The Berlin Wall

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Podcast Transcript

After the end of the second world war, Berlin was a divided city controlled by the four major allied powers. Despite the different zones of control, people could move freely between them.

However, on August 13, 1961, the East German government decided to end the free travel of Berliners by building a wall around West Berlin. 

For 28 years, the wall defined the city and served as a metaphor for the entire Cold War.

Learn more about the Berlin Wall on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

After the second world war, the Allies divided Germany into four separate zones administered by the various Allied countries. The British, French, Americans, and Soviets all had a part of the country which they controlled. 

However, the German capital of Berlin was treated as a separate issue from the rest of the country. Berlin was completely within the Soviet sector of Germany. However, the city was divided into four administrative zones just like the rest of the country was. The zones controlled by the Americans, British, and French collectively became known as West Berlin, and the Soviet zone became known as East Berlin. 

This caused a huge problem for the Soviets. Right smack in the middle of their sector was an island of capitalism in a sea of communism. 

In 1948, the Soviets instituted a blockade of West Berlin. They completely blocked all incoming rail, road, and canal travel to the city as well as the electricity. The Soviets figured that the allies would eventually just give up and abandon West Berlin to the Soviets. 

Instead, the Allies overcame the blockade by flying supplies into West Berlin almost non-stop for almost a year. I previously covered this in my episode on the Berlin Airlift.

In 1949, the three sectors of Germany controlled by the Western allies formally became West Germany, and the Soviet sector followed suit by declaring itself the independent country of East Germany. 

However, there was still a hole in the middle of East Germany, West Berlin. 

West Berlin was technically never part of West Germany. Legally it remained under the control of the Allied powers until Germany unified in 1990. 

West Germany claimed West Berlin, and for all practical purposes, West Berlin was a defacto part of West Germany, but on paper, it was not.

The issue of West Berlin bothered the Soviets and the East Germans for years. 

While they were trying to tell the people of East Germany and East Berlin about the evils of capitalism and how wondrous their new communist state was, they had this giant contradiction sitting in the middle of the country. 

Everyone in East Berlin could easily go to West Berlin to buy products that they couldn’t find in the East. Moreover, West Berlin offered a very easy opportunity to escape East Germany. You could just walk into West Berlin, and from there, you could travel anywhere else in West Germany or Western Europe.

Indeed, between 1949 and 1961, 3.5 million people, representing 20% of the population of East Germany, did exactly that. 

Nikita Kruschev said West Berlin “stuck like a bone in the Soviet throat.”

The Soviet East German ambassador Mikhail Pervukhin said the quite part out loud when he noted, “the presence in Berlin of an open and essentially uncontrolled border between the socialist and capitalist worlds unwittingly prompts the population to make a comparison between both parts of the city, which unfortunately does not always turn out in favor of Democratic [East] Berlin.”

While the general border between East and West Germany had been controlled since 1958, West Berlin was still a giant loophole. By 1961, it was the method by which 90% of those in East Germany fled to the West. You could literally just get on a subway and have it take you to West Berlin. 

Those leaving East Germany were disproportionally those who were educated, resulting in a massive ‘brain drain’ for the country. 

There had been talk of a wall being constructed for quite some time.  As late as June 1961, the head of the East German communist party, Walter Ulbricht, publicly stated, “No one has the intention of erecting a wall!”.

On June 4, 1961, United States President John Kennedy met with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at a summit in Vienna, where the subject of Berlin came up. Kenney hinted that the United States wouldn’t actively oppose the construction of a barrier, which was a huge miscalculation he later regretted. 

After much hesitation, Kruschev pushed Ulbricht to build a wall to stop the flow of people leaving the country. 

On Saturday, August 12, 1961, East German leaders attended a secret meeting where the decision was made to close the border and erect a wall. 

The next day, August 13, became known as “Barbed Wire Sunday.” At midnight, East German soldiers strung barbed wire along the border and began offloading construction materials. The East German secret police, the Stasi, were deployed along the border. 

Seeing what was happening, 800 people managed to flee to West Berlin on Barbed Wire Sunday, jumping over the barbed wire or jumping out of building windows. 

