On August 13, 1961, in the hours just after midnight, the East German soldiers began laying down barbed wire and bricks as a barrier between Soviet-controlled East Berlin and the democratic western section of the city. It was a day that would change life in Berlin for the next twenty eight years. In the days that followed, a wall was built to permanently close off access to the west. The citizens of East Berlin became prisoners in their own homes and city, in a prison that was built around them. The road between East and West Berlin had become a one way street. If you wanted in, you couldn’t come back out. Families were separated from each other, and those in the West had to make the choice to go be with family in East Berlin…and captivity, or not. The wall became the symbol of the Cold War. It was a literal Iron Curtain, dividing Europe.
When World War II ended in 1945, Germany was divided into four Allied occupation zones. Berlin, the German capital, was likewise divided into occupation sectors, even though it was located deep within the Soviet occupation zone. The future of Germany was a source of contention. Disagreements brought tensions which grew when the United States, Britain, and France moved in 1948 to unite their occupation zones into a single autonomous entity known as the Federal Republic of Germany or West Germany. In response, the Soviet Union launched a land blockage of West Berlin in an effort to force the West to abandon the city. The United States and Britain responded with a massive airlift of food and supplies to West Berlin, and in May of 1949, the Soviet Union ended the blockade in defeat.
That didn’t remove the tensions that plagued the area, however. By 1961 the Cold War tensions were running high again. The East German people became very dissatisfied with life under the communist system. West Berlin was a gateway to the West and Democracy. Between 1949 and 1961, about 2.5 million East Germans fled East Berlin to West Germany. By August of 1961, East Germans were crossing into West Germany at a rate of 2,000 people per day. Many of the refugees were skilled laborers, professionals, and intellectuals, and their loss was having a devastating effect on the East German economy. The Soviets had to figure out a way to stop the exodus, and its devastating effect on the economy. Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev made the decision to close off access from East Berlin to West Berlin.
Then came the night of August 13, 1961. The citizens of East Berlin could no longer freely pass into West Berlin. The West was taken by surprise, and threatened a trade embargo against East Germany as a retaliatory measure. The Soviets responded that such a measure would bring new blockades. The West did nothing, and the East German authorities grew more and more bold. They began closing of more and more checkpoints between East and West Berlin. On August 15, they began replacing barbed wire with concrete. The wall was supposedly designed protect their citizens from the influence of decadent capitalist culture. In realty, it protected the East German authorities from scrutiny as they did what they wanted with out retaliation.
Once it was up, the only way for East Berliners to escape the oppression of their government was to take their chances to get across in whatever way they could dream up. People attempted escape by train, tight rope, zip lines, hot air balloons, through old tunnels, impersonating soldiers, a stolen tank, and swimming. Many of these attempts ended in death for the person attempting escape. It didn’t stop them. They were so determined to live freely. About 5,000 East Germans managed to escape across the Berlin Wall to the West, but the frequency of successful escapes dwindled as the wall was increasingly fortified. Thousands of East Germans were captured during attempted crossings and 191 were killed.
On June 12, 1987 President Reagan made his great “tear down this wall” speech, but the wall remained until 1989, when the democratization movement began sweeping across Eastern Europe. On November 9, 1989 travel restrictions were eased. Jubilant Berliners climbed on top of the Berlin Wall, painted graffiti on it, and removed fragments as souvenirs. The next day, East German troops began dismantling the wall. In 1990, East and West Germany were formally reunited. For those in the free world, it would be almost impossible to completely understand just what Communism was like, but those who lived it, would never forget it, if they even lived through it, which many didn’t.