Fifty-six years ago, on August 13, 1961, the Berlin Wall was built. In the middle of the night, East German soldiers and Soviet soldiers worked together to close the border between East and West Berlin with rolls of barbed wire. Only a few days later, East German masons, guarded by those same soldiers, started laying the bricks that became the Wall. Eventually, 27 miles of Mauer separated East and West Berlin (69 more miles of it surrounded West Berlin, cutting the city off from East Germany).
I was a child in Berlin when the Cold War that divided the world was on the verge of combusting into a nuclear confrontation. I remember the day when the Wall was built and even though I was a child, I felt a shock reverberating through the city. West Berliners feared they would be cut off from West Germany. As it turned out, East Germans were impacted most deeply - they could no longer go west. Eventually, Germans on both sides learned to live with the fortified border, the control booths and the guards. No one liked the Wall, but Germans accepted it as a fact of Realpolitik. For 28 years, the Berlin Wall was the quintessential symbol of the Cold War - the military, economic and political contest between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The arms race was in full swing, spies were dispatched, captured and exchanged; Radio Free Europe broadcast the Western message of freedom far into Eastern Europe; minor confrontations had the potential for combusting into nuclear war. The conflict was played out all over the world but its bull’s eye was Berlin, the microcosm of the Superpower confrontation. Divided Berlin was the hot center of the Cold War.
In 1963, two years after East Germans built the Wall with Soviet support, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev succinctly described the city’s special status: “Berlin is the testicle of the West. When I want the West to scream, I squeeze on Berlin.”
Contrary to popular belief, the Wall wasn’t the beginning of the Cold War, but a consequence of the East-West confrontation. After Germany’s defeat in World War Two in 1945, the Allies partitioned Germany and Berlin into four zones. In 1948, these zones consolidated into East and West Germany and the former capital, located deep inside East Germany, became two cities, each administered by one of the opposing Superpowers. West Berlin was an “autonomous political unit under the control of the Western Allies, located inside of East Germany. East Berlin was the capital of East Germany.
In 1961, the East Germans built the Wall to stop its people from fleeing to West Berlin and from there, to West Germany. Because it surrounded West Berlin, the Wall turned the city into a landlocked island and West Berliners had to pass through checkpoints every time they wanted to leave the city.
The Wall actually calmed things down at the Cold War fault line. President Kennedy remarked that it was “not a very nice solution, but…a hell of a lot better than a war.”
For twenty-eight years, the Wall meandered through the city like a river, separating neighborhoods that used to blend into each other, like Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain, Tiergarten and Mitte. Die Mauer ran down the middle of streets, dead-ended thoroughfares, severed tramline and railroad, ran through lakes and rivers. No matter which direction you went, West Berlin always ended at the fortified border. Underground, the division continued, severing sewers, phone lines and electrical cables. Each Berlin had its own administration, currency, infrastructure, and public transportation system. Each had its own assortment of consumer goods, from combs to cars, from pickles to beer and cigarettes. East and West Berlin were two different worlds.
After the Wall opened in 1989, the divided city began morphing into the multicultural and hip capital city that has become a favorite tourist destination (more than twenty-five million visitors stayed overnight in 2015 and that number has continued to increase).
Here and there, sections of the Wall can still be found in Berlin. Colorfully painted slabs of concrete rise up on Potsdamer Platz and Leipziger Platz, at the East Side Gallery in Friedrichshain, and by the former border crossing point Checkpoint Charlie. None of these convey the dread and the high stakes of the Cold War era: they are art installations and tourist attractions rather than bulwarks of power politics.
The Berlin Wall Memorial at Bernauer Strasse, which includes one and a half kilometers of the original Wall, is more realistic because it shows that the Wall was a terrain of fortification and surveillance, not just a divider. On the Eastern side of the grey concrete, there’s a stretch of no-man’s land and a sentry tower. On the Western side is a viewing platform, which visitors could climb to get a view of the East German capital beyond the Wall. Of course, the cracks and openings in the Bernauer Strasse Wall were made after November 9, 1989, by people who chiseled off a piece for themselves. The Bernauer Memorial recalls East Germans who were killed by East German border troops as they attempted to escape.
For me, the stretch of Wall near the Holocaust Memorial and the Topography of Terror in Berlin’s city center comes closest to capturing the surreal reality of the divided city. It isn’t an elaborate commemoration site, just a stretch of twelve foot high grey concrete that runs down the middle of the street and separates the buildings. Especially in the evening, when the museums close and parliamentarians have left near-by House of Representatives, this unadorned site emanates the quietly foreboding spirit of the real Wall.
In some places, the former East-West border is marked with a double row of cobblestones. Such a line of stones makes erratic path from the Brandenburg Gate to the Potsdamer Platz, reminding you where the Wall once ran.
In spite of these reminders, it’s hard to believe that Berlin was ever divided and that the Berlin Wall stood solid, tall, heavily guarded and insurmountable for 28 years.
Its absence has become a different symbol: no Wall can last forever.