WHAT’S THE STORY?
IT was in this month in 1961 that the Berlin Wall was erected, splitting the city of Berlin in two.
Today is the 60th anniversary of the completion of the first section of brick wall which proved that East Germany, the German Democratic Republic (GDR), was intent on making the wall permanent. August 20, 1961 also saw the start of the East German army shooting at people trying to escape to West Berlin. They missed, but soon piled up the bodies.
The weekend before, the GDR leadership under Walter Ulbricht had authorised the building of a barrier between East and West Berlin. The first such barrier was a miles-long length of barbed wire, but the intention was always to make a permanent barrier; a wall.
The first section of breeze block was just five feet high, but within days the East German military had begun bringing in the much larger concrete sections which construction workers erected at considerable speed. Houses along the line of the wall were bricked up to stop residents dropping from windows into West Berlin, and armed patrols largely stopped mass defections.
It is hard to convey what a shocking event the erection of the wall was. It was a huge challenge to the Western Allies, and all West Germany was incensed. East Germans rushed to try and escape, but only a relative few made it into West Berlin. The Cold War almost became very hot.
WHAT WAS THE BACKGROUND TO IT GOING UP?
AFTER the end of the Second World War, Berlin was divided into four sectors – each of them controlled by one of the victorious Allies, with the Soviet Union having the largest sector that was basically the eastern half of the city. The Soviets wanted more control, however, and blockaded routes into the city which led to the Berlin Airlift that kept the city fed and supplied from June 1948 to May 1949.
As the Cold War developed, East Germany, the GDR, and West Germany, the Federal Republic of Germany, came into being in 1949, both claiming Greater Berlin as the capital. The GDR was a socialist/communist state puppet of the USSR. West Germany was liberal and democratic, backed by the USA in particular.
Defections by East Germans to West Germany were a daily occurrence and eventually some three million people fled the oppressive regime. Berlin was the main conduit for defections, as it was relatively easy to pass from one side to the other. Ulbricht complained that the defections were bleeding East Germany of its best brains, and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev sanctioned the building of the wall.
In June 1961, at a summit in Vienna, Khrushchev threatened to cut off access to West Berlin and president John F Kennedy was unsettled by his tone.
On July 25, JFK went on television to tell the American people: “So long as the communists insist that they are preparing to end by themselves unilaterally our rights in West Berlin and our commitments to its people, we must be prepared to defend those rights and those commitments. We will at times be ready to talk, if talk will help. But we must also be ready to resist with force, if force is used upon us. Either alone would fail. Together, they can serve the cause of freedom and peace.”
Everyone knew the subtext of what Kennedy was saying - stop access to West Berlin and it would be a shooting war. The world waited to see what would happen, but instead the wall was built.
WHAT DID THE WEST DO?
AT first, nothing except make the usual protests by diplomatic channels. JFK sent vice president Lyndon Johnson to show solidarity with the West Germans, notably then chancellor Konrad Adenauer and West Berlin mayor (and future chancellor) Willy Brandt. Protests piled in from various governments, but Ulbricht maintained a rigid stance of refusing to negotiate. Khrushchev gambled that the Western powers, especially the USA, would not want to start a war over Berlin and he was right. It made him bold enough to start the Cuban Missile Crisis the following year, but that time Kennedy and the USA did stand up to him. Kennedy himself went to Berlin two years later and gave his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech.
WHAT HAPPENED AFTER THE INITIAL EVENTS?
ACCORDING to the official history of Berlin, as recorded on the mayor’s website: “In the years to come, the barriers were modified, reinforced, and further expanded, and the system of controls at the border was perfected. The wall running through the city center, which separated East and West Berlin from one another, was 43.1km (27 miles) long. The border fortifications separating West Berlin from the rest of the GDR were 111.9km (70 miles) long. More than 100,000 citizens of the GDR tried to escape across the inner-German border or the Berlin Wall between 1961 and 1988. More than 600 of them were shot and killed by GDR border guards or died in other ways during their escape attempt. At least 140 people (some say many more) died at the Berlin Wall alone between 1961 and 1989.”
WHEN DID IT COLLAPSE?
THE communist system was unable to sustain the Eastern bloc countries and protests went from country to country against Soviet domination and misrule by their own corrupt authorities. In a bid to keep East Germans under control, GDR leader Erich Honecker allowed the populace the chance to go on holiday to Hungary and Czechoslovakia, but that only made the people more desperate for freedom. On November 9, 1989, the East German government allowed free movement between East ad West Berlin. The people promptly tore down the wall, the pivotal moment of the collapse of the communist Eastern Bloc.
By Martin Hannan