The next day, the number dropped to a few dozen. 

Publicly, the East German government called the wall an “antifascist bulwark” designed to protect East Germany from the influences of the West. However, everyone could see that all of the defenses of the wall were pointed at East Germany, not the West. 

The wall was technically built inside the territory of East Berlin, so there was little that West Berlin could do other than object. 

In total, the Berlin Wall stretched for 140 kilometers or 87 miles, completely surrounding West Berlin. The actual borderline lay about four meters outside the wall, which technically allowed East German workers to go outside the wall to do repairs. 

The outer wall strip, while technically being East German territory, was never enforced, allowing graffiti artists to access the wall for years. 

The interior of the wall was another story. In 1962, a year after the border was closed and the wall erected, a second interior fence was built about 100 meters from the wall. All buildings located between the wall and the fence were demolished, creating an open area known as the ‘death strip.’

The death strip was mostly covered in sand, making it easy to see footprints and deny cover to anyone who tried to make a run for the border. It also made it very easy for East German guards to fire on anyone. 

The death strip was also lit at night and had anti-vehicle obstacles, including trenches, spikes, and metal barriers. 

The physical wall evolved over time. The last version of the wall, which most people recall seeing images of, was known as the Grenzmauer 75, which was built between 1975 and 1980. 

This version of the wall consisted of 45,000 sections of reinforced concrete.  Each section was 3.6 meters or 12 feet high and 1.2 meters or 3.9 feet wide. A smooth pipe was placed on the top to make the wall more difficult to scale. 

There were officially nine border crossings between East and West Berlin, with several more between West Berlin and the rest of East Germany. The most famous border crossing was Checkpoint Charlie, located near the intersection of Friedrichstraße and Zimmerstraße.

A famous standoff took place at Checkpoint Charline in October 1961, soon after the wall was constructed.  The incident was the result of an American diplomat’s documents being inspected when he entered East Berlin. The agreement amongst the allies was that officials for the occupying powers could travel between the zones freely. 

For a week, Soviet and American tanks faced each other just across the border. 

Official travel across the wall was near impossible for those in East Berlin. 

Those in West Berlin, however, could apply for a visa, and day trips to East Berlin could be granted without prior approval. West Berliners had to pay a fee to enter and had to exchange their currency at an outrageous exchange rate, and they couldn’t take any East German currency with them when they left. 

While the construction of the wall dramatically decreased the number of people leaving East Germany, it didn’t stop it entirely. People still tried to make it over, under, or through the wall. 

In the 28 years the wall was in place, at least 140 people were killed attempting to escape, and some esitmates place the number much higher. 70% of those who are known to have died were shot. 

There were also many successful escape attempts. There was incredible ingenuity shown in how people managed to cross the wall. One man took a Soviet armored car and crashed through it. There were hot air balloons, hang gliders, the equivalent of zip lines, and tunnels. There were 70 tunnels attempted, and 19 of them were successful. 

The most famous escape involved a low-lying sports car. The owner relized that most of the car fit below the barricades on the road, so they just went as fast as possible, ducked down, let the barricade take off the top of the car, and drove into West Berlin. 

Over time, the Berlin Wall became a symbol of communist repression. By the late 1980s, the wall was a location for concerts by Western musicians, including David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen. 

Weeks after the wall fell, musician David Hasselhoff held a concert at the wall, which was attended by thousands on both sides, proving the theory that Germans love David Hasselhoff.

Politicians used the wall as a backdrop as well. In 1963 President John Kennedy appear and uttered the famous phrase “Ich bin ein Berliner,” and in 1987, President Ronald Regan appeared and appealed to the Soviets to “tear down this wall.”

The fall of the Berlin Wall came as part of a series of events in 1989 that led to the rapid collapse of the Iron Curtain. The story of how quickly communist regimes in Eastern Europe fell will be for another episode.

On August 19, 1989, Hungary opened its border with Austria and took down its border fence.

This crack in the Iron Curtain allowed Hungarians to travel to Austria to buy things that were unavailable in Hungary. It also allowed East Germans, who were able to travel to Hungary, a way out. 

