The East German government called the Berlin Wall "the Anti-Fascist Protection Barrier." But the machine guns along its length were pointed inward, toward East Berlin, not outward.
Shortly after midnight on August 13, 1961, the city of Berlin was cut in two. Soviet and East German troops moved in and ringed the city. Train service between the two cities was stopped. Telephone lines were cut. Streets connecting East and West were sealed off. The construction of the Berlin Wall had begun. The people of East Berlin were being locked in.
EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE
At first, the wall consisted of barbed wire, concrete barriers, and tanks. When complete, it was 100 miles (161 km) of pure concrete, 10 to 13 feet (3 to 4 meters) high. It extended 28 miles (45 km) through the heart of Berlin and some 70 miles (113 km) around the city to isolate West Berlin from the rest of East Germany, which surrounded it.
The wall was painted white, not to make it prettier, but to make it easier for border guards to see and shoot at anyone attempting to climb over it. A second wall was built 100 yards (91 meters) to the east of the first wall. In the no-man's-land (known as the Death Zone) between them were 293 watchtowers along with searchlights, killer guard dogs, self-firing guns, and land mines. Over the years, the wall was rebuilt three times to make it harder and harder to breach.
THE GREAT ESCAPES
* The greatest number of escapes from East Berlin took place in the first two years while the wall was still being fortified.
* One East German butcher fashioned bulletproof protection by strapping hams, roasts, and sausages around his body. While he was hurling himself over the barbed wire, the meat absorbed the bullets.
* If a building was on the boundary line, people escaped by throwing mattresses out the windows and then jumping from second- or third-story windows. (First floor windows had been bricked up early on.) Some parents threw their children out windows on the eastern side into fireman's nets on the western side.
* One man threw a hammer and line from a roof of a building in the East over the wall and, with his wife and young son, slid down it in a homemade chairlift. So many people used stout rope thrown over a wall (and held by someone on the other side) that East Germany banned the sale of any rope sturdy enough to hold a human being.
* East Germans used Berlin's ancient sewer system to escape- until the authorities cemented the manhole covers shut.
* One woman created Soviet uniforms for herself and three friends. They saluted the East German guards and walked through through the checkpoint unquestioned.
* In 1979, two families with eight people sewed together bits of fabric, made a homemade hot-air balloon and flew to safety on the other side. In response, the East German government limited the sale of lightweight fabrics such as nylon.
* Tunnels were dug all over East Berlin. One ingenious tunnel started in a mausoleum in an East Berlin cemetery. "Mourners" would enter the crypt -and never exit. In 1962, NBC-TV funded a tunnel from Bernauer Street in East Berlin to Schoenholzer Street in West Berlin. They filmed the escape of 56 refugees, before flooding shut the tunnel. Another tunnel, they escape route for 57 people, was 430 feet (131 meters) long and took six months to build. Yet another began in a backyard outhouse in East Berlin and ended in a bakery on the western side.
Estimates vary widely, but between 5,000 and 16,500 people escaped East Berlin by outwitting the wall -and the border guards. Some 246 hopefuls are known to have died trying, and approximately 3,200 people were arrested for attempting escape -and were either sentenced to death or imprisoned for life. (Because of the extreme secrecy of the East German government, the exact number may never be known.)
THE FIRST CRACK IN THE WALL
By the late 1980s, the Communist governments of the Soviet Union and East Germany were near collapse. In May 1989, Hungary started cutting down the barbed wire fence along its Austrian border. East Germans vacationing at Hungary's lakes saw their opportunity. That summer, 5,000 people a week escaped to West Germany via Hungary and Austria. On September 10th, 1989, Hungary completely opened its border with Austria. East Germans began streaming through, and by the end of the summer, 50,000 had fled East Germany.
The floodgates to freedom had opened. On November 4, 1989, Czechoslovakia opened its borders to tens of thousands of fleeing East Germans. All this fueled massive unrest in East Germany; antigovernment demonstrations were held, and the East German Communists ousted their leader.
THE WALL COMES TUMBLING DOWN
The East German government tried one last effort to stem the rush of people to the West. Late on November 9, 1989, as a postscript to a long news conference, an East German spokesman announced that, beginning immediately, the borders between East and West Germany and East and West Berlin would be open to travel unconditionally.
(Image credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1989-1110-018/Oberst, Klaus/CC-BY-SA)Within hours, stunned and disbelieving crowds had gathered at the wall. When people crossed the border checkpoints without being shot at, the celebrations began. Berliners hugged relatives they hadn't seen in 28 years. Masses of people took hammer and chisel, then sledgehammers, to the wall.
East Berliners marveled at the abundance in the West Berlin shops. The city of West Berlin gave each East Berliner $60 (49 euros) in "welcome money." One man returned library books that he had borrowed from the American library in West Berlin the day before the wall went up -only 28 years overdue. The world media turned out in droves to cover the weeks-long party at the wall.
(Image credit: Flickr user Felix Petersen)By December 3, the Communist government in East Germany was ousted. In March 1990, East Germans voted their country out of existence. Germany was officially reunited on October 3, 1990.
THE WORLD WIDE WALL
Today, very little of the Berlin Wall is left.The official demolition began on June 13, 1990. Small segments of the wall still stand in three locations, and the rest of the wall's course is marked by a double row of cobblestones. Some segments of the wall were recycled for road building.
(Image credit: Wikipedia user Scapler)Pieces of the wall are displayed in Washington, D.C.; at the libraries of former presidents Nixon, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush; at the Seattle Center; and, most improbably (or maybe not) in the men's restroom of a downtown Las Vegas casino. There, the once feared and hated Berlin Wall serves as a backdrop to a row of urinals. A nice spot for a little revenge.
****** There were three checkpoints that were given names based on the phonetic alphabet. The Helmstedt checkpoint was called Alpha, the Dreilinden checkpoint was Bravo, and the checkpoint at Friedrichstrasse got the name Charlie.
* Although the wall was over 103 miles long, only a small section of it was painted with grafitti -the two-mile area between Checkpoint Charlie and the Brandenberg Gate. The rest was plain unadorned concrete.
(Image credit: Wikipedia user Noir)* There are 80 known deaths of people who died while attempting to cross the Berlin Wall between 1961 and 1989. The last death occurred just nine months before the wall fell on November 9, 1989.
* Germany was reunited on October 3, 1990.
______________________________The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into History Again.
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