With the rise of communism following the end of World War II, and the increased control Eastern Bloc nations exercised over their citizens, what began as a trickle of malcontents became millions of people fleeing the Soviet-controlled countries in search of freedom. In an attempt to stop the exodus and to make a statement to the rest of the world, East Germany built the Berlin Wall 50 years ago this month, in August 1961. Here are five interesting facts about this symbol of communism.
5. The ‘Official’ Reason for the Berlin Wall
By 1961 more than 3 million East Germans, nearly 20 percent of the country’s population, had given up on communism and headed west for a better life. It’s unclear whether Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev or Walter Ulbricht, the First Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party, gave the direct order to build the wall, but its purpose was clear. While the rest of the world knew why the wall was built, the East German government’s official reason for its construction was pure propaganda. Officials announced that the “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart,” as the Berlin Wall was christened by East Germany, would protect its population from “fascist elements conspiring to prevent the will of the people in building a Socialist state in East Germany.” No matter the name, the Berlin Wall immediately became the unofficial symbol of the Iron Curtain between Western Europe and the Eastern Bloc nations.
4. The Wall Rises Literally Overnight
While the world slept the night of Aug. 13, 1961, totally unaware of the extraordinary event about to take place, East German officials shut down the border between East Germany and West Berlin, in effect circling the city Bulldozers rolled in, workers quickly erected a wire fence barrier, and in a 24-hour period East German authorities blocked nearly 100 miles of border. The Berlin Wall immediately escalated tensions in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. President John F. Kennedy reportedly told the East German government that he would not oppose construction of the wall, but he quickly reinforced U.S. troops in the region. During a visit to West Berlin in 1963, Kennedy vowed his support for the city with his famous pronouncement, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” (“I am a Berliner”).
3. From Wire Fence to “Death Strip”
The Berlin Wall underwent several transformations during its history. The original wall, built that August night in 1961, was no more than a wire fence patrolled 24/7 by armed guards and watchdogs. An improved wire fence was established in 1962 and it lasted until 1965, when a concrete wall was erected. That stood guard for 10 years. Finally, a reinforced concrete wall was built in 1975 and that structure stood until 1989. During construction of the improved wire fence in 1962, a second fence was built 110 yards in from the first. Powerful spotlights lit the area between the two fences and it was layered with sand and fine gravel so that footprints would be easily seen. This area became known as the “Death Strip” because so many who tried to defect and made it through the first fence found themselves in an impossible situation and were often shot for their efforts. The dimensions of the Berlin Wall were impressive. It measured 103 miles in length and stood 12 feet tall and at its peak, held 302 watchtowers and 20 bunkers. There were hundreds of armed guards as well as guard dogs. Yet thousands of people attempted escape in some rather inventive ways.
2. Escape Attempts Were Daring and Often Deadly
The estimated number of escape attempts varies widely, and it should be noted that hundreds of thousands escaped after crossing the border on work permits or under diplomatic passport. Of those who actually tried to breech the Berlin Wall, there is a verified figure of close to 5,000 escape attempts but some estimates put the figure as high as 40,000. Between 100 and 200 people were killed trying to escape. The figures vary so widely because of the secretive nature of the East German government and its reluctance to share news that would obviously hurt the country’s political image.
Some of the escape attempts were amazing acts of bravery and attracted international attention. Early on, there were residential buildings along 23 miles of the wall and people attempted to simply jump over the wall from upstairs windows and roofs. Many were successful. Bulldozers eventually leveled those residential areas so more inventive means of escape were devised. There are verified accounts of ultra-lights and hot air balloons being flown over the wall while other would-be refugees slid along aerial wires strung between the two areas. Tunnels were popular until bulldozers dug them up, and some people crawled through the sewer system to escape. Several drove cars through the barrier, prompting the construction of the reinforced concrete wall, but that didn’t stop a man named Wolfgang Engels from driving a stolen armored personnel carrier through the newer version. Perhaps the most amazing escape was performed by Martin Kasten in October 1976. Kasten, a young doctor who craved freedom, covered his body with animal fat and swam the Baltic Sea for 18 hours, finally being pulled from the water by a fishing boat. After being taken to a nearby hospital, he recovered from his ordeal as a free man.
1. The Berlin Wall’s Sudden Demise
Trying to discern one reason for the Berlin Wall’s end is an impossible task. Through the years, political pressure from democratic nations and the weakening of communism contributed to the end of the Berlin Wall. On June 12, 1987 President Reagan made a speech imploring Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” By the beginning of 1989, political pressure intensified, prompting East German leader Erich Honeckr to proclaim that, “The wall will be standing in 50 and even in 100 years, if the reasons for it are not yet removed.”
He was wrong. On Sept. 11, 1989 Hungary opened its border with Austria, allowing some 15,000 East Germans to escape through that route. Czechoslovakia soon followed and that month, East Germans held several massive demonstrations to demand their freedom. Finally yielding to the pressure, the East Germans opened all checkpoints on Nov. 9, 1989, and the Berlin Wall ceased to be a symbol of oppression and instead became just an old concrete wall. Jubilant East and West Germans immediately began chipping away at the wall to collect souvenirs. Nearly a year later, on Oct. 3, 1990, Germany celebrated unification. Several miles of the actual Berlin Wall remain standing today but probably its most visited structure is the Brandenburg Gate, where tourists flock to see an important part of history and to celebrate a victory for freedom.