tank

Berlin Wall 3Berlin Wall 1On 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 Berlin Wall 4Berlin Wall 21989, 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.

Grandpa Byer's Military PhotoMany members of my family have fought in the many wars that have taken place in this world’s history…most of them I probably know nothing about. Wars, while usually necessary in order keep our nation secure; take a heavy toll on its youth. Of course, in years gone by, women were not placed in combat positions. That is no longer the case. Now women are among those war dead, just like men are.

The weapons of warfare have become more and more deadly over the years, but I can’t say that there were more war dead because of that. War dead numbers seem to fluctuate with the war, and with the willingness to die, on the part of both sides. Sometimes however, something is invented, and then improved to save lives. Such was the case with the tank. On September 6, 1915, the tank, nicknamed Little Willie rolled off of the assembly line in England. That first tank was less than well received. It was slow…maxing out at 2 miles per hour. It weighed 14 tons, and kept getting stuck in the trenches. Nevertheless, it was important, since wars had moved into that type of fighting. Trench warfare often made soldiers sitting ducks…both the ones in the trenches, and the ones coming up on the trenches. The plan was to make a vehicle that could go cross country, and into the trenches with relative safety.

I’m sure the designers were very disappointed, but they didn’t give up. They went to work to improve this valuable piece of military equipment. The next model…Big Willie debuted a year later, and while it still needed improving, people could now see how important the vehicle would become in response to the trench warfare of World War I. The tank was in existence when my grandfather was drafted into World War I, but I don’t know if he ever had the opportunity to see one or ride in one. I can’t say if the tank changed the way that World War I was going, but it has definitely made a difference in the wars since that time.

The tank has come a long way since those days…including the name. It was never in the plan to call this piece of equipment a tank. They had planned to make a landboat, and organized a Landships Committee to begin development. It was vital that they keep the vehicle a secret from enemies, so workers were apparently told that they were building a machine to carry water on the battlefield. Some say that the tank resembled water tanks. Whatever the case may be, the new vehicles were shipped in crates labeled “tank” and the name stuck.

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