The Berlin Wall Has Been Down For As Long As It Was Up

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"Nobody has the intention of building a wall," said Walter Ulbricht in June of 1961.

Ulbricht was the General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) of Germany—the hardline Stalinist movement that ran the communist East Germany. By 1961, Ulbricht faced a dire problem: young people were desperately fleeing the already-ossified East Germany for the free and democratic West Germany.

Ironically enough, West Germany had a tiny enclave inside the heartland of the totalitarian East which these enterprising youths could enter: West Berlin.

After World War II, Germany was partitioned down the middle—the western half was placed under the administration of the democratic Allies, and the eastern half given to Stalin’s Soviet Union. The former capital of Berlin was located in the eastern half, and it too was divided: West Berlin was given to the Allies, and East Berlin to the Soviets. West Berlin was a tiny oasis of freedom in the middle of communist East Germany.

The attraction was irresistible. Three and a half million people—20 percent of East Germany’s population—fled to the West, especially educated professionals, creating a serious brain drain. The SED dictatorship called it Republikflucht—“desertion from the republic.” And it had to be stopped.

And so, two months after Walter Ulbricht announced that no one had any intention of building a wall, the Berlin Wall went up. It stood for 10,316 days, between August 13th, 1961—“barbed wire Sunday”—and November 9th, 1989. Today marks the 10,317th day since its fall.

The Antifaschistischer Schutzwall, or “anti-fascist protection rampart,” was billed to the East German people and the communist bloc as a way of keeping devious imperialists and fascist spies out.

“We have sealed the cracks in the fabric of our house,” said Ulbricht, “and closed the holes through which the worst enemies of the German people could creep.”

But it was clear to the world that the new wall was erected only to keep the people of East Germany in.

The wall began as barbed wire sections and concrete barriers; soon, as defectors found more and more ways to go over, under, or through it, the Wall became like the barricades of a fortress. Guard towers and barracks loomed over it. Anti-vehicle trenches were carved out next to guard dog pens. Blinding searchlights would knife through the stillness of the Berlin night. Along the entire Wall ran a belt of cleared, flat ground in which border guards would have easy shots at fleeing defectors—this was called the “death strip.”

More than 140 people were killed crossing the Berlin Wall. The first casualty, Ida Siekmann, died of internal injuries after leaping from a window over the wall. Ingo Krüger drowned in the Spree River while attempting to scuba dive his way to freedom. Winfried Freudenberg died after falling from a homemade hot air balloon.

Other people died when jumpy guards misidentified them as possible escapees. Some people chose to commit suicide by walking toward the Wall and refusing to stop.

When the Wall finally fell, the people of Berlin and Germany were elated. Late into the night of November 9th, 1989, West and East Berliners came together laughing, celebrating, hugging, and weeping. David Hasselhoff famously sang Looking for Freedom from atop a concrete segment of the rapidly-crumbling fortification.

The stark and brutal Wall cut like an scar through the old city and, in the eyes of the world, became a symbol for the stifling totalitarianism of East Germany. The world cheered those who escaped across it and mourned those who died at its foot. And through it all, the stentorian strongmen at the head of the GDR stiffly insisted that the Wall was a necessary defense against the insidious West.

“The Wall will still be standing in 50 and even in 100 years,” croaked the SED’s near-octogenarian First Secretary Erich Honecker in January 1989, “if the reasons for it have not been removed by then.”

Perhaps no speech better captured the visceral symbolic power of the Wall than the one made by President John F. Kennedy on June 26th, 1963 before an audience of 450,000 Berliners:

“There are many people in the world who really don't understand, or say they don't, what is the great issue between the free world and the communist world.

Let them come to Berlin.

There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future.

Let them come to Berlin.

And there are some who say, in Europe and elsewhere, we can work with the communists.

Let them come to Berlin.

And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress.

Lass' sie nach Berlin kommen—Let them come to Berlin!”