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THE RISE – 1961
By 1961, the Cold War between the US and USSR was raging unchecked around the globe. The entire world had chosen sides. The fortified ‘Iron Curtain‘ had been raised; national borders dividing Western & Eastern Europe along Democracy vs. Communist lines. ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) with nuclear warheads were pointed at Moscow and Washington alike.
Berlin however, though divided as well, still allowed free movement of its citizens between the Communist East and Democratic West halves. It therefore provided an “escape route” via which suffering East Germans could defect to the booming West, in pursuit of freedom and a better way of life. Since the end of World War II, 2.5 million people had fled to the West, reducing East Germany’s population by more than 15%. The country was rapidly losing its most skilled workers and educated professionals. During the summer of 1961, the East German exodus reached record, critical levels. In July alone, some 30,000 people fled East Germany through West Berlin!
So on a fateful summer weekend, the Communist Party in Moscow’s Kremlin decided upon the unthinkable -plug the leak and completely seal off West Berlin from the surrounding East Germany. Just past midnight on Saturday 12 August, hundreds of trucks crowded with soldiers and construction workers rumbled through the dark streets of East Berlin . They worked quickly and quietly, stringing up a 100 mile long barbed wire fence completely surrounding West Berlin. While most Berliners were happily sleeping, the crews then began tearing up the streets that entered into the West.
Just before dawn, they cut the East Berlin telephone wires to the West.
When they woke Sunday morning, Berliners on both sides were stunned by the shocking sight in their city. No longer could East Berliners freely cross the border for plays or soccer matches. No longer could the 60,000 commuters head to work in West Berlin for better-paying jobs. No longer could families and friends cross the border to hug their relatives and loved ones. Whichever side of the border one went to sleep on August 12th, they were stuck on that side for the next 3 decades. East German armed patrols, under shoot to kill orders, made sure of that. The few East Berliners that attempted to charge the fence were shot dead on the spot. Sunday, August 13th, became forever known as Stacheldrahtsonntag Barbed Wire Sunday.
In just two weeks, the East German military and an army of construction workers replaced the simple wire fence with a 12 foot high concrete block wall topped with more barbed wire and guard towers. Roads, subways, canals and bridges were all cut off from West Berlin. That half of the city was basically a democratic island in Communist East Germany. The Soviet Politburo dubbed it the “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart” though it would be known as the Wall of Shame to the rest of the world.
Over the years, the zone on the East Berlin side was widened, becoming a heavily fortified, perpetually guarded, and booby-trapped barrier, dividing the city in two. Entire city blocks on the East side were demolished to create a carefully guarded NO MAN’S LAND in front of the wall. President John Kennedy denounced the Berlin border Wall and visited West Berlin in 1963 to give his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, standing before the wall and the Brandenburg Gate. Over the next 28 years, hundreds of escape attempts, either over or under the wall, would be made by daring, desperate East Berliners. A few succeeded, but most ended fatally.
THE FALL – 1989
Ironically, the fall of the Berlin Wall happened nearly as suddenly as its rise. There had been signs that the Communist bloc of nations was weakening, but the East German Communist Party insisted their country just needed modernization rather than any drastic revolution. Communism began to give way to democracies in early 1989 in countries like Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. This opened new border exodus points to East Germans who still wanted to finally flee to the West. East Germany responded by closing the borders to those once Communist nations. East German citizens did not agree and for the first time in decades began to mount demonstrations in Berlin’s plazas chanting:
Wir wollen Raus! Wir wollen Raus! (We want out!)
In October, the long-time East German president abruptly resigned. The new leader, Egon Krenz, appeared to be more in step with his neighbors and tolerant of round trip travel between countries. Would the borders finally be re-opened? people wondered. Germa citizens on both sides held their breath. Then suddenly, on the evening of November 9th, 1989, around 7pm, a Politburo spokesman announced at a press conference broadcast on TV and radio:
“Permanent relocations can be done through all border checkpoints between the GDR (East Germany) into the FRG (West Germany).”Gunter Schabowski
When asked by reporters if this included Berlin, he shrugged and said, “Yes.” The official blundered however when asked “WHEN?” Since the order he was given failed to mention the timing, he hesitated for a second and said “Immediately.” If fact, it was suppose to take effect late the next day, which would have allowed orders to reach the surprised border guards.
People on both sides of the wall heard the news on television and were in shock. Were the borders really open? Hundreds of East Germans left their homes and marched to the 6 checkpoint border crossings, demanding to be allowed to cross. “Tor Auf! (Open the Gate)!” they shouted. No officer among the overwhelmed guards was willing to give a kill order to maintain order, so instead, … they allowed people to cross to the West with little to no identity check.
Very quickly, the Berlin Wall was inundated with thousands from both sides. East Berliners were greeted by West Berliners with flowers and champagne. There were huge impromptu celebrations, with people hugging, kissing, cheering, dancing, and crying. Many began climbing to the top of the wall, chipping away at it with hammers and chisels. More than 2 million people from East Berlin visited West Berlin that unbelievable weekend. One journalist called it, “The greatest street party in the history of the world!”
Over the next few weeks, the Berlin Wall was slowly chipped and cut away into smaller slabs, and removed by bulldozers and cranes. In the end it produced 1.7 million tons of rubble. Crowds around the world cheered every single moment of it. Some of the larger pieces toured the world and have become museum pieces and collectibles. It would take 3 years to completely removed all of the hated border wall. German reunification was officially complete less than a year later in October 3rd, 1990 after 45 years of separation.
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