The Unseen Realities of the Berlin Wall
History is filled with moments, movements and regimes that are more than disturbing. While we might think of genocides and dictatorial governments as acts and influences of sheer evil, other, more physical remnants of history are not always associated as directly with terror or atrocities — though they probably should be.
The Berlin Wall is a tangible piece of history that older generations are very familiar with and that even young people may be generally aware of. But learning its full history might surprise (and shock) you.
The Soviet Union Was Behind the Wall
One founder of the German Democratic Republic, Walter Ulbricht, was a communist who deserves plenty of blame in how East Germany ultimately disintegrated into tyranny. But after WWII, East Germany was a puppet state of the Soviet Union, and much of what went on in the state was mandated by the U.S.S.R.
Four Zones, Two Berlins
The roots of the Berlin Wall came from the Yalta Conference, a meeting of Soviet and Allied leaders after the conclusion of WWII. At that conference, it was decided that Germany would be divided into four parts, with three Allies (Britain, France and the United States) taking western zones, and the Soviet Union taking sections in the eastern parts of Berlin and the country of Germany.
The Berlin Wall(s)
While the name of the wall is seared into history, and the name implies that there was a single wall dividing Berlin in half, this isn't completely accurate. The wall was actually constructed as two parallel walls with a space in the middle that was commonly referred to as the "Death Strip."
A Church Caught in Between
Berlin was never designed to have a wall bisecting the city, and when construction began, certain buildings inevitably got in the way or had to be built around. Because the Berlin Wall actually consisted of two walls, it was possible for buildings to fall between the two in the no man's land-type Death Strip.
Construction Began at Night
Despite the party line from East German and Soviet officials that the Berlin Wall was an above-board solution for keeping out fascists, everything about its construction indicates that they wanted it built quickly before East German residents could realize what was truly going on.
All Hands Were on Deck for Construction
Part of what makes the Berlin Wall seem so sinister in retrospect is just how secretive the construction was. It seems clear that this secrecy was aimed at preventing a massive exodus of East Berliners into the western half of the city, but they never had the chance. This was the case because all hands were on deck the night that construction began.
Many People Died Attempting to Cross the Wall
Hundreds of people died attempting to cross the Berlin Wall, especially as the Soviet Union began to collapse and conditions in East Germany became increasingly dire. Accepted estimates put the overall number of those who died trying to cross from East to West Berlin between 100 and 500 people.
The Wall Divided Families
Imagine you have a family member who lives on the other side of the city you call home. Then, one day, without warning, the local government simply begins constructing a wall that divides your home from your relative’s. Completely stupefied and without obvious recourse, would you abandon your home and move into theirs? Or stay?
Germans Were Caught in the Mess
The relationship between Germans living in the eastern portion of the country and the Soviets who were granted control of that part of the nation was complicated. While some of the soldiers and citizens sympathized with the communist cause, others did not and were essentially people living under occupation.
The Bridge of Spies
Spying is an essential part of intelligence gathering — it always has been and probably always will be. And though the Berlin Wall was effective at keeping residents of East Berlin in, it did not serve to ease the minds of East German authorities and their Soviet counterparts. They felt the need to actively monitor those living within their state.
The U.S. Was on Board With the Wall
In the wake of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War, there was hope in the United States that the Soviet Union could simply go about its business and the United States could do the same. The goal early on was appeasement, even if that meant the United States giving its blessing for a wall cutting Berlin in half.
Escaping Was Not Easy
Hundreds of people died attempting to cross from East to West Berlin, but even more crossed successfully. An estimated 5,000 people made it out of East Berlin successfully, but no trip was easy. Some tunneled underground, but those people risked tripping underground alarms that could lead to capture.
Few Were Held Accountable
Communist states, including the Soviet Union, are notorious for not holding those who committed atrocities accountable for their crimes. How could they, after all? It was the leadership of the Soviet Union and East Germany that ordered their underlings to implement something as inhumane as a containing wall in the first place.
The Wall Was Not Installed Immediately
It took a little while for conditions to completely fall apart in East Germany, and it wasn't immediately apparent after the Soviets took control of East Germany that a wall would be necessary to keep citizens from fleeing. Between 1949 and 1961, there was hope that a stream of defections to the West was an outlier not deserving of concern.
History tells us a truth: The Berlin Wall was erected because East Germans were fleeing the Soviet-controlled nation in droves. This led to the loss of many of the smartest minds in East Germany and was also a tangible indictment of the communist framework.
Being a Wall Guard Was No Dream Job
One can imagine how difficult it would be to live daily life as a Berlin Wall guard. The border guards of East Germany, known as the Grenztruppen, were under orders to shoot to kill anybody they caught attempting to cross the border into West Berlin. The guards themselves were also, occasionally, victims of this policy.
The Numbers Put It Into Perspective
When it comes to security in nations as security-obsessed as East Germany and the Soviet Union, nothing is done willy-nilly. There are arrest quotas, arbitrary as they may be. Everything comes down to numbers, and the numbers show just how cruel and unusual the Berlin Wall was.
Defections From East to West Germany Were Significant
When Germany was divided after WWII between the Allied forces and the Soviet Union, it may not have been immediately clear how different life under these two different cultures would become. However, it didn’t take long for residents of East Germany to realize how restrictive life under Soviet-East German rule was.
Berlin Has Been Prominent in American Politics
The story of the Berlin Wall cannot be told without including America. It was America, after all, that laid partial claim to Berlin, along with the French and British. West Berlin was an oasis of freedom within East Germany, which was otherwise occupied by Soviet influence. When the wall went up in Berlin, the ramifications directly affected America.
Reunification Was Not Immediate
The Berlin Wall separated the city for several decades, and during that time, the dichotomy between the two cities was stark. Even before the wall went up, East Berlin was a city marked by constant surveillance, latent fear and struggle, and this only continued. It was reflective of the Soviet Union, where going without was a fact of life.
Music: A Light in the Darkness
As the Soviet Union began a conservative embrace of modernism beginning with the policy of "perestroika," which started in the mid-1980s, East Germans began to gradually experience the freedoms of Western culture. Part of the modernization policy was the relaxation of restrictions on music, which may ultimately have contributed to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall.
The Wall Lasted Beyond Unification of Berlin
The extent of the Berlin wall’s social, political and cultural reach cannot be overstated. It was a two-part barrier that contained West Berlin from the surrounding Soviet-controlled East Germany, including East Berlin. This took significant effort to construct, and even after the decree came for the Berlin Wall to be torn down, it took significant effort to demolish the wall.
Soviets Tried to Compare the Wall to American Immigration Policy
Soviet propaganda was legendary, and the spin that the Soviets and East Germans put on their many controversial decisions and actions, the Berlin Wall included, was meant to make the U.S.S.R. look better and the U.S. and its allies worse.
The Last Victim of the Berlin Wall
The Berlin Wall was the cause of hundreds of deaths over the years, but one death may have carried a bit more significance. Chris Geoffroy moved to Berlin when he was 5, and all that he knew for most of his life was East Berlin. When he reached his twenties, he made up his mind to flee East Berlin.
Two Sides of the Same Wall
The two sides of the Berlin Wall could not have been more starkly contrasting. In the East, citizens lived under tyranny, dependent on the communist government for most aspects of their life, from food to electricity. The West was marked by freedom and economic prosperity.
Ronald Reagan's Speech Was Not Immediately Effective
American President Ronald Reagan gets credit for taking a strong stance against the existence of the Berlin Wall. In 1987, Reagan traveled to Berlin and gave a speech that’s remembered as one of the more important in history. It included the demand that then-Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev "tear down this wall."
The Fall of the Wall Was a Mistake
While the fall of the Berlin Wall looks inevitable in the hindsight of history, the events that led directly to its demise were not intentional. The story goes that a spokesman for the East German Socialist Unity Party of Germany misinterpreted notes that he was transmitting across national airwaves.
When the Wall Fell, the Party Began
There’s nothing quite like a party that takes three decades to pop off. Construction of the Berlin Wall began in 1961, and the official end of the wall occurred with its dismantling in 1989. During those years, countless civilians living in East Germany suffered a quality of life far less prosperous and free than their brethren in West Berlin.
The Vegas Wall
When the Berlin Wall was torn down, it was a life-affirming event for those who supported the reunification of the nation and a move away from oppression. Much of the wall was used in German reconstruction projects, and some of it was auctioned off to those interested in owning a piece of history.
The Pope and The Wall
When the Berlin Wall was torn down, pieces of it went up for sale. You can find segments of the Berlin Wall in various locations across the globe. You can even purchase pieces of the Berlin Wall today online. One of the more noteworthy locations that’s now home to a segment of the Berlin Wall is the Pope's home.