It was in November 1989 that the most notorious physical symbol of the Cold War was finally torn down. Now, three decades on, the Berlin Wall still looms large in the minds of those who lived during that era of fear and tension: a landmark of such mythic inevitability that it’s easy to forget it sprang up literally overnight, taking the West completely by surprise.
Understanding the Wall means understanding the bizarre geopolitical situation Berlin found itself in after World War Two. Germany as a whole had been carved up by the victorious Allies into a number of zones, controlled by the US, the UK, France and the Soviet Union. The former three zones eventually coalesced into the new nation of West Germany, while the Soviet-occupied zone became East Germany, aligned with the Communist Eastern Bloc.
it was ‘the testicles of the West: every time I want to make the West scream, I squeeze on Berlin.’
Berlin became one of the most critical places on Earth. As the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev allegedly said, it was ‘the testicles of the West: every time I want to make the West scream, I squeeze on Berlin.’
Yet the situation was also a headache for the Soviets, as millions of East Germans defected by crossing the West/East Berlin border. It was a brain drain of some of the most skilled workers, professionals and intellectuals in East Germany, bleeding the new Communist nation dry of talent. The solution was simple and brutal: put up a new, physical border, no matter the human consequences.
In the early hours of 13 August 1961 – a date that would go down as ‘Barbed Wire Sunday’ – the first fences were put up without warning along the East Berlin border. Friends and family members who happened to be in opposite sides of the city found themselves suddenly divided. Concrete blocks were put into place in the ensuing days, establishing the border as a new, permanent fact of life. As one Western official later said, the very idea of such a thing was startling: ‘Our imagination didn’t stretch that far.’
The part of the Berlin Wall which divided the city would encompass over 27 miles, although the whole Wall was actually far longer than that, completely surrounding West Berlin to prevent people from entering from other points in East Germany. The mythology of the Wall, with its numerous escapes (and doomed escape attempts) began almost immediately. On 15 August, mere days after the first fences were hammered into place, a young East German border guard called Conrad Schumann decided to make a break for it. The photograph of Schumann leaping over barbed wire – dubbed the ‘leap into freedom’ – became one of the most iconic images of the Cold War.
Schumann’s fate was not a happy one, however, exemplifying the emotional cost of the Berlin Wall. Lonely and adrift in the west, Schumann missed his family so much, he came close to returning to East Germany, lured by letters allegedly from his parents (but actually written by the security forces). The celebrated escapee would eventually commit suicide in 1998.
It’s estimated that around 5,000 people managed to get across to West Berlin during the era of the Wall, which consisted of two separate, parallel borders and a sandy no man’s land known as the ‘death strip’. Many others were killed while trying to get across – most notoriously a young man named Peter Fechter, who in 1962 was shot in the death strip and left lying in a pool of blood. Fearful of stepping onto East German territory and triggering a war, all West Berlin police officers could do was throw him bandages. It took him almost an hour to die.
'I’m getting out of here to the West, anyone want to come along?'
The stifling nature of life in East Germany meant the risk of death wasn’t enough to put defectors off. Ideological indoctrination was a way of life in East Germany. Art professor Mia Hayes, who was raised there, would later recount how, when she was sent chocolate from the west and tried to share it with a classmate, her friend replied: ‘I don’t want anything from a class enemy’. All art and culture was subject to censorship – popular rock band the Klaus Renft Combo found themselves banned after falling out of favour in 1975. And then there was the Stasi, the state security service, whose ruthlessness made the organisation a byword for state terror, just like the Gestapo before it.
Perhaps the most flamboyant escape was made by Wolfgang Engels, a former East German soldier who, in 1963, stole an armoured personnel carrier and drove it straight at the Wall, yelling to onlookers ‘I’m getting out of here to the West, anyone want to come along?’ His vehicle only smashed halfway through the border, and Engels was shot while clambering out. Incredibly, he survived the hail of bullets and was pulled to safety by some drinkers from a West Berlin bar. ‘Half of them were plastered, but if they hadn’t been having a booze-up I’d never have made it,’ Engels said later.
The Wall became a widely despised symbol of the deadlock of the superpowers. In 1987, US President Ronald Reagan focused on it in one of the most famous speeches of the Cold War, saying ‘Mr Gorbachev, tear down this Wall!’ But, when the fall finally came, it was a messy, almost accidental affair. In November 1989, after political unrest forced East Germany to slacken its travel restrictions, a mundane press conference given by East German official Gunter Schabowski suddenly became a lot more interesting when he blurted out that, as far as he knew, citizens could leave East Germany ‘immediately, right away’.
Other East German officials had apparently intended this news to be dispensed in a more gradual, orderly way, so East Germans could apply for exit visas. But Schabowski’s clumsy, befuddled announcement opened the floodgates, and before long the people of East Berlin were massed at the Wall, much to the surprise of the border guards. Overwhelmed, the East Berlin authorities opened the checkpoints, and, on 9 November 1989, ecstatic street celebrations marked the end of a bitter era in modern European history.