Mike Kubic is a former correspondent of Newsweek magazine. In this article, Kubic explains how for three decades, the Berlin Wall stood as a symbol of the Cold War, separating families and forcing a comparison between socialist and capitalist ideals. When the wall came down in 1989, the process of German reunification was more complicated than simply re-drawing boundaries.As you read, identify the key events that led to the creation and fall of the Berlin Wall.
When the bitterly fought World War II ended in Europe in May, 1945, scores of cities of Hitler’s Third Reich were in ruins and the rest of the country was desolate. Fourteen years later, the Nazi regime’s successor in the eastern part of the country – the German Democratic Republic (GDR) – added to the ravaged landscape another eyesore: a scar called The Berlin Wall. It immediately became a major flash point of the Cold War.
A hideous testimony to the total failure of Europe’s most rigid Soviet-style dictatorship, the Wall separated two halves of pre-war Germany, each of which became a state in 1951.
The bigger half, west of the Wall, combined the former American, British and French occupation zones into the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). It was a democratic country closely allied with the U.S. and Western Europe. GDR, established in the Red Army-occupied Soviet zone, was a Moscow satellite, run under Soviet tutelage by the East German Communist Party.
The Berlin Wall, which was built by GDR in 1959, consisted of two parallel-running, 97 mile-long, 12 foot-high concrete enclosures with 116 watchtowers and 20 bunkers for the border guards. With barbed wire extensions at each end and a so-called “death strip” between the outer enclosure and the West German border, the complex effectively made East Germany – at first, a country of 18.3 million people – into a prison.Q1
For the Communist regime, the Wall was an existential necessity. GDR was not only a dictatorship with no freedoms of elections, press or speech; it had a Marxist, centrally-controlled “command” economy that kept the country hopelessly backward.
Even worse, the GDR’s system was failing, and keeping the country’s standard of living abysmally low, in plain sight of the thriving West Germany, which was fast becoming one of the most prosperous countries in Europe.
And what topped the Communist boondoggle, the 1951 division into two states left a big part of Berlin under the control of the Western Allies. Within five years, this blunder became so obvious that Mikhail Pervukhin, the Soviet ambassador to East Germany alarmingly reported to the Kremlin:
“[T]he presence in Berlin of an open and essentially uncontrolled border between the socialist and capitalist worlds unwittingly prompts the population to make a comparison between both parts of the city, which unfortunately, does not always turn out in favor of [what he called] the Democratic Berlin.”Q2
Thanks to this opening, all that East Germans had to do to flee their poverty and regimented existence was to walk into Berlin’s American or British sector, and take a train or a flight to the booming West Germany.
Which they did, in such growing numbers that East Germany was rapidly losing its professionals – engineers, technicians, physicians, teachers, lawyers and skilled workers. The GDR’s “brain drain” was so heavy that in 1958 Yuri Andropov, another high-ranking Soviet official, wrote an urgent letter to the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party complaining about a 50 percent increase in the number of East German intelligentsia fleeing to West Germany.
He added that while the East German leadership claimed that they were leaving for economic reasons, the refugees testified that the reasons were “more political than material.” Andropov warned, “the flight of the intelligentsia has reached a particularly critical phase.”
By 1961 – ten years after its foundation – GDR had lost to the West 3.5 million East Germans, or approximately 20% of its population, and its leaders acknowledged that the flight of its young, well-educated citizens was so serious it threatened the regime’s existence.Q3
In June of the year, GDR’s top Communist, Walter Ulbricht, still denied that “anyone considered building a wall” to close the escape route to West Germany. But two months later, after he received an O.K. from Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, Ulbricht ordered – typically, in a cabinet meeting disguised as a Saturday night garden party – the construction of the Berlin Wall.
At midnight on August 12, East German police and army closed the border and by Sunday morning, East German troops and workers had begun to tear up streets and install barbed-wire entanglements and fences. Brazen as it was, the subsequent construction of the parallel concrete walls was carefully located inside East Berlin to ensure that the complex did not encroach on the Allied sectors.
John le Carré, the author of the classical spy novel, “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” witnessed the rise of the Berlin Wall as a young British diplomat. He later wrote,
“And the Wall stayed up. It was strengthened and heightened. It was protected by mined strips and earth brushed so fine you could trace a rabbit’s paw across it. Occasionally, someone climbed over it, or crashed through it, or dug under it, or made himself a glider and flew [over] it.”
