50 years ago today, on the night from the 12th to the 13th August, East German troops and workers began the construction of the Berlin Wall. East Germany had been hemorrhaging its population to West Germany, particularly its well-educated and well-trained young professionals. To stem the population loss, Walter Ulbricht, head of the GDR, and his Secretary of Security, Erich Honeker (Ulbricht’s successor) devised a plan to retain its populace. With backing from the Soviet Union, at midnight on August 12th, East Germany closed the borders to the West. The initial barbed-wire fence was followed by brick and concrete walls once people started escaping, especially through buildings adjoining the wall.
Ultimately the wall surrounded not just West Berlin but the entire GDR border to West Germany. It culminated in a dangerous border zone consisting of multiple walls, chain-link fences, minefields, and a carefully maintained strip of sand that would show any footprints. Watchtowers were placed along the wall and guards were given the order “shoot to kill.” The wall was billed as an “antifascist protection” wall, meant to protect the GDR’s population.
There were many famous successful attempts to defect, especially in those early days – such as the famous jump of NVA soldier Conrad Schumann across the then barbed wire fence.
This US government documentary from 1962, titled “The Wall” shows some of the iconic images of the first year, including many of the escape attempts, as well some of the images surrounding the construction. Obviously the documentary is narrated from the US point of view.
Over the next 50 years, approximately 2.5 million people fled East Germany. But for every successful defection, there were many that failed. Current estimates are that at least 138 people died involving incidents at the German-German border. Approximately 25000 people ended up facing legal prosecution for “Republikfluch” – flight attempts. Usually the victims were then closely watched by the Stasi, the East German State Security service – if they hadn’t already been under observation. In fact, the Stasi had files on one third of its population. If you’re looking for a great movie about a Stasi man’s observation of a writer and his wife, and how he gets entangled in their lives, you should see the 2006 movie “The Lives of Others” (Das Leben der Anderen).
Bernauer Strasse, one of the Berlin streets along which the Berlin Wall ran, and the location of some of the most famous escapes from East Berlin, is now the place of the Berlin Wall Memorial. The memorial shows where the Wall used to be and includes a reconstruction of a strip of the former Wall defensive measures.
The Newseum in Washington, DC contains the largest piece of the Berlin Wall outside Germany, made up of three Wall segments, and it also has a Wall watchtower that used to stand at Checkpoint Charly. It also has a great online interactive exhibit on the news reports surrounding the Berlin Wall.
In January 1989, Erich Honeker, head of the GDR proclaimed that “the Wall will still stand in 50, even in 100 years. Yet only a few months later, on November 9th, the Wall came down – literally, and soon physically as well. The 45km long Berlin Wall ultimately lasted 28 years, 2 months and 27 days.