The Berlin Wall, or as it was known officially in the GDR, ‘The Anti-fascist Protection Wall’ was built on August 13, 1961 and stood until November 9, 1989. The Wall encircled what would become known as West Berlin and was built in response to the ongoing mass exodus of East Germans citizens to the West by crossing the border from East Berlin into the part of the city controlled by the Western Allies (United States, Great Britain and France).

Berlin Wall being constructed at the Brandenburg Gate, Fall 1961 (taken from “Berlin August 13”)

Building Socialism – Mass Exodus
WIth the founding of the GDR in October 1949, the Socialist Unity Party set out to create a socialist political, economic and social order on German soil. On the economic front, this meant implementing a centralized planning structure to oversee the production of newly-nationalized (or People’s Own) factories and collective farms. In education, the children of workers and peasants were given preference and the curriculum was overhauled to reflect Marxist-Leninist teachings. In the area of civil society, the Party took steps to neutralize any potential sources of opposition including the Catholic and Protestant churches and members of the former political, cultural or economic elites whom the Party suspected were hostile to the new order.

The process had significant consequences, however, and between 1949 and the erection of the Wall in 1961, East Germany lost approximately 3.5 million citizens (or 20% of its population) to Western emigration. Many of those who chose to leave were young, well educated and indispensable to the GDR’s continued viability, a fact not lost on the SED regime.

With the support of the Soviet Union, the GDR had been able to largely curb the flow of illegal emigrés crossing the inner-German border by progressively sealing up this from 1952 onward. Border areas were carefully patrolled and harsh penalties established for those convicted of “Republikflucht” (‘flight from the Republic’). Despite this, however, large numbers of East Germans continued to “vote with their feet”.

This was due in large part to the situation of Berlin, where the four allied occupying powers (Soviet Union, United States, Great Britain and France) had agreed to a special status for the former German capital. Not formally recognized as part of either the Federal Republic or German Democratic Republic, Berlin was technically under the control of the Allies and this situation made Soviet authorities wary of allowing their East German allies to seal the border. Such a move, the Soviets worried, might provoke a military response from their erstwhile Western allies.

Without permission to act, GDR border guards and People’s Police closely monitored the train and subway lines which passed from their part of the city into the West, but staunching the flow of emigrés proved impossible. In the summer of 1961, Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev finally gave the GDR permission to proceed with the closing of the border after he interpreted comments  of U.S. President Kennedy to be tacit American recognition that the Soviets had a right to act as they saw fit within their areas of control.

Building the Berlin Wall
East German leader Walter Ulbricht had been lobbying the Soviet for permission to close the sectoral border with West Berlin for some time and tasked one of his most trusted lieutenants, Erich Honecker, with overseeing preparations for this operation. When given the green light on August 12, 1961, the East Germans were ready to move and, at midnight on August 13, 1961, members of the National People’s Army, the People’s Police and Combat Groups of the Working Class, began laying barbed wire along the 199 kilometer-long border separating the Western sectors of the city from East Berlin and the surrounding Brandenburg countryside. When this provisional measure went unchallenged by Western allies, the East Germans began fortifying the border by erecting a brick wall.

View looking over Wall and “no-man’s-land” into East Berlin from Potsdamer Platz – spring 1985. The graffito in black that runs near the top of the Wall for almost the whole width of the photo reads ‘Germany is bigger than the Federal Republic.’ (author’s photo)

Initially, the border remained relatively porous and some East Germans were still able to escape across it into West Berlin. As the years passed, however, the fortifications were upgraded to the point where passing them became extremely difficult. Exact figures are impossible to find, however, approximately 5,000 East Germans are believed to have escaped over the Wall into West Berlin during the 28 years of its existence. Many others (between 130-200) lost their lives trying to escape in Berlin, often killed by East German border guards carrying out their standing orders to “shoot to kill” any would-be escapees.

Memorial for victims of the Berlin Wall adjacent to Reichstag looking over the Wall into East Berlin (spring 1985)

The Effects of the Wall
For the GDR authorities, there is no doubt that the erection of the Wall had the desired effect as it stabilized the situation within the country to the point where they were able to govern and plan in a way that had been impossible up to that point. The ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) saw in the Wall a necessary precondition for the establishment of socialism in their state and created a culture celebrating both the Wall and those who built and patrolled it in the years which followed.

Stamp commemorating “40 Years – Border Guards of the GDR” (1986)

In the West, the building of the Wall was publicly criticized by leaders from West Germany and the Western allies and increasingly was used as symbolic shorthand for the repression found in Soviet-controlled eastern Europe . Behind the scenes though, many of these same people welcomed the clear contours which the Wall gave to what had been an unpredictable and potentially dangerous situation.