About 5,000 East Germans had managed to flee, and at least 136 had been shot dead while trying to escape, by the time the Wall came down in 1989. In the meantime, West Berlin became an isolated enclave with only four roads on which the Western powers were authorized to travel to and from the city through the hostile East Germany.Q4
The U.S. Response
The American answer to the abrupt closure of the East German border was designed to avoid an outright clash with the Red Army stationed in GDR while accomplishing two main goals: maintain a free access to, and presence in, Western sectors of Berlin; and keep up the pressure for the removal of The Berlin Wall.
To assert its right of access, the U.S. used on August 20, 1961 – only eight days after the border was closed – one of the authorized East German highways to move into its West Berlin sector 491 military vehicles and 1,500 troops in full combat gear.
The defiant gesture – a 110 mile-long convoy – was closely watched by East German police, but it did not provoke any immediate response. The Soviets, however, began tightening up their control of who entered East Berlin and in October 1961, GDR border guards – in clear violation of the agreement the divided the former German capital – refused to allow the entry of a senior U.S. diplomat.
Once again, the U.S. response was measured but unmistakably serious: the army moved a tank unit to Checkpoint Charlie, the crossing point to the American sector of Berlin. After the Soviets did the same on their side of the checkpoint, American and Soviet tanks were facing each other, as John le Careé described it, “across a hundred yard strip of road, their guns trained on one another’s turrets. Now and then they roared at each other with their engines, supposedly to keep them warm and ready to advance, but in reality they were psyching each other like boxers before the big fight.”
After 16 hours of this standoff, the Russian tanks pulled back on order from Moscow, and from then on, there was no interference with U.S. diplomats visiting East Berlin. The U.S. army, however, kept every three months asserting the Allies’ rights by sending a battalion of troops along the same East German route to the divided city.Q5
Washington also kept up the pressure on the Soviets by reminding them the Berlin Wall was unacceptable to the East German people and the U.S. Less than two years after the Wall was built, on June 26, 1963, President John F. Kennedy visited West Berlin and, speaking to a rally of 450,000 Berliners, declared America’s solidarity with the East Germans:
“Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was ‘civis romanus sum’ [‘I am a Roman citizen’],” the president said. “Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is ‘Ich bin ein Berliner!’... All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words ‘Ich bin ein Berliner!’”
Twenty-five years later, President Ronald Reagan visited Berlin to deliver to the crumbling Soviet Union another vehement protest against the Berlin Wall. Speaking on June 12, 1988 at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, the president challenged Mikhail Gorbachev, the new, more moderate leader of the Soviet Union, to open the East German border:
“There is one sign the Soviets can make that would … advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace,” the president said. “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Seventeen months later, during which tens of thousands of East Germans demonstrated against their increasingly shaky government and used the relaxed rules to flee their country, the gate was finally ordered open. On November 9, 1989, a lowly East Berlin Communist Party boss announced the lifting of the ban on travel to West Germany.
The huge crowd that promptly surged into West Berlin furiously turned on the Wall and began to destroy it, piece by piece.
The exodus of emigrants from East Germany presented two minor potential benefits: an easy opportunity to smuggle East German secret agents to West Germany, and a reduction in the number of citizens hostile to the communist regime. Neither of these perks, however, proved particularly useful.Q6
- Nazi Germany (1933-1945) was also known as the Third Reich. x
- Desolate (adjective): deserted of people and in a state of bleak and dismal emptiness x
- Ravaged (adjective): severely damaged; devastated x
- A “flash point” refers to a place, event, or time at which trouble, such as violence or anger, flares up. x
- Tutelage (noun): helpful influence or guidance x
- “Existential” refers to something that is vital to a group’s existence. x
- Abysmal (adjective): extremely bad; appalling x
- A “boondoggle” refers to a poorly designed project or initiative. x
- Blunder (noun): a bad mistake x
- “The Kremlin” often refers to the Russian or (formerly) Soviet government. x
- Unwitting (adjective): not done on purpose; unintentional x
- Brazen (adjective): bold and without shame x
to intrude on; to disturbx
- Enclave (noun): a place or group that is different in character from those surrounding it x
- Defiant (adjective): boldly resistant or challenging x
- A “turret” is a small tower that projects vertically from the wall of a building. x
- Vehement (adjective): showing strong feeling; forceful, passionate, or intense x
- “Liberalization” refers to a relaxation of government restrictions, usually in such areas of social, political and economic policy. x
- Exodus (noun): a mass departure of people x