Exactly 50 years ago, a tiny group of
people masterminded a mammoth operation in utmost secrecy, using a vast amount
of resources which their country, ravaged by shortages, could not afford. The
Berlin Wall was built — or rather, laid out in barbed wire — on August 13, 1961 in the space of just a few hours. Yet
it was to stand until 1989, the defining symbol of the Cold War and of
Communist might and inflexibility.
At that time my parents were living in
Charlottenburg, West Berlin, as my father was completing his National Service
in the British Army. He was a linguist and had joined the Intelligence Corps,
learning Russian at a hectic military pace (100 words a day, with weekly tests
– if they failed any, they were sent back to the Infantry.) Their task was to
snoop on the Soviet soldiers who had been drafted to the city in huge numbers.
It turned out that the Russians weren’t sure what was going on either, and it
came as a complete shock to almost everyone on the Sunday morning when they
awoke to find the city had been split into two overnight.
Families were ripped apart and fleeing
people mercilessly shot. One of the first to die was the now-famous 18-year-old
Peter Fechter, who bled to death as East German officials refused to allow
anyone near him. Equally well known is an elderly woman photographed hanging
out of an upper window in the East, pulled at from below by West Berlin firemen
and from above by East Berlin police. Apparently she made it safely to the
West. Hundreds of others were not so lucky.
My father has never forgotten the stories
of elderly people who risked their lives to swim across Berlin’s River Spree to
escape from East to West, nor the two East German ladies who turned up in the
flat next door, successfully reunited with relatives and wildly happy, despite
the fact that they had left everything behind – homes, jobs and security. They
had their freedom and that was all that mattered. My father had previously been
a Communist sympathiser – but not any more.
The Wall stretched 96 miles along the
border surrounding West Berlin, dividing it from East Berlin and the rest of
East Germany. Initially laid with barbed wire entanglement and later reinforced
with concrete blocks, its purpose – to prevent the continued exodus of East
Germans into the West via West Berlin – apparently justified even the
destruction of a graveyard which happened to lie across the border.
Subsequent generations of the Wall would
include the so-called Death Strip,
a no-man’s land between two outer walls containing watchtowers, lights, trenches,
guards and Alsatian dogs. Its proper name was the “Anti-Fascist Protective
Measure”; the official story was that the Wall was built to keep Fascists out
of East Germany, not to keep its own citizens in.
The Berlin Wall was the brainchild of
Walter Ulbricht, First Secretary of East Germany’s Communist government (SED). In
spite of his squeaky voice and almost incomprehensible Saxon accent, Ulbricht
had risen to his position by virtue of sheer determination, loyalty, and
dedication to a cause: to impose Stalinism on his country at any cost. The East
German leadership was in many ways more hardline than that of the Soviet
The real villains in this little piece of history,
though, at least to the man and woman in the street, were not the SED leaders
but the Stasi (Ministry for State Security). The citizens of East Germany were
more closely monitored than those of any other Communist country, including the
USSR. It has been estimated that around one in 100
ordinary East Germans were informers. Many of these were bribed by the promise
of foreign travel, an irresistible glimpse of freedom worth more than gold in
the oppressive East German state. Others were threatened or blackmailed –
including Hagen Koch, architect of the Wall.
Hagen Koch was a draftsman, aged only 21
when he was recruited by Secretary-General Erich Honeker as his cartographer.
His job was to design the layout of the Wall and physically paint a white line
where it was to be built. He described his experiences to journalist Anna
Funder in her book Stasiland: the
warm summer day on which he began painting at the place which was to become
Checkpoint Charlie, trying to ignore the protesting Westerners whom, in accordance
with GDR propaganda, he viewed as “enemies, looters and profiteers”. He later
discovered, however, that his real enemies were not West Germans but his Stasi
bosses, who successfully managed to engineer a divorce from his ‘unsuitable’
wife by threatening to take away their child.
Funder also tells the story of Julia, a
talented young woman who bravely refused to inform on a friend who had helped
people escape to the West, and as a result found herself unable to get a job.
Another young woman, Miriam, attempted escape at the age of sixteen and almost
made it across the death strip, hands torn to shreds from the barbed wire, when
she was spotted and taken to a Stasi prison. Miriam was imprisoned for one and
a half years, deprived of sleep and tortured in conditions not unlike those in
Nazi death camps. For years afterwards she kept the doors off their hinges in
her apartment, quite unable to bear any kind of enclosure.
After the Berlin Wall was opened in 1989,
the Stasi began to destroy the files containing the daily minutiae of so many of
their citizens’ lives. They were forced to abandon their headquarters in
January 1990, as protesters, realising what the Stasi were doing, gathered and
stormed the building, trampling on portraits of the two Erichs – Honecker and
Erich Mielke, hated chief of the Stasi. The headquarters were abandoned and became
a museum overnight.
Last year I visited the Stasi
museum, a huge, ramshackle edifice taking up an entire block, many of whose
rooms housed the vast collection of Stasi files. Erich Mielke’s neat little dark-brown-and-orange
office, and the adjoining tea room, were comfortable, though the atmosphere was
faintly stifling. The displays of surveillance equipment – ingenious little
cameras embedded in bags and coats, and various bugging devices, all
reminiscent of a sixties comic book for boys – revealed the absurd lengths to
which the Stasi would go to obtain the most mundane information from the least likely
You almost felt more sorry for the Stasi
than for their victims – until you saw the displays of equipment they used to
obtain information. Local residents, unhappy about housing a museum dedicated
to the memory of one of the world’s most unpleasant secret police forces, are
campaigning to have the building razed to the ground. Who knows whether that
may not be for the best.
Before the Berlin Wall fell, along with most
of the Communist world, no-one could have imagined that a singular set of
circumstances in November 1989 would lead to the SED’s spokesperson, Gunter
Schabowski, erroneously declaring at a press conference that the borders were
to be opened, effective immediately. These words released an avalanche and
precipitated the destruction of the hated Wall. And no-one, even in the early
1980s, could have dreamed that David Hasselhoff would one day soon be standing
astride the rubble singing his hit Looking
for Freedom accompanied by hundreds of thousands of exultant voices: those
of the reunited people of Berlin.
Sue Alexander-Barnes writes from
Sheffield, in the UK.
‘The Berlin Wall’,
Frederick Taylor, Bloomsbury 2006
‘Did David Hasselhoff End the Cold War?’, Emma Hartley, Icon Books, 2007
Funder, Granta Books, London 2004
File’, Timothy Garton-Ash, Harper Collins