|Wednesday 15 August, 2001
Building the Berlin Wall
One summer morning in 1961, Berliners awoke to a makeshift barricade separating the two sides of the city.
The first barbed wire fences were rapidly followed by even more sinister concrete structures, isolating Berlin’s symbol, The Brandenberg Gate.
To coincide with the 40th anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall, Outlook talks to Christopher Hilton, author of a new book that brings together the personal testimonies of people who have strong memories of those divided days.
Wall of secrecy
After World War II, West Berlin was an island behind the Iron Curtain, a besieged outpost of the western powers.
East Berliners began to move to West Berlin in their droves. In fact before the construction of the Wall, an estimated 2,000 people a week were moving from East to West.
The authorities knew that they had to do something to stop the exodus as East Berlin was, quite literally, ebbing away. But nobody could have dreamt of what was to happen.
As Christopher Hilton describes in his book, The Wall:
‘Not a single Berliner heard the faintest whisper of a rumour, not a word of warning.’
Putting up barriers
The building of a barrier between East and West happened in the dead of night and was shrouded in total secrecy.
Just two days before the barrier was erected 1,500 refugees had moved to West Berlin. The East could not contain its people and it had to stop.
In the early hours of 13th August 1961 a barrier was put in place, essentially imprisoning a community of 17 million people.
One former East Berliner told Hilton of how he watched on television the first pictures of the troops at the border:
‘It was genuinely incredible because all the streets were divided right through the city. Try to think of that happening in New York, London or Paris.'
'The men in uniform looked pretty grim. We wondered what was happening and we were scared.’
Watchtowers punctuated the city limits and the temporary barbed wire constructions were soon replaced with concrete. Within a year the Wall was seven and half miles long and fences stretched the remaining 91.7 miles around the city.
It bisected the nation, dividing streets, fields and families, but as Hilton describes, the people could not believe that the Wall was for real.
How could any government capture an entire city by building a 12ft wall and expect to get away with it?
‘There was a feeling of, well they put this wall up to stabilise the situation, but once they have stabilised it they will take down and we will have a sort of normality again.’
|‘There was also feeling of anger and disbelief. And a feeling that the Americans will never tolerate this – the Americans will come.’ |
Wall or war
But the Americans didn’t come. In Hilton’s view any intervention by the West would have been a ‘symbolic gesture’. He explains:
‘We were living in a nuclear age. Bear in mind that Berlin is 130 kilometres behind the Iron Curtain, it had half a million soviet soldiers around it, the whole East German army. Against that there were 12,000 Americans, 4,000 British soldiers and about 3-4,000 French soldiers.’
‘The Russians would have certainly have crushed West Berlin. We would then have had to respond to that and we would have had a nuclear escalation that Kennedy dreaded.’
As Berliners reeled with disbelief at the Wall's construction, US President John F Kennedy has been quoted as saying to one of his aides:
|‘It’s not a nice solution, but a wall is a lot better than a war.’ |
The Wall was there to stay and it soon became apparent that the division of East and West Germany was permanent and non-negotiable.
Life continued on either side but the differences were stark. As Hilton explains:
‘The Wall acquired a logic of its own. Living standards between the two halves of Germany were 30 years apart.’
Those who tried to cross from East to West paid with their lives. Whilst it is impossible to estimate how many people attempted to flee, Hilton’s book pays homage to the 163 men and women who are known to have died whilst attempting to escape.
Scattered throughout his book are quotes from the East German authority's reports on each death; brief reports that Hilton refers to as ‘tombstones.’
For the majority of Berliners segregated life continued and during the next 28 years, the Berlin Wall became the most infamous political barrier in the world.
Then on 9 November 1989, five days after the East German Government resigned, thousands of East Germans breached the Wall and attempted to pull it down, brick by brick.
When they finally broke through there was an enormous sense of freedom. East and West Berliners embraced as a sense of euphoria and hope for the future swept across a nation reunited.
| Further reading
|The Wall by Christopher Hilton is published by Sutton Publishing, ISBN 0750927569.