The birth of the Berlin Wall

It appeared literally overnight, and kept East Germans imprisoned for more than a quarter of a century.
Sue Alexander-Barnes | Aug 12 2011 | comment  

Conrad Schumann, first East German border guard to escape to West Berlin.Exactly 50 years ago, a tiny group of people masterminded a mammoth operation in utmost secrecy, using a vast amount of resources which their country, ravaged by shortages, could not afford. The Berlin Wall was built -- or rather, laid out in barbed wire -- on August 13, 1961 in the space of just a few hours. Yet it was to stand until 1989, the defining symbol of the Cold War and of Communist might and inflexibility.

At that time my parents were living in Charlottenburg, West Berlin, as my father was completing his National Service in the British Army. He was a linguist and had joined the Intelligence Corps, learning Russian at a hectic military pace (100 words a day, with weekly tests – if they failed any, they were sent back to the Infantry.) Their task was to snoop on the Soviet soldiers who had been drafted to the city in huge numbers. It turned out that the Russians weren’t sure what was going on either, and it came as a complete shock to almost everyone on the Sunday morning when they awoke to find the city had been split into two overnight.

Families were ripped apart and fleeing people mercilessly shot. One of the first to die was the now-famous 18-year-old Peter Fechter, who bled to death as East German officials refused to allow anyone near him. Equally well known is an elderly woman photographed hanging out of an upper window in the East, pulled at from below by West Berlin firemen and from above by East Berlin police. Apparently she made it safely to the West. Hundreds of others were not so lucky.

My father has never forgotten the stories of elderly people who risked their lives to swim across Berlin’s River Spree to escape from East to West, nor the two East German ladies who turned up in the flat next door, successfully reunited with relatives and wildly happy, despite the fact that they had left everything behind – homes, jobs and security. They had their freedom and that was all that mattered. My father had previously been a Communist sympathiser – but not any more.

The Wall stretched 96 miles along the border surrounding West Berlin, dividing it from East Berlin and the rest of East Germany. Initially laid with barbed wire entanglement and later reinforced with concrete blocks, its purpose – to prevent the continued exodus of East Germans into the West via West Berlin – apparently justified even the destruction of a graveyard which happened to lie across the border.

Subsequent generations of the Wall would include the so-called Death Strip, a no-man’s land between two outer walls containing watchtowers, lights, trenches, guards and Alsatian dogs. Its proper name was the “Anti-Fascist Protective Measure”; the official story was that the Wall was built to keep Fascists out of East Germany, not to keep its own citizens in.

The Berlin Wall was the brainchild of Walter Ulbricht, First Secretary of East Germany’s Communist government (SED). In spite of his squeaky voice and almost incomprehensible Saxon accent, Ulbricht had risen to his position by virtue of sheer determination, loyalty, and dedication to a cause: to impose Stalinism on his country at any cost. The East German leadership was in many ways more hardline than that of the Soviet motherland.

The real villains in this little piece of history, though, at least to the man and woman in the street, were not the SED leaders but the Stasi (Ministry for State Security). The citizens of East Germany were more closely monitored than those of any other Communist country, including the USSR. It has been estimated that around one in 100 ordinary East Germans were informers. Many of these were bribed by the promise of foreign travel, an irresistible glimpse of freedom worth more than gold in the oppressive East German state. Others were threatened or blackmailed – including Hagen Koch, architect of the Wall.

Hagen Koch was a draftsman, aged only 21 when he was recruited by Secretary-General Erich Honeker as his cartographer. His job was to design the layout of the Wall and physically paint a white line where it was to be built. He described his experiences to journalist Anna Funder in her book Stasiland: the warm summer day on which he began painting at the place which was to become Checkpoint Charlie, trying to ignore the protesting Westerners whom, in accordance with GDR propaganda, he viewed as “enemies, looters and profiteers”. He later discovered, however, that his real enemies were not West Germans but his Stasi bosses, who successfully managed to engineer a divorce from his ‘unsuitable’ wife by threatening to take away their child.

Funder also tells the story of Julia, a talented young woman who bravely refused to inform on a friend who had helped people escape to the West, and as a result found herself unable to get a job. Another young woman, Miriam, attempted escape at the age of sixteen and almost made it across the death strip, hands torn to shreds from the barbed wire, when she was spotted and taken to a Stasi prison. Miriam was imprisoned for one and a half years, deprived of sleep and tortured in conditions not unlike those in Nazi death camps. For years afterwards she kept the doors off their hinges in her apartment, quite unable to bear any kind of enclosure.

After the Berlin Wall was opened in 1989, the Stasi began to destroy the files containing the daily minutiae of so many of their citizens’ lives. They were forced to abandon their headquarters in January 1990, as protesters, realising what the Stasi were doing, gathered and stormed the building, trampling on portraits of the two Erichs – Honecker and Erich Mielke, hated chief of the Stasi. The headquarters were abandoned and became a museum overnight.

Last year I visited the Stasi museum, a huge, ramshackle edifice taking up an entire block, many of whose rooms housed the vast collection of Stasi files. Erich Mielke’s neat little dark-brown-and-orange office, and the adjoining tea room, were comfortable, though the atmosphere was faintly stifling. The displays of surveillance equipment – ingenious little cameras embedded in bags and coats, and various bugging devices, all reminiscent of a sixties comic book for boys - revealed the absurd lengths to which the Stasi would go to obtain the most mundane information from the least likely suspects.

You almost felt more sorry for the Stasi than for their victims – until you saw the displays of equipment they used to obtain information. Local residents, unhappy about housing a museum dedicated to the memory of one of the world’s most unpleasant secret police forces, are campaigning to have the building razed to the ground. Who knows whether that may not be for the best.

Before the Berlin Wall fell, along with most of the Communist world, no-one could have imagined that a singular set of circumstances in November 1989 would lead to the SED’s spokesperson, Gunter Schabowski, erroneously declaring at a press conference that the borders were to be opened, effective immediately. These words released an avalanche and precipitated the destruction of the hated Wall. And no-one, even in the early 1980s, could have dreamed that David Hasselhoff would one day soon be standing astride the rubble singing his hit Looking for Freedom accompanied by hundreds of thousands of exultant voices: those of the reunited people of Berlin.

Sue Alexander-Barnes writes from Sheffield, in the UK.


‘The Berlin Wall’, Frederick Taylor, Bloomsbury 2006

‘Did David Hasselhoff End the Cold War?’, Emma Hartley, Icon Books, 2007

‘Stasiland’, Anna Funder, Granta Books, London 2004

‘The File’, Timothy Garton-Ash, Harper Collins

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