Berlin Wall

Il muro di Berlino (Leggi versione in italiano)

In 1961 the communist regime that ruled East Germany decided to build a wall to isolate Berlin and prevent leaks of East German citizens in the West. The wall was pulled down in 1989, following Gorbachev’s Perestroika.

Germany’s defeat in World War II brought about the invasion of German territory by the victorious powers. West Germany (Federal Republic of Germany) was divided into zones of influence between France, the United Kingdom and the United States. East Germany (German Democratic Republic), invaded at the end of the war by Russia, remained under tight control of the Soviet Union. While the three zones of influence in the west of Germany were unified into one state, the eastern side was consisted in a formally independent state entity but under de facto military and political control of the Soviet communist regime.

Berlin also had areas of competence. The city was divided into four areas: English, French, US and Soviet Union. Berlin was still located all within the German Democratic Republic. It was an enclave that enjoyed a special status. The Western influence areas of Berlin represented an island of freedom. The western Berlin had close contacts with the Federal Republic of Germany which had as the provisional capital city of Bonn, pending the desired reunification of its territory. The eastern part of Berlin was rather under the strict control of the Russian army. The suburb of Berlin, Pankow, became the capital of the German Democratic Republic.

During the conflict, in the last days of resistance in Germany, the allied forces of France, England and the United States, coming from France and Belgium, tried to hasten their advance to occupy as much territory as possible. They tried also to incorporate Berlin in western Germany. But the Russian forces had the same goal. Eventually most of the territory was controlled by the Allies, but was unable to save Berlin, who found itself in the territory occupied by the Russians, although the most populous part of the city remained under Western control.

Three air corridors had been created to ensure the connections between Berlin and West Germany, according to employment agreements. Furthermore, in fact, there was also a road link and a railway line with Federal Germany which was near the border about 160 kilometers from the city.

Berlin remained united until 1961, although in reality it had two administrations. Public transport and the subway linking all the districts of Berlin. The transfer of citizens who fled from East Berlin became more and more intense after the end of the conflict. This escape of people always narrowed more the presence of Berliners in the East side of town. About 2,500,000 Germans went from east to west before 1961.

The authorities of the Government of the German Democratic Republic, in accordance with the Soviet authorities, decided to surround with a barrier to “free” part of Berlin to stop this continues hemorrhage of people. Although 15 June 1961 Walter Ulbricht, head of state of the Democratic Republic stated that the construction of a wall between the two Berlin was not planned, the night of August 12 of the same year the construction of a barrier began made of barbed wire. After a few days the workers of the East began to erect a veritable wall made with precast concrete reinforced with steel rods. The wall, when completed, measured 155 kilometers in length and completely surrounded West Berlin.

C-47 a Tempelhof Berlino duranto blocco 1948 - US Army Photo
C-47 a Tempelhof Berlino duranto blocco 1948 – US Army Photo

In 1948 Berlin had been completely blocked by the Russians. They prevented the passage of goods and people by land between West Germany and the city. US President Harry Truman did not want to run the risk of a Blockade violation with a military column. He used a giant airlift, taking advantage of the three air corridors provided for by the occupation agreement. The blockade lasted almost a year, during which supplies of goods and the movement of persons were secured by numerous airplanes, provided by all the allied countries, which landed in the small city airport Tempelhof. The airport looked like a street in rush hour, given the number of landings and take-offs that occurred during the lockout. This episode is commonly considered to be the moment of the beginning of the Cold War between the two blocs.

The construction of the wall was able to dramatically decrease the escapes but it was a catastrophe against world opinion. The illiberal of the Soviet regime was certified, which did not allow the free movement of its citizens. Moreover also it was certifying the inferiority of the social system, as many citizens wanted to flee in the Western world.

The wall dividing the city crossed the lines of communication. The subway line suffered at interruptions of border crossings. Some buildings were found with the door that opened to East Berlin and the main façade on West Berlin. The windows on the ground floors that gave west were walled.

