The Wall turns 48 – What was the Berlin Wall really like?

Yesterday marked the 48th anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall. (I actually wanted to post this on the 13th, but…) During the night of 12-13 August 1961, East German soldiers and other workers began stringing a barbed wire barrier along the intra-German border (innerdeutsche Grenze) in Berlin. As time went by, the barbed wire fences were replaced by concrete: the Berlin Wall (die Berliner Mauer). It was East Germany’s desperate attempt to stop a serious brain drain and what was known as “voting with your feet” (i.e., escaping to the West). Berlin was the most serious “leak” — one that had to be plugged if the East German dictatorship was to survive.

Berlin Checkpoint Charlie 1969

The Berlin Wall: Checkpoint Charlie in 1969. PHOTO © Hyde Flippo

I first experienced die Mauer personally in 1969, when it was still a crude, slapped-together, eight-year-old youngster, not the smoother, slicker version after 1975. By chance, I also experienced the last days of the notorious barrier in the summer of 1989, only a few months before the Berlin Wall fell. Both times I was traveling with American high school students, so I was also seeing the Wall through their eyes.

I have vivid memories of traveling by bus through East Germany via the autobahn to the land island of West Berlin in 1969. It all came back when I drove along that same autobahn in July of this year in my rental car and stopped at what is now just a rest stop at the former Helmstedt border checkpoint. (There’s also a museum/memorial there now.) I vividly remember our group being held there in the hot summer sun by East German border guards because one of our students had an expired US passport. I remember the special mirrors-on-wheels used to search underneath the bus. I remember having to remove all the luggage from the bus so the guards could make sure we weren’t smuggling anyone in or out of the GDR (the German Democratic Republic — that wasn’t German, democratic, or a republic). After we arrived in West Berlin, I crossed through Checkpoint Charlie on foot (see photo above) with some of our group.

Visitors to Berlin now have a difficult time finding any traces of the Wall. Looking at the few remaining sections of the Berlin Wall today, it is difficult to fully grasp what the Wall really was. In particular, the longest remaining segment, the colorful 3/4-mile-long East Side Gallery, as authentic as it is, can leave observers with a false impression. In the years the Wall stood (1961-1989), the section now known as the East Side Gallery was a gray expanse of prison wall, blocking off any view of the Spree River and West Berlin behind it.

Despite the farcical East German propaganda (“Anti-Fascist Protection Wall”), everyone knew the Berlin Wall (plus the border fences encircling East Germany, first erected in 1952) was built to keep East Germans from leaving their socialist prison (an offense known as Republikflucht). Some 3.8 million people had left the country before the Wall went up. But the “Wall” was much more than a wall. In reality, the Berlin Wall was a complex made up of a “death strip” (Todesstreifen) inside an inner and outer wall, guard towers (302 in Berlin alone) with guards under shoot-to-kill orders, tank traps, “Stalin lawns” (nail-spiked plates), land mines, floodlighting, and other security measures. At least 136 people were killed while attempting to cross the Wall, the last on 9 February 1989 in Berlin.

The Wall was also a very expensive proposition for a country that was never as prosperous as it wanted the world to believe. The Berlin Wall and the East-West border fences sucked vast sums of money away from the GDR’s economy. Beyond the huge expense of constructing and maintaining the Wall and the border complex surrounding the entire GDR, the East German government had ongoing outlays for personnel and equipment related to keeping the GDR border tightly sealed. The cost estimate for the 1975 version of the Wall alone (about 45,000 new concrete slabs) is over 16 million East German marks (Ostmark), not counting the cheaper inner walls — when a loaf of bread cost only about one mark.* The total cost of just the first phase (from 1961 to 1964) ran over 1.8 billion marks, of which 22 percent (400 million) went to the Berlin border alone. This in a country with constant hard currency problems (to buy needed imports), dependent on exports from its Socialist “brother lands” (most notably the USSR), and a GDP in the 1980s of about 250 billion Ostmark. West Germany at that time had the third highest GDP in the world!

In order to patrol and guard the 162-km (100-mi) border encircling West Berlin and the 1,381-km (858 mi) border surrounding East Germany, as many as 50,000 Grenztruppen, equal to three army divisions, had to be employed. Another cost was the economic loss of transportation routes (rail, highways, waterways) severed by the border, towns cut off from former economic ties, and the closing of factories and other facilities close to the border. In 1969, only 14 percent of East Germans owned a car — even the lawn-mower-engine-powered Trabi.

Understandably, Germans and Berliners today don’t want to get stuck in the past. Twenty years have already gone by since the Wall opened in 1989, and then rapidly disappeared. But if you get a chance to stand next to one of its few remnants, try to remember the Berlin Wall is not just another tourist attraction. It was a 100-mile-long prison wall. At least 136 people lost their lives trying to cross its aptly named death strip.

Also see: Berlin Wall Timeline and Berlin Photo Gallery

*Source: The Berlin Wall and the Intra-German Border 1961-89 by Gordon L. Rottman, Chris Taylor

Related Links:
I recommend the following online videos and websites to get a better understanding of the Wall:

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  1. Pingback: Martin Luther King, Jr. in Berlin - East and West! | The German Way Expat Blog

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