Wall Fall
The Wall’s end came on November 9. 1989, the decisive act in a series of events which led to the dissolution of the German Democratic Republic and ultimately the Soviet Union and its empire. The decision to open the Wall was intended to assuage East Germans’ mounting dissatisfaction with the SED regime after weeks of massive street protests throughout the country. This decision followed the largest protest in East German history, a rally of some 500,000 citizens, including some prominent Party members, in central East Berlin on November 4, 1989.

By opening the Wall and providing its citizens the ability to travel, the SED hoped it would buy some time and the good will of at least some of its citizens. When this measure was prematurely announced at a press conference on the evening of November 9th, however, the Party quickly lost any control it still had over the situation and before the night was out, the border was opened to all East German citizens, bringing an end to 28 years of separation in the city of Berlin.

Trabant races from West to East at opening in the Wall at Bernauer Strasse – note the “Test the West” billboard in the background (July 1990)

My experiences in Berlin
i spent considerable time in Berlin while the Wall remained standing, first on a week long visit with a high school exchange program in the spring in 1985 and then for the months of January and February 1989 while I attended language courses at the Goethe Institut. As a teenager and young adult, I was attracted to the Berlin’s unique atmosphere of tension and, on the West side at least, freedom. That said, during my two stays, the issue of Germany’s division was not upper most in my mind. As a situation that was seemingly permanent, I did not dwell on it much.

My 1985 visit with a group of Canadian high school students participating on an exchange program was sponsored by the DAAD – German Academic Exchange Service and was intended to introduce us to life in the divided city. To this end, we participated in a varied program, one of the highlights of which was a visit to the Information Center operated by the U.S. Army. Here an American officer gave us a predictably one-sided presentation on the history of the Wall and the Cold War. Having been ideologically inoculated, we then spent an afternoon wandering through central East Berlin, visiting the House of Soviet Culture in Friedrichstrasse and then hanging about around Alexanderplatz for a while.

Here we earned the disapproval of a group of East Berliners by using some the 25 East Marks which each of us had to buy whole grilled chickens from a kiosk at the foot of the TV tower. “Goldbroiler” as these were known in the East, were a popular street food, but costly enough that people tended to buy a piece or two. In throwing our money around, we did a rather nice job of confirming to the image of the “ugly American” that many East Germans would’ve been familiar with from their media.

With the change from my meal, I bought a GDR flag from East Germany’s flagship department store Centrum on Alex. My memory is of the store being full of GIs spending illegally exchanged East Marks to buy electronic goods. I remember one rolling a huge television across Alexanderplatz using a moving dolly. I later learned that thanks to the “Four Power Agreement”, the soldiers of each occupier received unfettered access to all the sectors in the city of Berlin. U.S. soldiers took advantage of this by exchanging West German Marks for East ones at a rate of 1:10 in West Berlin and then took this money into the East to go shopping.

In 1989, I was in the city on my own and hung out with a group of young adults from all corners of the globe who had come to Berlin to experience the city and learn German. We explored West Berlin extensively, but limited ourselves to one foray into East Berlin on a Saturday afternoon. I have a couple of recollections from this trip. First, in crossing into East Berlin at Friedrichstrasse, I had my passport controlled by a border guard who undermined every stereotype I had – and not in the way Elton John did with his ‘Nikita’ video.

This fellow was a rather large, moustachioed and quite jovial. My German was not too good at the time and when he started asking me questions about whether I’d attended a popular annual agricultural exhibit and food fair that was running in West Berlin that week, I was confused. “Yes,” I responded cautiously. “Oh,” he said. “I saw something about it on television. It looked good.” “Uh, it was. Very good.” I stammered in response. He then made what to me was a cryptic comment about wanting to attend it someday, stamped my passport and sent me on my way. I was quite sure that this was not the way the GDR wanted its border guards to behave but I have since chosen to interpret this encounter as a harbinger of the changes that were coming to the East later that year.

Out on the streets, our group ended up in a café in Prenzlauer Berg, the run-down, “artsy” district. Here our group of five made the mistake of trying to seat ourselves at a table for four. This sort of thing was frowned upon in the GDR and the waitress intervened to seat me with a group of strangers at an adjacent table. I recall being nervous about this, but also hopeful that perhaps it would lead to some contact with a real life East German! I needn’t have worried. Whether it was that I looked hopelessly uninteresting or perhaps that the people at my table knew better than to engage in casual conversation with a Western visitor in a public place, I don’t know, but the result was that I was studiously ignored.

