. Mors remained a schoolteacher, eventually moving back to Berlin.
“If I would have stayed I would have been forced to lie, and I didn’t want to lie,” says Mors. “That meant that I couldn’t be a teacher in East Germany.”
The “shoot-to-kill” order
Laws, regulations, and orders governed the use of firearms on the external borders of the GDR . In an order issued by the GDR ’s Ministry of Defense in October 1961, for instance, border troops were permitted to shoot in order to “arrest persons who ignore the border guards’ order to stop or who keep running after a warning shot is fired and are obviously attempting to violate the GDR frontier” and if “there was no other way to make an arrest.”
There was no legal requirement to shoot to kill. However, for troops deployed on the border, commendations and bonuses for guards who had shot and killed escaping fugitives, ideological indoctrination of young draftees and soldiers, and laws that under certain circumstances criminalized escape attempts all tended to transform the “permission” to use weapons into a kind of obligation to use them.
It was not until 3 April 1989 that an announcement made by SED General Secretary Erich Honecker led to GDR border guards being instructed to stop using “firearms” to “prevent border violations.”
The story of Berlin Wall in pictures, 1961-1989
West Berlin citizens hold a vigil atop the Berlin Wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate on November 10, 1989, the day after the East German government opened the border between East and West Berlin.
Erected in the dead of night on August 13, 1961, the Berlin Wall (known as Berliner Mauer in German) was a physical division between West Berlin and East Germany. Its purpose was to keep disaffected East Germans from fleeing to the West.
When the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, its destruction was nearly as instantaneous as its creation. For 28 years, the Berlin Wall had been a symbol of the Cold War and the Iron Curtain between Soviet-led Communism and the democracies of the West. When it fell, it was celebrated around the world.
On August 13, 1961, East Germany closed its borders with the west. Here, East German soldiers set up barbed wire barricades at the border separating East and West Berlin. West Berlin citizens watch the work.
At the end of World War II, the Allied powers divided conquered Germany into four zones. As agreed at the Potsdam Conference, each was occupied by either the United States, Great Britain, France, or the Soviet Union. The same was done with Germany’s capital city, Berlin. The relationship between the Soviet Union and the other three Allied powers quickly disintegrated.
As a result, the cooperative atmosphere of the occupation of Germany turned competitive and aggressive. One of the best-known incidents was the Berlin Blockade in June of 1948 during which the Soviet Union stopped all supplies from reaching West Berlin.
Although an eventual reunification of Germany had been intended, the new relationship between the Allied powers turned Germany into West versus East and democracy versus Communism.
In 1949, this new organization of Germany became official when the three zones occupied by the United States, Great Britain, and France combined to form West Germany (the Federal Republic of Germany, or FRG).
The zone occupied by the Soviet Union quickly followed by forming East Germany (the German Democratic Republic, or GDR). This same division into West and East occurred in Berlin. Since the city of Berlin had been situated entirely within the Soviet Zone of Occupation, West Berlin became an island of democracy within Communist East Germany.
A young East Berliner erects a concrete wall that was later topped by barbed wire at a sector border in the divided city August 18, 1961. East German police stand guard in the background as another worker mixed cement.
Within a short period of time after the war, living conditions in West Germany and East Germany became distinctly different. With the help and support of its occupying powers, West Germany set up a capitalist society.
The economy experienced such rapid growth that it became known as the “economic miracle”. With hard work, individuals living in West Germany were able to live well, buy gadgets and appliances, and travel as they wished.
Nearly the opposite was true in East Germany. The Soviet Union had viewed their zone as a spoil of war. They had pilfered factory equipment and other valuable assets from their zone and shipped them back to the Soviet Union.
When East Germany became its own country in 1949, it was under the direct influence of the Soviet Union, and a Communist society was established. The economy of East Germany dragged and individual freedoms were severely restricted.
Tracks of the Berlin elevated railroad stop at the border of American sector of Berlin in this air view on August 26, 1961. Beyond the fence, communist-ruled East Berlin side, the tracks have been removed.
Outside of Berlin, East Germany had been fortified in 1952. By the late 1950s, many people living in East Germany wanted out. No longer able to stand the repressive living conditions, they would head to West Berlin. Although some of them would be stopped on their way, hundreds of thousands made it across the border.
Once across, these refugees were housed in warehouses and then flown to West Germany. Many of those who escaped were young, trained professionals. By the early 1960s, East Germany was rapidly losing both its labor force and its population.
Between 1949 and 1961, it’s estimated that nearly 2.7 million people fled East Germany. The government was desperate to stop this mass exodus. The obvious leak was the easy access East Germans had to West Berlin. With the support of the Soviet Union, there had been several attempts to simply take over West Berlin.
Although the Soviet Union even threatened the United States with the use of nuclear weapons over this issue, the United States and other Western countries were committed to defending West Berlin.
Desperate to keep its citizens, East Germany knew that something needed to be done. Famously, two months before the Berlin Wall appeared, Walter Ulbricht, Head of the State Council of the GDR (1960–1973) said, “Niemand hat die Absicht, eine Mauer zu errichten”. These iconic words mean, “No one intended to build a wall”. After this statement, the exodus of East Germans only increased. Over those next two months of 1961, nearly 20,000 people fled to the West.
Formidable concrete walls took shape at the seven crossing points between East and West Berlin on December 4, 1961. The new walls were seven feet high and five feet thick. Only small passages for traffic were left open. In center of the Bornholmer Bridge (French/Russian sector border), behind steel tank traps, a big sign showing the East German emblem hammer and compass.
Rumors had spread that something might happen to tighten the border of East and West Berlin. No one was expecting the speed—nor the absoluteness—of the Berlin Wall. Just past midnight on the night of August 12–13, 1961, trucks with soldiers and construction workers rumbled through East Berlin.
While most Berliners were sleeping, these crews began tearing up streets that entered into West Berlin. They dug holes to put up concrete posts and strung barbed wire all across the border between East and West Berlin. Telephone wires between East and West Berlin were also cut and railroad lines were blocked.
Berliners were shocked when they woke up that morning. What had once been a very fluid border was now rigid. No longer could East Berliners cross the border for operas, plays, soccer games, or any other activity.
No longer could the approximately 60,000 commuters head to West Berlin for well-paying jobs. No longer could families, friends, and lovers cross the border to meet their loved ones. Whichever side of the border one went to sleep on during the night of August 12, they were stuck on that side for decades.
East German VOPO, a quasi-military border policeman using binoculars, standing guard on one of the bridges linking East and West Berlin, in 1961.
The total length of the Berlin Wall was 91 miles (155 kilometers). It ran not only through the center of Berlin, but also wrapped around West Berlin, entirely cutting it off from the rest of East Germany. The wall itself went through four major transformations during its 28-year history. It started out as a barbed-wire fence with concrete posts.
Just days later, on August 15, it was quickly replaced with a sturdier, more permanent structure. This one was made out of concrete blocks and topped with barbed wire.
The first two versions of the wall were replaced by the third version in 1965. This consisted of a concrete wall supported by steel girders. The fourth version of the Berlin Wall, constructed from 1975 to 1980, was the most complicated and thorough. It consisted of concrete slabs reaching nearly 12-feet high (3.6 meters) and 4-feet wide (1.2 meters). It also had a smooth pipe running across the top to hinder people from scaling it.
By the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, there was a 300-foot No Man’s Land and an additional inner wall. Soldiers patrolled with dogs and a raked ground showed footprints. The East Germans also installed anti-vehicle trenches, electric fences, massive light systems, 302 watchtowers, 20 bunkers, and even minefields.
Over the years, propaganda from the East German government would say that the people of East Germany welcomed the Wall. In reality, the oppression they suffered and the potential consequences they faced kept many from speaking out to the contrary.
Under the eye of a communist “people’s policeman”, East Berlin workers with a power shovel destroy one of a number of cottages and one-family houses along a sparsely settled stretch of the east-west Berlin boundary in October of 1961.
Although most of the border between East and West consisted of layers of preventative measures, there were little more than a handful of official openings along the Berlin Wall. These checkpoints were for the infrequent use of officials and others with special permission to cross the border.
The most famous of these was Checkpoint Charlie, located on the border between East and West Berlin at Friedrichstrasse. Checkpoint Charlie was the main access point for Allied personnel and Westerners to cross the border. Soon after the Berlin Wall was built, Checkpoint Charlie became an icon of the Cold War. It has frequently been featured in movies and books set during this time period.
