In the early morning of 13th August, 1961, Berliners awoke to find a concrete barrier had split their city asunder, cutting off the West Berlin from the surrounding East Berlin. It was dotted with watch towers, constructed by the Soviet controlled government of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). “The Wall of Shame”, so called by Willy Brant, was to be refined in the days ahead by the construction of these towers, and auto vehicle trenches commonly referred to as “death strips.” Savage Alsation dogs trained to attack on command were led on patrol by the East German and Russian guards on and behind their side of the structure. The purpose of the wall was, according to the GDR, to protect the people of East Berlin from “fascist elements” wanting to prevent them from building a socialist state. In reality, it was built to prevent them from mass-migrating to the West.
Before the wall’s construction, 3.5 million East Germans had defected. Between 1961 and 1989, 5,000 people escaped to the West. 100 people died in the attempt, however.
By 1989, Soviet power over satellite states Poland and Hungary was on the wane, with a more liberal system taking root in Moscow. Travel restrictions between east and west were eased. Then, that day in August, A spontaneous mingling of people along the wall began, particularly at the city’s Brandenburg Gate. Whilst the Wall’s destruction officially began as far back in the summer of 1980 and was recorded as being completed only in 1992, this was to be the time that people would mark as the real end of the divide. Formal unification of Germany as a nation would follow on 3rd October, 1990.
Today the museum at “Checkpoint Charlie” is a reminder of the extraordinary risks that people took to escape tyranny, using gliders, tunnels, balloons, the boot of cars to cross the wall undetected. Twenty five years after the wall came down, American Guards (German actors between jobs) dressed in Cold War regalia, salute and march for the benefit of tourists who throng the streets around the museum. The remains of what was once a formidable barrier that divided family and friends for a quarter of a century is now covered in street art or overgrown with greenery.
The youth of this beautiful and vibrant modern city mock both its communist and Nazi past. Today, East Berlin is a city of new bars, nightclubs and street bands on the Alexander Platz – once the very heart of Soviet control.
Neo-Nazi groups on the far right still occasionally march to the chant of anti-semitic slogans (Muslims and Jews are now lumped together), but overwhelmingly the prevailing mood is one of tolerance, diversity, good living, vigour and prosperity. It is a city that lives in the light of the now, not the shadows of the past.
Terry Jones taught History to adult students taking Foundation courses at a College of Higher Education prior to their entry into full-time degree courses at Warwick and Coventry Universities. Since taking early retirement, he has travelled widely in Eastern Europe, pursuing a life-long interest in 19th and early 20th century European history. He has been a GCSE and “A” level tutor with OOL since 1996.