By 1961, the Cold War was raging unchecked around the globe. The entire world had chosen sides, either US or USSR. The fortified ‘Iron Curtain’ had been raised, dividing Western & Eastern Europe along Democracy vs. Communist lines. Berlin however, though divided as well, still allowed free movement of its citizens between the East and West halves. It therefore provided an “escape route” via which suffering East Germans could defect to the booming West in pursuit of freedom and a better life. Since the end of WWII, 2.5 million people had fled to the West, reducing East Germany’s population by more than 15%. The country was rapidly losing its most skilled workers and educated professionals. During the summer of 1961, the East German exodus reached critical levels. In July alone, some 30,000 fled East Germany through West Berlin!
So on a fateful summer weekend, the Communist Party in the Kremlin decided upon the unthinkable -completely seal off West Berlin from the East. Just past midnight on Saturday 12 August, hundreds of trucks crowded with soldiers and construction workers rumbled through the dark streets of East Berlin. They worked quickly and quietly, stringing up a 100 mile long barbed wire fence completely surrounding West Berlin. While most Berliners were happily sleeping, the crews began tearing up the streets that entered into the West.
Just before dawn, they cut the telephone wires.
When they woke Sunday morning, Berliners on both sides were stunned by the shocking sight in their city. No longer could East Berliners cross the border for plays or soccer matches. No longer could the 60,000 commuters head to West Berlin for better-paying jobs. No longer could families and friends cross the border to hug their loved ones. Whichever side of the border one went to sleep on August 12th, they were stuck on that side for the next 3 decades. East German armed patrols, under shoot to kill orders, made sure of that. The few that attempted to charge the fence were shot dead on the spot. Sunday, August 13th, became forever known as Stacheldrahtsonntag Barbed Wire Sunday.
In just two weeks, the East German military and an army of construction workers replaced the simple wire fence with a concrete block wall topped with barbed wire. Roads, subways, canals and bridges were all cut off from West Berlin. The Politburo dubbed it the “Anti-Facist Protection Wall” though it would be known as the Wall of Shame to the rest of the world. Over the years, it was widened, becoming a heavily fortified, perpetually guarded and booby-trapped barrier, dividing the city in two. Entire city blocks in the East were removed to create a carefully guarded NO MAN’S LAND in front of the wall. Over next 28 years, hundreds of escape attempts would be made by daring, desperate East Berliners. Many succeeded, but most did not.
THE FALL – 1989
Ironically, the fall of the Berlin Wall happened nearly as suddenly as its rise. There had been signs that the Communist bloc of nations was weakening, but the East German Communist Party insisted their country just needed modernization rather than any drastic revolution. Communism began to give way to democracies in early 1989 in countries like Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. This opened new exodus points to East Germans who still wanted to finally flee to the West. East Germany responded by closing the borders to those once Communist nations. East German citizens did not agree and for the first time began to mount demonstrations in Berlin’s plazas chanting:
“Wir wollen raus! WE WANT OUT!”
In October, the East German president abruptly resigned. The new leader appeared to be more in step with his neighbors and tolerant of round trip travel between countries. Would the borders finally be re-opened? Germans on both sides held their breath. Then suddenly, on the evening of 9 November 1989, a Politburo spokesman announced at a press conference: “Permanent relocations can be done through all border checkpoints between the GDR (East Germany) into the FRG (West Germany).” When asked if this included Berlin, he said … “Yes.” The official blundered however when asked WHEN. Since the order he was given failed to mention the timing, he said “Effective immediately.” If fact, it was suppose to take effect late the next day, which would have allowed orders to reach the border guards.
People on both sides of the wall heard the news on television and were in shock. Were the borders really open? Hundreds of East Germans left their homes and marched to the border crossings, demanding to be allowed to cross. “Tor Auf! OPEN THE GATE!” they shouted. No one amongst the overwhelmed guards was willing to give a kill order to maintain order, so instead, they allowed people to cross to the West with little to no identity check. Very quickly, the Berlin Wall was inundated with thousands from both sides. Easterners were greeted by Westerns with flowers and champagne. There were huge impromptu celebrations, with people hugging, kissing, cheering, and crying. Some began climbing the wall, chipping away at it with hammers and chisels. More than 2 million people from East Berlin visited West Berlin that unbelievable weekend. One journalist called it, “The greatest street party in the history of the world!”
Over the next few weeks, the Berlin Wall was slowly chipped and cut away into smaller slabs, and removed by bulldozers and cranes. Crowds around the world cheered every moment of it. Some of the pieces toured the world and have become museum pieces and collectibles. German reunification was officially complete in 1990 after 45 years apart.