Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Berlin Wall & Inner German Border Zone

Following the end of the Second World War and the division of post war Germany among the victorious allies, the areas of occupation gradually began to adopt the ideological policies of their governing authorities. Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union revealed his intention to communist allies in eastern Germany that he planned to undermine western efforts to democracize Germany first by undermining British authority in it's zone and he expected the Americans to withdraw from its zone of occupation within a span of two years which would lead the way for Soviet invasion and the domination of Germany under a purely communist regime.

The East German government was closely modeled on it's Soviet parent and numerous other organizations and security apparatuses were installed to suppress the population. Property and industry were nationalized in the East German zone along the Soviet ideology of communism. If statements or decisions deviated from the described line, reprimands and, for persons outside public attention, punishment would ensue, such as imprisonment, torture and even death were the end results. The mandatory indocrination into Marxist-Leninist philosophy sent many citizens of the Soviet zone fleeing for freedom from persecution in the western zones. West Germany became a Soziale Marktwirtschaft (Social Market Economy) embracing capitalist ideas and soon enjoyed a twenty year period of prosperity known as the Wirtschaftswunder (Economic Miracle). As the situation improved in post war West Germany, the standard of living and economic situation also improved and many East Germans wanted to move there to better themselves.

 The Soviets soon installed a system of immigration restrictions and close monitoring of the population. Under Stalin's influence, in 1952 the Inner German Border which separated West & East Germany was closed and barbed wire fences erected. However, in divided Berlin the border zone remained open. Berlin became many East Germans only route of escape into the West. It also became the epicenter for rising tensions between the United States and Soviet Union. With the Inner German Border closed, East Germany attempted to restrict movement into West Berlin by introducing a new passport system in 1957. Those caught trying to leave were heavily fined however with no physical barriers and a subway system running between the two halves of the city these measures were for the most part useless. By 1961, nearly 20% of the East German population had escaped to freedom in the West.

The majority of the immigrants were young and well educated and sought the freedoms of the West. This mass exodus was referred to by the communist regime as a 'brain drain' Most immigrants officially stated their reasons for leaving were political more than materialistic. 

A border watch tower along the Inner German Border with West Germany
East German troops along a mere fenced border between the two Germanys
Initially denying his intentions, East German leader Walter Ulbricht along with support from the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev soon signed the initiative to close the borders and erect a wall around West Berlin. At midnight, East German police and military units had effectively sealed the border in Berlin and on 13 August 1961, construction units and workers began tearing up the roads adjacent to the border making them impassable to vehicles and positioning obstacles along the border. Barbed wire fences and entanglements were installed surrounding the entire length of West Berlin effectively sealing it off from East Germany. The barriers were slightly within East German territory to ensure it did not violate West Berlin's sanctitiy at any time. On 17 August, the first cement bricks were put in place to begin the construction of the Berlin Wall itself. East German Army and members of the Kampfgruppen (Combat Groups of the Working Class) were positioned along lengths of the border with orders to shoot anyone attempting to flee East Germany. Additionally, chain fences, walls, minefields and other obstacles were installed along the length of East Germany's western border with West Germany proper. A huge no man's land was cleared to provide a clear line of fire for Border Guards and police units attempting to stop defecting refugees.

Almost overnight, entire families were separated and Republikflucht (Desertion of the Republic) was made a capital offense by the East German government. Hundreds were shot and killed trying to cross the Berlin Wall, and estimates show that nearly 75,000 were caught and imprisioned for trying to escape into West Berlin between 1961 and 1989. Officially East German government officials declared the Wall an Antifaschistischer Schutzwall (Anti-Fascist Protective Rampart) intended to dissuade aggressive influences from the West.The Wall was essentially a public relations disaster for communist officials attempting to improve their image with the people. There nine crossing points into Berlin where citizens could cross into West Berlin and these were closely monitored by Border Troops and Secret Police units. Several subsequent crossings were established for West Germany to use crossing into East Germany and four autobahns (highways) were established linking West Berlin to West Germany.

A sign notifying American personnel of their proximity to the Inner German Border region
 The East German government did not allow apartments along the border to be occupied and the windows and doors of many facilities were bricked up. The East German government issued Schießbefehl or shooting orders to border guards when dealing with defectors. The official stance from East German officials were "Do not hesitate to use your firearm, not even when the border is breached in the company of women and children, which is a tactic the traitors have often used".

A U.S. Army Cobra gunship flies along the Inner German Border in southern West Germany
The most famous of the crossing points that linked West Germany to West Berlin, through East German territory was  the Berlin-Helmstedt autobahn, which entered East German territory between the towns of Helmstedt and Marienborn (Checkpoint Alpha), and which entered West Berlin at Dreilinden (Checkpoint Bravo for the Allied forces) in southwestern Berlin. Access to West Berlin was also possible by railway (four routes) and by boat for commercial shipping via canals and rivers. Non-German Westerners could cross the border at the Friedrichstraße station in East Berlin and at Checkpoint Charlie. When the Wall was erected, Berlin's complex public transit networks, the S-Bahn and U-Bahn, were divided with it. Some lines were cut in half; many stations were shut down. Three western lines traveled through brief sections of East Berlin territory, passing through eastern stations (called Geisterbahnhöfe, or ghost stations) without stopping. Both the eastern and western networks converged at Friedrichstraße, which became a major crossing point for those (mostly Westerners) with permission to cross.

