When the wall fell

By Dan Drollette Jr, November 9, 2014

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“This is a historic day. East Germany has announced that, starting immediately, its borders are open to everyone.” So said anchorman Hanns Friedrichs on the most popular television newscast in West Germany, at 10:42 pm—exactly 25 years ago, as of this November 9. And the Bulletin and other Western media kept a close eye on subsequent events, which had several unexpected and radical twists. In fact, anything having to do with the Wall was convoluted.

East Germans, who easily picked up the West German broadcasts, soon began gathering on their side of the Berlin Wall. The announcement was premature, and there was still a lot of fine print about the considerable (and muddled) travel regulations from the authorities, but East German border guards such as Harald Jäger at the Bornholmer Street checkpoint were soon overwhelmed by crowds clamoring to cross. The same thing was happening all over the city. Jäger and his colleagues reasoned that the use of violence might quickly escalate and become uncontrollable, so they decided to let a trickle of people through, in hopes of easing the pressure and calming the situation.

“They managed to do this for a while,” The Washington Post wrote, “but after a couple of hours the enormous crowd was chanting, ‘Open the gate, open the gate!’ After more debate, Jäger decided that raising the traffic barriers was the only solution. Around 11:30 p.m., the decades-long Cold War division of Germany ended.”

In retrospect, it is hard to believe that the very beginning of the momentous process of tearing down this symbol of the Cold War came about in such a peaceful and off-hand manner, or what the Post described as “an ambush of history.”

This sentiment was echoed in a January 1990 Bulletin article by Lucy Komisar: “The first irony about the collapse of communism is that Western military power has had nothing to do with it.”

She went on to note: “Communism is collapsing because nobody worries about production or profits when companies have no owners and are run on state subsidies. When workers have low-paid but guaranteed jobs and are promoted for political reasons, there is little incentive to work very hard. As the workers say, ‘They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.’ Top political leaders of the Soviet Union … know that the technological revolution is leaving them further behind … The West’s chief role has been to provide an example of economic and technological achievement.”

This soft landing is all the more stunning when one considers just how sudden, harsh and painful was the Wall’s creation. As The New Yorker  pointed out in its November 3 issue, Berlin’s citizens woke up one morning in August 1961 to find coils of barbed wire running down the middle of their streets; the first inkling some people had that anything was amiss was when their subway train didn’t stop at certain stations. Later, the first strands of wire were replaced with a cement wall, along with watchtowers, a wide “death strip,” and an electrified fence. The Wall cut through the city with no regard to logic or everyday life; it blocked off the entrance to a church, separated families, and caused the demolition of people’s homes. In the earliest days, when the facades of apartment buildings hung over the dividing line, those desperate to cross from East to West would jump out of the upper floors to get to the other side. Others tried a different approach: There is a sequence of old photos in the US National Archives that shows an East German mother passing her child over the wire to freedom, when the police weren’t looking.

At least 136 people died in the attempt to cross the 96-mile-long hated barrier in Berlin itself; with a further estimated 500 people killed trying to cross the “inner-German border” that snaked through the adjoining countryside beyond the city limits. Over time, as the border fortifications grew more complex, people tried all manner of stratagems: hiding in false compartments of automobiles, tunneling underneath, and even floating across in hot air balloons and light airplanes.

The whole thing was strange—deliberately so. “The present crisis, centering on Berlin, lacks the realism of the power conflicts in the past. It has about it something unreal, nightmarish, surrealistic,” Bulletin editor Eugene Rabinowitch wrote a month after the first temporary barriers went up. An editorial in 1963 called the structure an “…amputation of the DDR [East Germany] from the rest of Germany.”

Initial reactions to the Wall’s erection were shock and disbelief, followed by a desire to do something, anything. Some saw in the Soviets’ actions a kind of master plan; that same September 1961 issue of the Bulletin said that the Russians were calculating chess players when it came to geopolitics, while American politicians made such decisions on the fly and based upon pure emotion. Others, such as Rabinowitch, thought that the West could use this emotionalism to advantage, writing: “[I]f we want to deter the Soviet leaders from aggressive steps in Berlin, we must convince them not of our rationally plausible resolve to oppose their advance by force, but of the likelihood of Americans becoming so angry over the Berlin issue as to forget all rationality.”

These tensions never went away during the lifetime of the wall, and the Berlin Wall was to remain a likely flashpoint of confrontation between East and West, as can be seen in the Bulletin’s April 1963 analysis of Robert McNamara’s statement to the House Armed Services Committee: “The most critical problem at issue between East and West in Europe continues to be the fate of Berlin … The United States, England, and France, as the occupying powers, have a legal and moral responsibility to the two million people in West Berlin. We cannot abdicate that responsibility without casting grave doubts on our determination and ability to defend freedom in Europe, or—for that matter—anywhere else in the world. Thus, Berlin has become for us and our Allies the test of our resolve to forestall any further encroachment of Communism upon the Free World.”

Given this history, it is all the harder to connect those same Berlin streets, houses, cafes, and churches with the modern, prosperous, united and democratic Germany of today. Probably the best visual connection between the then and the now is a multimedia slideshow done by the Guardian, in which photographer Sean Gallup coupled images he took around Berlin today with archival photos taken when the city was divided. So, for example, one can look at a black-and-white image of the Brandenburg Gate isolated by a concrete wall in 1962, then click on it and see that same structure photographed in color from the exact same angle today—with sightseeing tour buses going by. 

One little-known fact: The Berlin Wall was wide as well as long, and the inner-German border even more so—between 50 and 200 meters wide. These two barriers joined with the rest of the physical Iron Curtain to form a divider thousands of kilometers long through the width of Europe, making up a considerable land area. Although tensions ran high when these barriers were active, nearby wildlife found refuge there; due to the fact that the land it encompassed was off-limits and saw little agriculture or development—a phenomenon that some wildlife biologists call “the border effect.” When Europe reunited, a large part of the old dividing line was set aside as protected land, known as the European Green Belt Initiative. A joint effort by more than 24 countries, it runs through 40 national parks, and acts as a sanctuary for European wildlife. On a 1400-kilometer stretch in Germany alone, a survey by German researchers found more than 600 animal and plant species listed as threatened by the world’s authority on the conservation status of species. In a way this unforeseen nature preserve, full of life, running along the site of the old barrier, acts as a sort of memorial to those who died in the attempt to cross the line.

Editor’s note: The Bulletin’s archives from 1945 to 1998, complete with the original covers and artwork, can be found here. Anything after 1998 can be found via the search engine on the Bulletin’s home page.


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