At the end of the afternoon, I remember one of the young women I was with desperately trying to find a way to spend the 25 East Marks you were forced to exchange upon entering the city. They were worthless in the West and, technically, you had to spend all the money before returning. I recall unsuccessfully trying to find something other than editions of Lenin’s collected works in one book store before we ended up in a bakery near the City Hall. Here, my friend bought an enormous cream torte which looked quite spectacular. We all dug in on the train home and discovered it was amazingly tasteless, a sort of Potemkin village in edible oil.

My other memory of this time was a conversation I had with my language teacher towards the end of our time in the city. I asked her if she thought that things were changing in the city and she responded, “Yes. I think things are changing, but it’s very slow. I don’t think I’ll live to see the Wall come down, but my son probably will.” Nine months later it was all over.

When our course ended, I decided to take a shared ride from Berlin back to Hanover, a trip which would involve traveling on the transit highway through the GDR. I was connected with a pair of young Turkish men who, upon learning that I was Canadian, began mocking me about my country’s performance at the 1986 World Cup: “No goals! No goals!”. We were to leave West Berlin via the crossing at Dreilinden and this proved to be a nerve-wracking experience. A border officer approached our car accompanied by a 19-year old conscript toting a Kalashnikov. He took our passports and then gave an order to one of the Turks. Apparently it had something to do with me but, my German being subpar, I didn’t understand and after some gesticulating back and forth, I reached for the door handle to exit the car. This caused the young soldier to assume a more aggressive stance and the shouting of more incomprehensible instructions. Turned out that I was to roll down the window. Oh. Anyway, after a careful examination of me and my passport, the officer suggested that, “In the future, it would be a good idea to travel with a passport that has a photo which actually looks like you.”

That wasn’t the end of the excitement. About an hour into our journey, we stopped at one of the rest stations provided en route. These were gas station/cafeteria set ups designed to serve both the Westerners and East Germans using the highway and had segregated parking and eating areas for each group. These rest stops were closely watched by GDR police, so imagine my horror when we pulled into the parking lot, our driver jumped out and ran over to the first East Germans he saw. He and the father of this family scanned the scene and then popped behind the building. Confused and oh-so naive, I asked his friend in the passenger seat what was going on? “Oh, change money.” This did not clear things up for me. “But why? What can you buy with East Marks?” I asked. The friend smiled and turned to look at me: “Frauen.” (“Women.”) I recall feeling quite ill.

After the fall of the Wall a few months later, I thought about this exchange when I read an article about the many guest workers from West Berlin who kept East Berlin mistresses. Some of these women sought out their boyfriends and were astonished to find them to have families on the West side.

Road traversing the Wall and “no-man’s-land” at Potsdamer Platz – July 1990 (author’s photo)

In the summer of 1990, I returned to the city for a visit just after the currency union had taken place between the two Germanies but before political unification (which followed in October 1990). It was remarkable just how normal things seemed in the East. The physical differences were still there of course, but the pall of boredom and tension had been removed. Probably the summer weather had something to do with this, but the atmosphere in the eastern part of town was relaxed and easy – two adjectives not typically used in relation to “Berlin – The Capital of the German Democratic Republic”. In retrospect there are so many things that I wished I’d done on that visit, but at least I got to experience the city in flux and see how Berliners were reacquainting themselves with their city and one another.

My collection
I have managed to acquire a few items relating to the Berlin Wall for my collection. These include the following:

  1. John said:

    I visited East Berlin a couple of times in the winter of 83 and this site has revived memories of that strange and fascinating place. Do you think the Stasi kept files on day tourists? It doesn’t seem likely, but the only way to know for sure is to send an application to the BtSU.

    • Hi John, thanks for the comment. Having visited in similar circumstances myself a few times in the 80s, I’ve wondered the same thing, but I’d be surprised if the Stasi had much interest in tourists. I would think that tourists “hot spots” would’ve been carefully monitored to see whether unusual contacts were taking place between visitors and locals, but can’t imagine that even the Stasi would’ve had the resources to closely follow tourists not already on their radar. I’ve never filed an application with the BtSU, but maybe I should. Appreciate your visit to the blog. jpk

      • John said:

        Sorry, forgot to add that the station segment begins at 51:30.

      • Thanks for that link. Will definitely have a look at this in the coming days, but I had a quick look at the ads and they’re interesting. Reminded me of the work of John Heartfield a bit. A few years back I saw an art installation in the same ad boards at Alex that was interesting. In it the artist reimagined the DDR’s branding using the logos of prominent German brands as the templates. I will try and post these in the coming weeks as they’re interesting and thought-provoking.

        And let me know what happens with your file application. Would be interested to hear how that develops.

  2. John said:

    I sent off an application before Christmas and got a Tagebuchnummer a few weeks later. Will just have to wait and see.

    Came across some interesting footage of ads in Alexanderplatz station from the winter of 83/84:

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