“No intention to build a wall …”
On 15 June 1961, when asked if a wall would be erected between west and east Berlin, Walter Ulbricht, leader of the German Democratic Republic (DDR), said at a press conference:
“Die Bauarbeiter unserer Hauptstadt beschäftigen sich hauptsächlich mit Wohnungsbau, und ihre Arbeitskraft wird dafür voll eingesetzt. Niemand hat die Absicht, eine Mauer zu errichten.” (reference)
“The builders of our capital city are fully engaged in residential construction, and the labour force is deployed for that purpose. No one has any intention of putting up a wall.”
Privately, Ulbricht had already been pushing hard to build a wall to stem the increasing number of people leaving East Germany for the West. Building a wall would also strengthen the (buffer) position of East Germany within the ‘new’ Soviet satellite-empire.
Two months later at midnight on August 13, work began quietly on a wall, and orders were given for additional troops to mann and “protect” the border. Berliners awoke at daybreak to a physically-divided city.
Behind the Wall, The Fall of the Wall
For an East Berliner, it was almost impossible to approach the wall, and it was illegal to photograph the wall. Those who tried to escape were considered “traitors”, and border patrols were ordered to shoot anyone trying to escape. The official number of dead trying to cross the Berlin Wall is listed as 136, though the true count may be higher. The total number of dead trying to cross the inner German border separating West and East Germany is listed at over 600.
In late-1989, the number of protests increased throughout East Germany, as the wave of political changes swept throughout countries behind the Iron Curtain. A hasty but important decision was made to open the East Berlin border, allowing the free movement of East German citizens into the West. 28 years after its initial construction, The Wall fell on 9 November 1989.
Standing in the presence of the Wall, you can’t help but reach out and touch the wall. You close your eyes and try to feel what it would’ve been like to live caged behind a wall. It’s unimaginable to think that oppression, injustice, and the lack of humanity the system placed on its people were expected occurrences every day. Other adjectives apply: autocratic, tyrannical, repressive, undemocratic, totalitarian. Dissent was simply not tolerated in the police state. Subsequent measures included surveillance, intimidation, prison terms, torture, and sometimes, death.
Reunification of West and East Germany occurred on 3 October 1990, but serious problems (e.g., unemployment, economic disparity) still linger. Some who once lived in the DDR have expressed a certain “Ostalgie” (East nostaglia) and have said they miss the simplicity of their lives: a home, a job, certainty. One must ask themselves even now: is that enough?
Who were the people who tried to escape? What were the circumstances which finally compelled people to act? Who were the people who died trying to escape? What are the human and economic consequences of separation and subsequent reunification? There are many stories still to be told, to be heard, and to be understood.
Some standing remnants
I list in the map below some locations where you’ll find standing remnants of the Wall.
- Bernauer Strasse (B), Berlin Wall Memorial : S-Bahn Nordbahnhof or U-Bahn Bernauer Strasse
- East Side Gallery (E) : S-Bahn Ostbahnhof or S-/U-Bahn Warschauer Strasse
- Mauerpark (M) : U-Bahn Bernauer Strasse or Eberswalder Strasse
- Niederkirchnerstrasse wall fragment (N) : S-Bahn Anhalter Bahnhof or U-Bahn Kochstrasse
- Watchtower [W), near Potsdamer Platz : S/U-Bahn Potsdamer Platz
To gain a little more insight about the wall and the lengths to which the state tried to prevent people from leaving, international broadcaster Deutsche Welle created an 11-minute video about Germany’s inner border and the Berlin Wall. The video is available on YouTube in English and auf Deutsch.
A unique collection of panoramic photographs documenting the construction of the Wall from the East Berlin side has come to light and is being presently exhibited in Berlin: Aus Anderer Sicht auf Deutsch | The Other View in English.
In 2009, I visited the northern Hanseatic town of Lübeck, about 40 minutes northeast by train from Hamburg. In the old town, I came across an exhibition for “Da war mal was” by the illustrator Flix. That translates roughly as “that’s how it was.” The exhibition later moved to the Wall Memorial on Bernauer Strasse in Berlin.
Finally, many come to Berlin and ask “Where was the Wall?” The city’s own website tries to answer the question with a lot of details.
The newspaper Berliner Morgenpost has an online interactive feature here in German.
I made the photos above between 2005 and 2011. This post appeared originally on Fotoeins Fotopress at fotoeins.com as http://wp.me/p1BIdT-hF.