Most city walls keep intruders out. In 1961, the German Democratic Republic built a wall to keep people in.
There was no wall, at first. The western half of the city was administered by the British, French and Americans. The eastern half lay within the communist world.
The western half of the city — West Berlin — became a safety valve, deep in the middle of communist East Germany, offering shelter, safety, and a route out to the West.
East Berlin citizens migrated a few blocks west, just enough to cross over the line that marked the British, French and American sectors. They were voting, literally, with their feet.
Their population draining away, the German Democratic Republic (a monumental misnomer) decided to plug the leak permanently.
Thus the Berlin Wall was the first ever wall built to imprison an entire city.
The Berlin Wall came up on midnight of August 13, 1961. People woke up to barbed wire running through their streets.
Suddenly, overnight, people from the east could no longer cross over to the west.
Imagine that happening to your city. You could no longer see your fiancée, go to work, go to school.
The barbed wire was not enough to stop a spate of early escapees, including soldiers who were supposed to be holding the line.
A wall was quickly built, which over the next 28 years turned into a massive concrete monstrosity, with prowling dogs, landmines, automatic guns, guard towers and searchlights.
The Wall divided neighborhoods, streets, even buildings!
On Bernauer Strasse the apartment buildings were in the East, and the sidewalk was in the West.
So many people jumped out of the windows on the first day of the Wall that the GDR bricked up all the windows. Then escapees began tunneling, so the buildings were demolished permanently.
A year after the Wall went up, 18-year old Peter Fechter dashed across the ‘death zone’ and was shot just as he was climbing the last wall. There are many pictures of Peter dying at the foot of the wall, out of reach of the West Berliners.
Hundreds of East Berliners witnessed the killing. The West Berlin police tossed bandages over the Wall, but Fechter was dying. The East Berline guard who shot him from a sniper hole did not emerge and scurry away until hours later.
Today a small monument marks the place where he died, right beside the line of bricks that marks the trace of the old Wall.
That didn’t stop the escapees. From 1961 to 1989 Over 100,000 East Germans attempted to escape to the West. They dug tunnels, rammed through in trucks, flew over in hot-air balloons and ultralights, hid children in baggage, or swam across the Spree. Several hundred were shot. Exact numbers are lost with the records of the old GDR.
When the wall first came up, West Berliners could come and go. The American, British and French forces theoretically could pass any time through Checkpoint Charlie, the crossing point on Friedrichstrasse.
One month after the wall went up, the GDR restricted US military and diplomatic traffic across the line. The US responded by forcing access into the East with armed jeeps.
The GDR allowed Soviet tanks onto Friedrichstrasse to intimidate Checkpoint Charlie. So the US military commander parked a battalion of tanks on Friedrichstrasse, just inches away from the border line, and suddenly the world was inches from a shooting war.
So why am I writing about this? Well, The Berlin Wall fell 19 years ago today. November 9, 1989.
Reagan, Gorbachev and a dockworker named Lech Walesa were in the right place at the right time, and ended the Cold War.
I was in Berlin for half a day, yesterday. Surrounded by all this history.
Checkpoint Charlie today, on Friedrichstrasse. The actual border was 50 meters beyond the sign.
So many novels and screenplays have been written about Checkpoint Charlie. Defections, spy exchanges, daring escapes. In The Man Who Lost the War, former intelligence officer W.T.Tyler (a pseudonym) described a protagonist escape under the GDR steel barrier by driving an Italian sports car at high speed down Friedrichstrasse, then slamming on the brakes to depress the car just enough to shoot under the barrier.
I learned yesterday that in real life, this happened twice, using the same model of car!
The last segments of the Wall still standing are at Zimmerstrasse.
The recent Louis Vuitton print ad with Gorbachev in it was shot here.
The street itself, formerly Prinzenstrasse, was in East Berlin. The eerie empty space on the left, behind the wall, in West Berlin, was the site of Gestapo Headquarters in World War 2. “Take him to number 8 Prinzenstrasse” struck fear into the hearts of spies, Jews and other enemies of the Reich.
During the Cold War, the street was a buffer zone — mined, patrolled by dogs, covered by machine guns on towers.
Zimmerstrasse during and after the Cold War.
Potsdamerplatz is the most glitzy, modern drag in Berlin now. Sony Center, Citibank tower, Legoland, fashion district, nightspots. But before 1989, it looked like this.
Same corner, during the Cold War.
Across Leipzigerplatz today, the line of bricks marks where the Wall was.
The Reichstag, before and after 1989.
Today, few traces remain of the Wall that held a city captive. How it came down is probably best told in The Cold War — A New History by John Lewis Gaddis.
In June, 1989, Ronald Reagan visited the Brandenburg Gate and demanded, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Many events and forces were already working backstage to demolish this icon of the Cold War. The Soviet Union’s collapse came soon after.
Today that same spot has only the line of bricks marking the 155-kilometer wall that Reagan wanted torn down.
Some image sources and GREAT sites to look at: