Before the construction of the Berlin Wall, Berlin was the easiest place for Germans to cross between the communist and democratic parts of Germany. There was an "open border", and people could freely cross between the two halves of the city. From 1949 and up until the construction of the wall, roughly 2.6 million people had crossed from East to West. The total population of East Germany was roughly 17 million.
On 27th November 1958 Khruschchev (Russian Premier at the time) delivered the "Berlin ultimatum", demanding the demilitarisation of West Berlin within six months. Despite negotiations no agreement was reached.
The people of East Germany were unhappy with economic and political conditions - there were problems with the supply of goods failing to meet demand, and the government had seized control of many private businesses.
In addition, skilled workers were leaving, which was destabilizing the current regime. The following quotes from a 1962 brochure from the GDR (East Germany) defending the Berlin Wall. It was published in English for foreign distribution.
We no longer wanted to stand by passively and see how doctors, engineers, and skilled workers were induced ... to give up their secure existence in the GDR and work in West Germany or West Berlin. These and other manipulations cost the GDR annual losses amounting to 3.5 thousand million marks.
The Construction of the Wall
On August 12th 1961, Walter Ulbricht, the de facto leader of East Germany, signed an order closing the border with West Berlin. Seven days previous, Khruschchev had announced in a radio broadcast that the border with West Berlin would be closed, and the number of border crossings had risen sharply.
Starting early morning the day after, barbed wire and anti-tank obstacles (stockpiled in readiness) along with ripped up paving stones were put in place as a make-shift border. While the primitive border was under construction, guards with AK-47s stood at six feet intervals. A more permanent concrete wall was built over the following days by teams of construction workers.
The wall cut straight through streets and buildings. In one case, the border ran straight down the middle of a street; there was once the joke that if you crossed the road you had accidentally defected - and you did in fact risk arrest by border guards. Crossing the road soon became impossible. The wall also cut across rivers and lakes, where submerged iron bars were put in place, and guarded by patrol boats. The over-ground and underground transit systems were both shut down, as they wandered in and out of both halves of the city. 60,000 commuters were affected, along with countless families who had relatives on the other side.
The wall was gradually "improved" over the years - firstly concrete blocks in 1961 and again in 1962, with incremental changes up to 1975, when most sections were replaced with the familiar concrete L-shaped sections. One section of this wall, daubed with graffiti, stands outside the CIA headquarters in Langley.
The Effect of the Wall
For the Berliners the wall eventually became a piece of the landscape. West Berlin was cut off from West Germany except for a two motorways - one from the south (Munich) and one from the west (Hannover). It's population declined steadily. the West German government always insisted that Berlin was the capital city, but the government was seated in Bonn.
In December 1963, the two governments negotiated a method of allowing people to cross the border. This enabled relatives to visit each other over the Christmas season. Other exceptions were made for occasions such as a birth, marriage or death among families.
Eventually an arrangement was come to regarding the transit system; East Germany got one, and West Germany got the other. Travelling along the underground, you could see boarded up stations go past in the dark.
The purpose of the wall differed depending on who you believed. The GDR claimed it was to guard against the influences of West Germany. But it was clear that the wall had the aim of preventing people from leaving East Germany. In the document quoted above, the GDR also claimed that building the wall had preempted "the match that might spark another war". At this time, the East Germany was still effectively controlled from Moscow.
There was a high exchange rate between the two German currencies. One West German Deutsche Mark (DM W) was equal to six East German DM (DM O). This meant that luxuries in East Germany from West Germany became status symbols.
Attempts to scale the wall varied in their success. Some figures show that out of approximately three thousand attempts, around two thousand were successful. Two hundred and thirty-nine people died while attempting to cross into West Berlin - the last of these was 20 year old Chris Gueffroy, shot on February 5th, 1989.
Berlin also became a centre for espionage - all the major western governments maintained a significant presence there. People listening to the radio in East Berlin could of course tune in to West Berlin radio stations, and the BBC World Service (among others) had stations there. The CIA is alleged to have once built tunnels that extended beyond the wall underground, for the purposes of intercepting telecommunications. *
From its construction in 1961, the wall lasted 28 years.
The fall of the Berlin Wall
In the latter half of 1989 Hungary opened its borders to Austria. Hungary was technically still a Warsaw Pact country, and therefore East Germans found it easier to arrange to travel there. From there, they could cross over to Austria, where a West German embassy was situated, and from there to West Germany. The flow of Germans from East to West began once more - within six months, over 220,000 East Germans had taken that route.
Meanwhile, mass demonstrations against the authorities in East Germany began September 1989 and continued until the collapse of the East German government. On November 9th 1989, Communist Polit Bureau member, Guenther Schabowski, during a radio announcement on changes to existing laws, made what the Germans call a "misspeak":
"In order to relieve pressure from our Hungarian allies the decision was made to open the checkpoints."
A journalist then asked when this new regulation will take affect. There are conflicting translations, but the meaning was clear. Schabowski was said to stutter: "If I am informed correctly, this regulation becomes effective immediately."
This had an instantaneous effect. Thousands of East Berliners went to the border crossings. The border guards, not knowing what to do in the face of such large crowds, stood aside and later joined the crowd. The West Berliners came to meet them.
An eye witness account of the destruction of one section of the wall follows:
There were fireworks, kites, flags and flags and flags, dogs, children. The wall was finally breaking. The cranes lifted slabs aside. East and West German police had traded caps. To get a better view, hundreds of people were climbing onto a shop on the West German side. We scampered up a nine foot wall. People helped each other; some lifted, others pulled. All along the building, people poured up the wall. At the Berlin Wall itself, which is 3 meters high, people had climbed up and were sitting astride. The final slab was moved away. A stream of East Germans began to pour through.
The West German government announced free passes to all East Germans for zoos, art galleries, museums, etc. Approximately 80% of the East German population went on holiday, and after a week went home again. The East German currency became worthless. There was a brief crime wave in East Germany as criminals brought BMWs and Mercedes - which easily outran the East German Police cars. There is one documented case of a bank robber making a clean getaway in a BMW with a trunk-full of cash, only to discover he had stolen worthless East German Deutsche Marks.
Official demolition of the Berlin Wall started 13th June 1990 by the East German border guards and demolition experts from the Bundeswehr.
On the 3rd October 1990, East and West Germany officially reunited, and all restrictions concerning travels were dropped. The 3rd of October is now a national holiday. Since then the government has moved back to Berlin. There are three universities; public transport is so good that many people need not own cars. And there are building sites everywhere, as they try to bring the East into the 21st century.
http://www.andreas.com/berlin.html (eye witness account)
The German side of my family :-)
17/5/01 Corrections: The date of re-unification is now correct. (cringe) There were two motorways, not one as previously stated. Also, Berlin was always the official capital, but the government was situated in Bonn.
14/08/02 spelling, thanks to fuzzy and blue.