On August 19, the day the border opened, over 800 East Germans on holiday in Hungary fled across the border to then travel to West Germany.

News of this spread, and soon, tens of thousands of East Germans were making their way to Hungary to cross the border via Czechoslovakia.  Previous agreements between the communist countries allowed for travel between them.

As this happened, long-time East German leader Erich Honecker stepped down due to health reasons on October 18 and was replaced by Egon Krenz.

The flood of Germans into Czechoslovakia caused the border between the countries to be shut. 

On November 4, the largest protest in East German history took palace in Alexanderplatz, where between half a million and one million East Germans took part. 

On November 7, the East German politburo revised its travel policies, allowing for direct travel between East and West Germany.

On November 9, the head of East Berlin, Günter Schabowski, gave a press conference to announce the new travel policies, which was broadcast live on East German radio and television. 

Schabowski had not been part of the discussion and was only handed information just before the press conference. During the press conference, he was asked when the new rules took effect, and he replied, “As far as I know, it takes effect immediately, without delay.”  He also reiterated that the new policies allowed for travel between East and West Berlin. 

Schabowski’s information was wrong. The policy was not intended to go into effect immediately. However, once he uttered it, the genie couldn’t be put back into the bottle.

He made his comments a few minutes before 7 pm. Word spread rapidly. 

Within minutes, it was being broadcast by West German news sources, which were picked up in East Germany. One West German TV anchorman said, “This 9 November is a historic day. The GDR has announced that, starting immediately, its borders are open to everyone. The gates in the Wall stand open wide.”

Technically, East Germany did not approve the removal of the wall. However, that didn’t matter. 

Within the hour, tens of thousands of East Berliners were arriving at checkpoints demanding to be let into West Berlin. The soldiers at the checkpoints were overwhelmed, and none of their superiors would take responsibility for the order to shoot at the crowd.

Finally, at 10:45 pm, one of the commanders of Bornholmer Straße border crossing gave the order to let everyone through. Throngs of East Berliners came to West Berlin, where West Berliners were there to meet them.

November 9, 1989, in Berlin, has been called the greatest party in world history. Not only were people celebrating, but individual people immediately took to tearing down the wall with their own hands. 

That weekend, over 2 million people visited West Berlin. 

If the Berlin Airlift can be considered to be the start of the Cold War, then the fall of the Berlin War can be considered its end. 

Things moved rapidly after November 9. Within a year, East German ceased to exist, and Germany was reunified after 45 years. 

If you visit Berlin today, you can still see where the wall used to be. In many parts of the city, there is a line on the ground indicating the location of the wall. There are a few small segments of the wall that were left standing for posterity.  Other segments of the wall were sent to various institutions around the world. 

The Berlin Wall was, in the end, a symbol for the entire cold war. It was a physical manifestation of the restrictions of freedom behind the iron curtain. When the symbol was destroyed, then people and policies which restricted those freedoms quickly fell as well. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener panduonedpress, on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:

Gary Thumbs Up

You are such an intriguing individual. I picture you sitting in your basement, surrounded by Packers paraphernalia on the walls. Donned in your Favre jersey, delving into the endless books and Internet webpages of research. By day, a mild-mannered video gamer and travel enthusiast. By night, the elixir of knowledge. I attempt to pass on this knowledge by telling my friends all the things “Gary has told me”. They are, of course, enthralled every time. Give or take an eye roll. Alas, I fear you have ruined most other podcasts, as your format of simplicity and cleanliness is so appealing.

As of episode 998, I am a proud member of the completionist club and am excited to learn what beers are on tap.

For future episodes, perhaps consider physiological anomalies. Such as why bird feet don’t get frostbitten, or how fasting and long distant migrations work from a physiological perspective.

Thanks, panduonedpress! As of two weeks ago, I’m no longer recording in a basement. I’ve moved, and I’m now recording in my own small studio in a new apartment. I’ve never actually owned a Brett Favre jersey, but when I was younger I did have a Ray Nitschke jersey.

As for your show ideas, I have put them down on the master list. There is probably a lot to be said on the subject of birds.

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.