A confrontation between the two blocs immediately occurred. However President John Kennedy and the other heads of state did not go beyond the formal complaint. Khrushchev wanted the formal recognition of the GDR (German Democratic Republic) was allowed. Western countries that occupied Germany refused to grant them, also led by Konrad Adenauer, head of government of the Federal Republic of Germany, and Willy Brandt, the young mayor of Berlin. A recognition of the GDR from the Soviets, would have certified the permanent division of Germany.

Costruzione muro Berlino 1961 - National Archives
Costruzione muro Berlino 1961 – National Archives

Few open checkpoint were left opened between the two Berlins with the construction of the wall. The most important was the checkpoint Charlie. The military and the civil authorities of the allied countries passed through this gate. They were entitled to free movement in the occupation agreement drawn up at the end of the conflict to regulate the relationship among the four occupying states.

In October several instances occurred in which guards the border of East Germany (Vopos) claimed to check the documentation of the civil authorities in civilian who crossed the checkpoint Charlie, which was the checkpoint commonly used both military and civilian allies. Since it was against the agreements, there was a vehement protest by the commander of US forces, General Lucius D. Clay. DDR replied that only soldiers in uniform could freely cross the border.

General Clay, after obtaining the permission of President Kennedy, ordered the deployment of tanks in front checkpoint for the security of the free movement of their officials. To 10am of 25 October 1961, 10 American tanks lined up in front of Charlie gap with the guns aimed in the direction of the East German military, following the nth control of a US civil servant. The first two tanks were equipped with powerful mechanical poles able to break down the barriers and the wall surrounding.

There were frantic consultations between the authorities of the GDR and the Soviet leaders. Khrushchev was convinced that the United States had no intention of provoking the clashes, which probably would have resulted in a conflict, hardly containable locally.

The Soviet authorities decided to replicate the same way. Some tanks approached the border post of siding against US tanks, even with their guns aimed. However, the tank drivers came out by tanks, showing cheerful and jovial. So they evidently were been instructed. A Western diplomat came up to the tank drivers, with the excuse to ask for some information, making sure of their Russian nationality.

Meanwhile Robert Kennedy had made contact with a Soviet embassy official in Washington. Both the Russians and the Americans did not wished hostilities because of the Berlin Wall. There was an agreement between the two countries to reduce military tensions. On October 28, the Soviets withdrew their tanks in a more remote area, concealed from the eyes of Americans. After that the Americans did the same thing by withdrawing their tanks. This agreement was an implicit recognition by the United States of the factual situation that had arisen.

On June 26, 1963 John Kennedy made an official visit to Berlin. On this occasion he uttered, appeared at the town hall balcony, a full speech recognition to the courage of the Berliners who were under threat of Soviet forces. He said at the end of his speech to the citizens of the city: -And, Therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words “Ich bin ein Berliner.” – (And therefore, as a free man, I am proud to say “ I am a Berliner “). A playful controversy followed because, according to some, Kennedy, putting the indefinite article in front of Berlin, said “I am a Krapfen” which is a very popular sweet in Germany, which in some places is familiarly called Berliner. According to German linguists the sentence of Kennedy was correct, the indefinite article was necessary to emphasize the statement.

About five thousand citizens of East Berlin managed to escape to West Berlin. 138 of them were those killed by Vopos guards while trying to escape. Many Berliners were those who crossed the border through dozens of tunnels dug in secret between the eastern and western parts of the city. In 1962, 13 elderly people were able to achieve freedom with the tunnel of “elderly”. In 1964 as many as 57 people attempted to escape through the tunnel which then was called “57”, in the most sensational escape from the East. The tunnel could remain secret for the time required for two groups of people, in two successive nights, were able to cross it, reaching West Berlin.

