One hundred and fifty-five kilometres long. Twelve feet high. Barbed fences and concrete wall. That was all that was to be seen for twenty-eight years: the Berlin Wall. It was a symbol of the Cold War between the Soviets and the West; a move to stop East Germans from defecting to the West. East Berliners lost their way into a life of freedom, higher-paying jobs and a good standard of living; a life with operas, sports matches and concerts. On the other hand, West Berliners could no longer enjoy the state-subsidised goods in the East. Families and friends stuck on opposite sides of the wall on the morning of August 13, 1961, were separated for almost three decades. The making of the Berlin Wall carried on for years, the initial concrete posts and barbed wires being modified and fortified. It is often thought that the Berlin Wall stood only between East Berlin and West Berlin. However, it went all the way around West Berlin, completely cutting off access to the ‘democratic island’ in the sea of communism.
East Berliners went to sleep on August 12, 1961, planning to go to a concert or witness opera, the following Sunday morning. Little did they know that their lives would come to a standstill when they woke up. Overnight, what once was the easiest passage into West Germany, had now been completely sealed off. A partition was created right through the heart of the city; roads, trains and subway lines were blocked and telephone lines were cut. In the initial stages of the making of the Berlin Wall, it was just concrete posts supporting barbed wires. Seeing this as their last opportunity to make it to the other side, a lot of East Germans ran through the incomplete parts of the fence or jumped over it. Even some soldiers defected. On the other side, West Berliners gathered in large crowds along the border, demanding the US to take action against this violation of treaties. However, in the words of President John F. Kennedy, “a wall is a hell lot better than a war”.
As soon as it became obvious to the German Democratic Republic, aka East Germany, that the Allies weren’t going to challenge them, they went ahead with the making of the Berlin Wall. Barbed wires were replaced by concrete blocks to give the Wall a more permanent shape. However, it takes time to build a wall of this scale. East Berliners took advantage of the initial ‘loopholes in the plan’. At some places, apartment buildings were made a part of the wall. This meant that people could just enter one of these and walk out the backdoor to freedom. And once these were locked, people climbed down or jumped through the higher windows of the lined-up buildings. Eventually, these too were bricked up and East German authorities banned occupancy of apartments near the Wall. They moved on with the third phase of the making of the Berlin Wall in 1965, which consisted of concrete slabs supported by steel girders. Next to come were giant concrete slabs, each 12-feet high and 4-feet wide, which were topped with a smooth pipe to prevent people from scaling the wall.
By the time the making of the Berlin Wall was completed, it became one of the most complicated and thorough barriers. It consisted of two walls that ran parallel; the Berlin Wall and an inner wall on the eastern side. The 300 feet wide gap between the two walls created a no-man’s land, which came to be known as the ‘death strip’. It was under 24/7 surveillance with the help of more than 300 watch-towers; patrolled by tanks, armed soldiers with ‘shoot-to-kill’ orders, and guard dogs. To improve visibility, the wall was painted white and the ground was raked frequently so that if anyone tried to escape, their footprints would show clearly. There were trip-wires, automated gun emplacements, land-mines, carpets of steel-spikes and anti-vehicle trenches. All this while, West Berliners would simply walk right up to the wall and decorate it with the widely famous ‘graffiti’.
Although most of the wall was well-fortified, there were a few openings or ‘checkpoints’ along it that were used for official purposes. The most popular was ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ in Friedrichstrasse, which was used by the Allied personnel and Westerners with permits to cross over to the East; East Germans were never allowed to leave. Nevertheless, this did not deter them from making escape attempts. Though some 150 people lost their lives, close to 5,000 East Germans made it successfully to the other side. While initial attempts were simple like climbing up the side of the wall with a rope, the escapees got more creative as the Wall got fortified. Some dug almost 130 metres-long tunnels running under buildings in East Berlin, across the Berlin Wall and opening to the fresh air in West Berlin; while others took the aerial route and waited for favourable winds to take them past the Wall in a hot air balloon. Four people escaped in a sports car without a wind-shield by driving under a beam at a check-point!
Simultaneously, American presidents visited West Berlin to express their solidarity with them. Two years into the making of the Berlin Wall, President John F. Kennedy gathered people outside the West Berlin’s city hall and delivered one of his most famous speeches, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ or I am a Berliner. He compared communism and democracy, stating, “We never had to put a wall up to keep our people in”. Then in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became the head of the Soviet Union and he brought in ‘democratic’ reforms and allowed citizens to voice their discontent. To this, President Ronald Reagan delivered a challenge, “If you seek peace, if you seek prosperity […], if you seek liberalization: […] Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” This would eventually be the cause of one of the cracks that would lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall.