How the Berlin Wall turned into the Iron Curtain (PHOTOS)

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Hundreds of thousands of people tried to overcome the Berlin Wall during its near 30-year existence. While 5,000 made it, over a hundred died trying.

Before the main symbol of the Cold War - the Berlin Wall - was built, moving between West and East Berlin was relatively easy. Up to half a million Germans daily crossed the demarcation line in both directions. Over 50,000 GDR (German Democratic Republic) citizens rose early in the morning and went to work in the western part of the city, where the salaries were much higher, and in the evening returned home, where the prices were so much lower. 

Not everybody, however, returned from their journeys to West Berlin. Many prefered to stay in more prosperous west. Over 207,000 East Germans left the country in 1961, with over 30,000 people moving to West Berlin in July of that year alone, never to return. Since most of the defectors were young educated specialists, the GDR economy soon faced major problems.  

As a result, the East German leadership decided to close the border. After it received approval from Moscow, whose relations with NATO at the time were fractured at best, construction of the infamous Wall got underway. Officially proclaimed as the Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart, it in fact was destined to keep East Germans inside the country. 

On the morning of Aug. 13, 1961, shocked Berliners observed how the GDR military and police unloaded concrete, barbed wire, shovels and stone blocks. The Group of the Soviet Forces in Germany was on high alert. “Families were torn apart, people couldn't move freely from one neighborhood to the other anymore,” recalled Brigitte Queisser, a witness to these events, known today as “Barbed Wire Sunday.”

The construction of the Berlin Wall took almost 15 years. At the peak of its “power,” the 3.5-meter high Wall had a length of 155 km (127.5 of which were equipped with electric or sound alarm systems), 302 watchtowers, 250 dog kennels, 20 bunkers and 11,000 soldiers on guard.

When the Wall was built it happened to be just several meters from the Church of Reconciliation on Bernauer Strasse. This Church, whose name was so symbolic in those circumstances, was closed for parishioners and used by guards for monitoring defectors. In 1985, the Church, seen by many Germans as a symbol of the country’s split, was blown up by order of the GDR leadership. 

There were few problems with constructing barriers on the surface, but it wasn’t so simple with the creation of borders underground in the Berlin metro. Some stations of the West Berlin metro were on the territory of the GDR. When the Wall appeared, they were closed, except for the connecting station Friedrichstrasse, which got a checkpoint at the exit.

The Berlin Wall, like the Iron Curtain, divided Germany in half, cutting all ties between people on different sides. If a person wanted to visit relatives, friends or loved ones in West Berlin, he needed permission, almost impossible to receive. And if he dared to cross the border illegally, he risked being caught and sentenced to 10 years in prison, or shot by the guards as a “traitor.”        

Despite this danger, East Germans never stopped trying to flee westwards. First in the list were soldier guards. Over 1,300 of them fled to West Berlin when the Wall was still incomplete and poorly secured. One of the first and most famous was Hans Conrad Schumann, whose escape on Aug. 15, 1961, was photographed; this photo immediately went viral worldwide.

Soon, however, new barriers were installed that could be opened only by several soldiers simultaneously. And only the most loyal and trusted guards started to be chosen. 

During the Wall’s more than 30-year existence over 5,000 people fled to the West. People climbed over the Wall, dug tunnels, swam over canals, stole cars, trucks and trains with which they rammed the gates and weak parts of the barricades, and even designed hot air balloons to fly over it. 

A scene from 'Oggi a Berlino' (aka 'East Zone, West Zone'), directed by Piero Vivarelli, 1962.

On April 17, 1963, soldier Wolfgang Engels stole an armored personnel carrier and smashed it into a concrete barrier, crying: “I’m getting out of here to the West, anyone want to come along?” The vehicle failed to break through the Wall, and Engels was shot twice by East German border guards. Wounded, he still managed to get to the other side of the Wall.

Not all defectors were in luck. East German guards shot 136 people during the Berlin Wall’s existence. The last person killed during an attempted escape to the West was 20-year-old Chris Gueffroy, who died on 6 Feb., 1989. 

In 1987, singer David Bowie played a concert in West Berlin. People beyond the Wall couldn’t see the performance, but were actively singing along. "It was like a double concert where the wall was the division. And we would hear them cheering and singing along from the other side. God, even now I get choked up. It was breaking my heart. I'd never done anything like that in my life, and I guess I never will again. When we did 'Heroes' it really felt anthemic, almost like a prayer," Bowie recalled.

As the Berlin Wall was built with the Soviet Union’s blessing, so too was it destroyed with it. In the grip of the sweeping political changes known as perestroika, the country lost significant control over its European satellites. In summer 1989 Hungary opened its border with Austria, which effectively brought the Iron Curtain crashing down and made the Berlin Wall obsolete.  

The GDR leadership, unlike its Hungarian counterpart, wasn’t open to liberalization. Paralyzed by mass protests and turmoil, it called for Soviet help. However, Mikhail Gorbachev, not wishing to harm the ongoing relationship-building with the West, not only refused to give East Germany economic and military aid, but also advised the country to launch reforms.   

Without Soviet protection, the Wall was doomed. On Nov. 9, 1989, crowds of GDR citizens started to dismantle it to reestablish the connection with West Berlin. Official deconstruction works, however, started only on June 13 the following year.

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