The story of a Berliner family was a special case. The first of the brothers, Ingo, who had been a border guard, organized his escape to a place that was well-known because of his work. In 1975, along with a friend he climbed over the fence and crossed a minefield on the Elbe river near Wittenberg, where the river marking the border between the East and the western part of Germany. He forded the river with an inflatable mattress and reached the West. The second brother, Holger, began practicing with archery after the flight of Ingo. In 1983, when he became pretty good at shooting, he reached one of the highest buildings that stood in front of the Berlin Wall. He threw an arrow from the terrace of the palace which went through the wall and stuck in a place where there was waiting his brother Ingo. The arrow was tied a steel wire. Ingo tied the wire to his car. Henger clutched his hands to a small pulley and slid along the wire beyond the wall. Ingo and Henger began to practice in the piloting of aircraft. In 1989, taking flight from West Berlin with two ultralight planes on which they had painted the red star of the GDR, reached unmolested the East side of town. They landed in a public park. They took on board of plane the last their brother Egbert during taxiing on improvised runway, taking immediately the flight and reaching the western part of the city undisturbed.

Heinz was an Austrian in love with an East Berliner girl. Because his girlfriend had have denied permission to marry in Austria, Heinz organized the escape. In 1963 he went to East Berlin with a convertible car rented. The lowest car he had found. He sawed off the windscreen with the uprights and removed the cover, he deflated the wheels partially. The car was high about 70 centimeters from the ground at this point. The previous days he had managed to estimate the height of the border bars. He loaded the car his girlfriend and the mother-in-law who crouched on the floor. He led calmly to checkpoint Charlie. When the Vopos signaled to stop for checks, Heinz quickened, he ducked and managed to go with the car below the border barriers.

Towards the end of 1989 the checks began to fade about the citizens of East Germany with the appointment of Gorbachev as secretary of the CPSU. In the meantime Hungary had liberalized border crossing with Austria. A considerable number of East Germans traveled to Hungary, crossing Czechoslovakia, where there were not restrictions on the border, to reach Austria across its borders.

Hungary stopped the East Germans as the freedom of transit with Austria was insured only for Hungarian citizens. A crowd of the GDR Germans who were already on the Hungarian soil invaded the diplomatic and consular offices of the Western states. An agreement interjected between West Germany, Hungary and the GDR. The Germans who were in Hungary was allowed to reach West Germany with trains that entered into the GDR and then take passengers to the West.

Muro di Berlino - Paolos 2006
Muro di Berlino – Paolos 2006

A wave of protests spread the GDR for this solution which favored only some citizens. The Central Committee chaired by Erich Honecker decided to allow their citizens to cross the border with West Germany and West Berlin granting of transit permits.

On November 9, 1989, Günter Schabowski, propaganda minister who had been instructed to communicate the decision to the public, broke the news in the evening news television network. To a specific question of the journalist Schabowski mistakenly stated that the decision had immediate effect.

The same evening an innumerable crowd of Berliners citizens showed up at checkpoints requesting permission to cross the border. Crowd was as much that it was not possible restrain. At one point the bars were opened and people began to enter in the western part of the city. The West Berliners came out of the bars and clubs to welcome them among shouts of joy. The bar began to offer free beer to all. It was an unforgettable night for the Berliners and the rest of the world. The event was broadcast live on Western TV. Many began with pickaxes to open breaches in the wall. The work of demolition was completed in the following days with the help of bulldozers.

The official unification of Germany took place on 3 October 1990. The eastern German Lander were reconstituted as the communist regime had transformed them into provinces, joining shortly after the Federal Republic of Germany.

(Top Photo: Carri armati US checkpoint Charlie 1961 – US Army Photo)

Bibliography:
Charlotte Alfred, Muro di Berlino, dieci grandi fughe. …, 8/11/2014 Huffington post
it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crisi_di_Berlino_del_1961
Frederick Taylor, Il muro di Berlino. 13 agosto 1961-9 novembre 1989, Mondadori, Milano, 2009
it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blocco_di_Berlino
Bertini, Fabio – Missiroli, Antonio: La Germania divisa, Giunti Editore, Milano 1994,

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