A young girl in the Eastern Sector looks through barbed wire into Steinstucken, Berlin, in October of 1961.
The Berlin Wall did prevent the majority of East Germans from emigrating to the West, but it did not deter everyone. During the history of the Berlin Wall, it is estimated that about 5,000 people made it safely across. Some early successful attempts were simple, like throwing a rope over the Berlin Wall and climbing up.
Others were brash, like ramming a truck or bus into the Berlin Wall and making a run for it. Still, others were suicidal as some people jumped from the upper-story windows of apartment buildings that bordered the Berlin Wall.
In September 1961, the windows of these buildings were boarded up and the sewers connecting East and West were shut off. Other buildings were torn down to clear space for what would become known as the Todeslinie, the “Death Line” or “Death Strip.”
This open area allowed a direct line of fire so East German soldiers could carry out Shiessbefehl, a 1960 order that they were to shoot anyone trying escape. Twenty-nine people were killed within the first year. As the Berlin Wall became stronger and larger, the escape attempts became more elaborately planned.
Some people dug tunnels from the basements of buildings in East Berlin, under the Berlin Wall, and into West Berlin. Another group saved scraps of cloth and built a hot air balloon and flew over the Wall.
Unfortunately, not all escape attempts were successful. Since the East German guards were allowed to shoot anyone nearing the eastern side without warning, there was always a chance of death in any and all escape plots. It is estimated that somewhere between 192 and 239 people died at the Berlin Wall.
Blocking the church – Two East Germans work on a huge 15 foot wall, placing pieces of broken glass on the top to prevent East Berliners from escaping.
One of the most infamous cases of a failed attempt occurred on August 17, 1962. In the early afternoon, two 18-year-old men ran toward the Wall with the intention of scaling it. The first of the young men to reach it was successful. The second one, Peter Fechter, was not.
As he was about to scale the Wall, a border guard opened fire. Fechter continued to climb but ran out of energy just as he reached the top. He then tumbled back onto the East German side. To the shock of the world, Fechter was just left there. The East German guards did not shoot him again nor did they go to his aid.
Fechter shouted in agony for nearly an hour. Once he had bled to death, East German guards carried off his body. He became the 50th person to die at the Berlin Wall and a permanent symbol of the struggle for freedom.
A refugee runs during an attempt to escape from the East German part of Berlin to West Berlin by climbing over the Berlin Wall on October 16, 1961.
The fall of the Berlin Wall happened nearly as suddenly as its rise. There had been signs that the Communist bloc was weakening, but the East German Communist leaders insisted that East Germany just needed a moderate change rather than a drastic revolution. East German citizens did not agree.
Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev (1985–1991) was attempting to save his country and decided to break off from many of its satellites. As Communism began to falter in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia in 1988 and 1989, new exodus points were opened to East Germans who wanted to flee to the West.
In East Germany, protests against the government were countered by threats of violence from its leader, Erich Honecker. In October 1989, Honecker was forced to resign after losing support from Gorbachev. He was replaced by Egon Krenz who decided that violence was not going to solve the country’s problems. Krenz also loosened travel restrictions from East Germany.
Picture taken in June 1968 of the Berlin Wall and East Berlin (Soviet sector).
Suddenly, on the evening of November 9, 1989, East German government official Günter Schabowski blundered by stating in an announcement, “Permanent relocations can be done through all border checkpoints between the GDR [East Germany] into the FRG [West Germany] or West Berlin”.
People were in shock. Were the borders really open? East Germans tentatively approached the border and indeed found that the border guards were letting people cross.
Very quickly, the Berlin Wall was inundated with people from both sides. Some began chipping at the Berlin Wall with hammers and chisels. There was an impromptu and massive celebration along the Berlin Wall, with people hugging, kissing, singing, cheering, and crying.
The Berlin Wall was eventually chipped away into smaller pieces (some the size of a coin and others in big slabs). The pieces have become collectibles and are stored in both homes and museums. There is also now a Berlin Wall Memorial at the site on Bernauer Strasse. After the Berlin Wall came down, East and West Germany reunified into a single German state on October 3, 1990.
Typical of East Berlin measures to halt the escape of refugees to the west are these bricked-up windows in an apartment house along the city’s dividing line October 6, 1961. The house, on the South side of Bernauerstrasse, is in East Berlin.