Escape attempts curtailed with the construction of the Berlin Wall, however defections did occur one of the most famous being the defection of Conrad Schumann during the construction of the Berlin Wall. With merely a low barbed wire entanglement separating Berlin, West German citizens shouted to him, "Komme über!" ("Come over!"). A West German police car pulled up to wait for him. With the motiviation to defect Schumann jumped over the barbed wire fence and was promptly driven away from the scene by the West Berlin police. West German photographer Peter Leibing photographed Schumann's escape, and this picture has since become an iconic image of the Cold War.

The first death in attempt to defect was a young woman in August of 1961 when she jumped from the third floor of her apartment. A twenty four year old tailor would be the first shooting victim when he was shot by border guards while trying to swim across Spree Canal to West Germany.

East German citizens still managed to successfully defect by a variety of methods: digging long tunnels under the wall, waiting for favorable winds and taking a hot air balloon, sliding along aerial wires, flying ultralights, and in one instance, simply driving a sports car at full speed through the basic, initial fortifications. When a metal beam was placed at checkpoints to prevent this kind of defection, up to four people (two in the front seats and possibly two in the boot) drove under the bar in a sports car that had been modified to allow the roof and windscreen to come away when it made contact with the beam. They lay flat and kept driving forward. The East Germans then built zig-zagging roads at checkpoints. The sewer system predated the wall, and some people escaped through the sewers, in a number of cases with assistance from a prominent student group.

Many escapees were wounded attempting to flee into the West and if they were within the 'death strip' no matter their proximity to the western side, Westerners could not interfene to assist the wounded out of fear of provoking attack from East German forces. East German border guards notoriously left would be defectors to bleed to death in this area such was the most infamous case regarding 18 year old Peter Fechter.

 Soon after the construction of the Wall, Fechter along with a friend jumped into the death strip and were immediately fired upon by East German border guards. Fechter's friend managed to escape over the wall however, while atop the Wall; Fechter himself was shot in the pelvis before hundreds of witnesses in West Berlin. Wounded, Fechter fell back into the death-strip on the East German side. He remained in view of Western onlookers, including journalists screaming in pain for assistance. Despite his screams; he received no medical assistance from the East side, and could not be tended to by those on the West German side. He bled to death after approximately one hour. Sparked by outrage, the East Germans did enter the death strip and retrieve his body an hour or so after he died. As a result many West Germans demonstrated shouting "Murderers!" at the East German guards.

The negative attention as a result of the Fechter incident, prompted East German officials to order stricter rules for firing weapons in public weapons. The last shooting death along the Wall occurred in 1989.

It is estimated that 5,000 people successfully escaped through the Berlin Wall into West Germany. Almost 200 were confirmed killed attempting to escape and another 75,000 were wounded attempting to defect. 

 With U.S. President Ronald Reagan's official statement to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 challenging him to tear down the Wall, and Hungary dismantling it's border obstacles allowing East Germans to flee into Austria in 1989, mass demonstrations began in East Germany denouncing the communist regime. No one in the East German government wanted to be held responsible for ordering the use of force against protestors and so the Army and police forces were held in restraint. On 9 November 1989, segments of the Berlin Wall were officially torn down and border crossings were reopened in December. Official dismantling of the Wall by the East German government began in June of 1990 and East and West Germany were officially reunified on 3 October 1990. 

A West German border sign announcing the Border between West & East
Another border sign announcing the proximity of the border in German, English, French & Cyrillic
Another sign from a border checkpoint in English, French, Cyrillic & German

Small pieces of the Berlin Wall and a 1982 issue of National Geographic magazine highlighting the situation in divided Berlin

A member of the East German Wachregiment Friedrich Engels participates in the ceremonial changing of the guards at the Neue Wache in East Berlin as American servicemen and onlookers look on

Small fragments of the Berlin Wall which divided Berlin and became a symbol of the Cold War from 1961 - 1989

An assortment of photographs from the 1960s documenting the situation in divided Berlin along the Berlin Wall. 

A case for the photographs reading Berlin zerrisson durch Mauer und Stacheldraht (Berlin torn apart by Wall and barbed wire)

A photograph of Allied Checkpoint Charlie in West Berlin. The caption on the back of the photograph reads Ausländerübergang (Checkpoint) an der Friedrichstraße plick von West nach Ost (Checkpoint for foreigners on Frederick Street view from the West to the East Sector

The view of the Oberbaum Bridge across the Spree River in Berlin. It was a pedestrian crossing between West & East Berlin for residents of West Berlin only. The caption on the back of the photograph reads Mahnmal Oberbaumbrücke (Momento at the Oberbaum Bridge)

A photograph taken from West Berlin across the Wall into East Berlin as Border Guards and Peoples Police personnel patrol the East German side of the wall. The caption on the back of the photo reads Blick in die Wilhelmstraße (View of William Street)

A view of how the Berlin Wall literally ran across the middle of streets cutting off the city in it's center. The caption reads Die Mauer in der Bernauer Straße (The Wall in Bernau Street). Note how the windows closest to the Wall are boarded or bricked up to prevent escape from the Eastern sector into the West.

A checkpoint along the Wall in Berlin. The photo caption reads Durchgang durch die Mauer in der Heinrich-Heine-Straße (Entrance in the Wall at Heinrich Heine Street)

The official view of religion in East Germany being a communist state was a standardized promotion of atheism and many churches were neglected during the East German reign. The photograph here is of the famous Reconciliation Church as seen from West Berlin, behind the Wall in the Eastern Sector. The caption reads Bernauer Straße mit Versohnungskirche (Bernau Street with the Reconciliation Church)

Workers work to brick up the windows of buildings facing the Western Sector of Berlin. The caption of this photograph reads Zugemauerte Fenster in der Bernauer Straße (Walled up windows in Bernau Street)

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