Big walls are back in the news. There's now one separating Israel from the Palestinian West Bank, justified as a way of excluding suicide bombers and terrorists from the Jewish state's threatened cities. There's another being built to keep illegal immigrants from Mexico out of the United States.
One thing is clear: Such controversial emergency barriers signal problems that governments can't (or won't) solve by other means. The notorious Berlin Wall was no different—except it was built not to shut people out but to keep them in.
Shortly before midnight on Aug. 12, 1961, thousands of East German workers, guarded by troops, began to construct concrete-block and wood barriers and barbed wire fences blocking boulevards, parks, streets, and alleys in the heart of the city of Berlin, as well as the perimeter adjoining the surrounding Communist state of East Germany.
By dawn on August 13, the labor gangs' work was done. Berlin had been physically divided into a western, capitalist part, connected to democratic West Germany by a handful of transit highways and air routes, and an eastern, impoverished, Communist part whose citizens were now effectively imprisoned. This "Berlin Wall" survived for 28 years, 2 months, and 26 days.
Of course, though it appeared overnight, the wall was no instant phenomenon.
At the end of World War II, defeated Germany was divided by the victors into four zones—American, British, French, and Soviet Russian. The German capital, a city of 4 million that was 105 miles inside the Russian zone, was likewise divided into four parts or "sectors."
The future of Germany, and especially of Berlin, became a bone of contention in the Cold War that followed as relations between the Western powers and their erstwhile Communist ally deteriorated.
In this contest, the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin had one great advantage. He possessed a reserve of trusted German Communist agents. Walter Ulbricht, a dour fanatic with a goatee, was flown to Berlin within hours of its fall in May 1945 at the head of a group of these activists. His task: to take command not just of the zone but of the entire city. His cynical motto: "It must look democratic, but we must have everything in our hands."
Ulbricht's plans were thwarted by the Western allies and a courageous new breed of truly democratic German politicians. In June 1948, the Soviets—unable to gain control by free elections—tried to force the western sectors of Berlin into submission by closing off land access.
Led by the American military governor, Lucius D. Clay, the West defiantly mounted a massive airlift to fly supplies into their beleaguered sectors. After a year, the Russians called off the "Berlin Blockade."
Soon, Germany split into a western democratic and an eastern communist state—and Berlin definitively into East and West Berlin.
By the early 1950s, West Germany was rapidly becoming a postwar industrial powerhouse. Ulbricht's Communist domain languished economically. It began to leak skilled workers. The main border between East and West Germany was sealed. However, because of its four-power status, Berlin remained open. East Germans seeking a better life could still leave for West Berlin and, from there, fly to West Germany. Of 17 million East Germans, 2.2 million fled westward between 1949 and 1961, most via the Berlin "escape hatch."
By mid-1961, this exodus threatened the Communist state's very existence. Hence, the Berlin Wall.
Snaking for almost a hundred miles around West Berlin, the Wall became the Cold War's most potent symbol. It began 50 yards deep on the East Berlin side, with a high wall greeting potential escapers. Next came an alarmed fence, then dog-runs patrolled by vicious German shepherds. Towers stood every hundred yards, manned by guards with orders to shoot on sight. At the edge of West Berlin stood a final "marker" barrier (the part tourists wrongly assumed to be "the Berlin Wall").
Up to 250 East Germans died trying to flee. Thousands more suffered arrest and imprisonment. About 5,000 succeeded—by using false papers, by braving the fortified wall, by swimming waterways, by glider, by reinforced truck, or by digging tunnels beneath Berlin's sandy terrain.
The Berlin Wall represented a feat of Communist organization—but also brutal, undeniable proof of that system's long-term failure.
West Berlin remained an "island city" of 2 million, a democratic showcase.
East Germany, meanwhile, seemed to stabilize. Its rulers convinced themselves that their captive subjects, brainwashed by propaganda and cowed by the fearsome Stasi secret police, would resign themselves to their fate.
They were wrong.
Short on natural resources and desperately inefficient, East Germany ran into problems during the "oil shock" of the mid-1970s. Soon it was on life support, dependent on subsidies, cheap Russian oil, and a disgusting trade in human life. Imprisoned dissidents and failed escapers were sold to the West for ever-increasing sums of hard currency. In the 1980s, this shameful business earned billions of vital West German marks.
Then came Mikhail Gorbachev, a humane, reformist Soviet leader no longer willing to rob needy Russian consumers to prop up failing satellite regimes. He decreed an end to subsidies—and to the Soviet occupation army's role as suppressor of unrest. Other Communist-ruled countries began to liberalize.
Not East Germany.
During the early months of 1989, thousands of East Germans clambered into their little Trabant cars and headed for these neighboring lands, planning to claim asylum or even cross directly to the west. At home, small, church-based demonstrations grew into huge rallies demanding freedom to travel and declaring, ominously for the rulers of a supposed "people's republic": "We are the People!"
The Communist Party tried sacking its diehard, 80-year-old boss, Erich Honecker. A new leader, Egon Krenz, known for his horsy features, vainly tried to position himself as the "East German Gorbachev." "Oh, Grandma," mocked the demonstrators' banners in the words of Red Riding Hood, "what big teeth you have!"
The East German state, demoralized and bankrupt, tried one more desperate roll of the dice. On Nov. 9, 1989, it decided to announce some relaxation of the decades-old travel restrictions, hoping to calm the situation and snatch a breathing space.
Wrong again. At a press conference, portly East Berlin Communist boss Günther Schabowski became flustered by journalists' probing questions. In response to NBC's Tom Brokaw, he wrongly stated that travel restrictions would be lifted "with immediate effect."
Within minutes, East Berliners besieged the border posts with West Berlin. The guards, overwhelmed, phoned for instructions. Should they use force?
The leadership had no stomach for a massacre. Soon, hordes of eager East Berliners pressed past the unresisting officials into the freedom of West Berlin.
As a drinker in a bar on the eastern side remarked with dry Berlin wit: "So...they built the wall to stop people leaving, and now they're tearing it down to stop people leaving. There's logic for you."
Nineteen years ago this week, the wall had fallen overnight, just as it had risen. The city and the world celebrated into the small hours and beyond. Thousands of East Berliners wandered the glittering streets of the western districts that had been barred to them for so long.
Berlin was reunited—as Germany soon would be also—and the Cold War had come to an end.
Frederick Taylor is the author of The Berlin Wall: A World Divided, 1961-1989 (Harper Perennial).
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