Aerial view of Berlin border wall, seen in this 1978 picture.
East German border guards carry away a refugee who was wounded by East German machine gun fire as he dashed through communist border installations toward the Berlin Wall in 1971.
East Berlin laborers work on “Death Strip” which communist authorities created on their side of the border in the divided city on October 1, 1961. A double barbed wire fence marks the border, with West Berlin at right. In this view of the area laborers level rubble of houses which, just days before, stood on the site close to the border. Buildings along the 25-mile dividing line were evacuated and razed by Berlin reds to eliminate one means of escape used by East Berliners to jump to the west.
Dying Peter Fechter is carried away by East German border guards who shot him down when he tried to flee to the west in this August 17, 1962 photo. Fechter was lying 50 minutes in no-man’s land before he was taken to a hospital where he died shortly after arrival.
View from top of the old Reichstag building of the Brandenburg Gate, which marks the border in this divided city. The semi-circled wall around the Brandenburg Gate was erected by East German Vopos on November 19, 1961.
The Brandenburg Gate is shrouded in fog as a man looks from a watchtower over the Wall to the Eastern part of the divided city on November 25, 1961. The tower was erected by the West German police to observe the Inner-German border.
East German border guard Conrad Schumann leaps into the French Sector of West Berlin over barbed wire on August 15, 1961. More info about this picture.
West German construction workers have a chat in West Berlin, April 18, 1967 beside the wall separating the city.
East German border guards carry away a 50 year old refugee, who was shot three times by East German border police on September 4, 1962, as he dashed through communist border installations and tried to climb the Berlin wall in the cemetery of the Sophien Church.
A woman and child walk beside a section of the Berlin Wall.
Reverend Martin Luther King, American civil rights leader, invited to Berlin by West Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt, visits the wall on September 13, 1964, at the border Potsdamer Platz in West Berlin.
A mass escape of 57 people in October 1964 from East Berlin through a tunnel to the cellar of a former bakery in “Bernauer Street”, West Berlin. Picture of the tunnel exit.
A graffiti-covered section of the wall close to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in 1988. Sign reads: “Attention! You are now leaving West Berlin”
(1 of 3) Two East Berliners jump across border barriers on the Eastern side of border checkpoint at Chaussee Street in Berlin in April of 1989. They were stopped by gun wielding East German border guards and arrested while trying to escape into West Berlin. People in the foreground, still in East Berlin, wait for permits to visit the West.
(2 of 3) Two East Berlin refugees are taken away by border guards after a thwarted escape attempt at Berlin border crossing Chausseestreet, in this April 1989 picture.
(3 of 3) An East Berlin border guard, cigarette in mouth, points his pistol to the scene where two East Germans were led away after failing to escape to the west at Berlin border crossing Chausseestrasse. Eyewitnesses reported the guard also fired shots.
A general view of the overcrowded East Berlin Gethsemane Church on October 12, 1989. About 1,000 East Germans took part in a prayer service here for imprisoned pro-democracy protesters. The church was the focus of protests in the final days of the wall.
An unidentified East German border guard gestures toward some demonstrators, who who threw bottles on the eastern side of newly-erected barriers at the Checkpoint Charlie crossing point on October 7, 1989.
East and West Berliners mingle as they celebrate in front of a control station on East Berlin territory, on November 10, 1989, during the opening of the borders to the West following the announcement by the East German government that the border to the West would be open.
East Berliners get helping hands from West Berliners as they climb the Berlin Wall which divided the city for decades, near the Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate) on November 10, 1989.
A man hammers away at the Berlin Wall on November 12, 1989 as the border barrier between East and West Germany was torn down.
West Berliners crowd in front of the Berlin Wall early November 11, 1989 as they watch East German border guards demolishing a section of the wall in order to open a new crossing point between East and West Berlin, near the Potsdamer Square.
East and West German Police try to contain the crowd of East Berliners flowing through the recent opening made in the Berlin wall at Potsdamer Square, on November 12, 1989.
Decades later, the Berlin Wall is a memory, pieces of it scattered around the world. Here, some original pieces of the wall are displayed for sale at the city of Teltow near Berlin, on November 8, 2013
(Photo credit: AP / Getty Images/ Text: Jennifer Rosenberg).
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About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:
“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”
If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.
But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.
The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.
We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”