August 13, 1961: Construction Begins on the Berlin Wall
On this day in 1961, Berliners woke to find their city and their lives cut in two by a wall of barbed wire and concrete blocks. Ordinary citizens found themselves caught in the extraordinary politics of the Cold War, as it was almost impossible to flee East Germany.
The Berlin Wall would cut the city in half, cut off West Berlin from the rest of East Germany, and serve as the enduring symbol of the Cold War.
Watch The Wall – A World Divided, which tells the story of the Berlin Wall through rare archival film and photos.
I lived in Berlin for a few months in 1993. The Wall had recently come down in 1990 but the East-West unification was still slow-going. In atmospheric cafes and all-night bars/clubs everywhere, minds loosened from alcohol or adrenaline, many would often share personal horrific/heroic stories about stealth-crossings from the East to the West by themselves, or with friends or family members, in search of better lives.
West Berlin friends would advise me to stay away from East Berlin due to the high crime rates. And the trick, without the physical Wall as a guide, to knowing whether you’d crossed into the East inadvertently: the little green/red man in the traffic lights wore a hat in East Berlin but was hat-less in West Berlin. There was also something about certain words pronounced differently by Easterners and Westerners, but I could never pick up the dialect differences when I was still trying to master the language.
I also remember, working at a large German company in West Berlin, how there was still antagonism between the Easterners and Westerners. The Westerners felt that the Easterners had swarmed in after 1990 and taken the scarce available jobs (remember, this was the post-Gulf War Global Recession) away. If an Easterner and a Westerner sat next to each other in an office, chances were high that they would ignore each other entirely or say as little as possible.
One drowsy summer afternoon, feeling rather expansive after a boozy lunch, my boss lit a cigar in his office, tilted his chair back and proceeded to tell me how he and his family had dug tunnels to escape from East Berlin into West Berlin more than a decade earlier. They’d left everything behind in their home save for the clothes on their backs. Lights on, radio/TV on, beds/couches made to look like there were people lying on them so that the nightly check guards would not suspect anything. And, the months leading up to the escape, when digging the tunnels, how they avoided scrutiny, almost got caught, and finally picked their moment to leave on a whim (almost). And, then, the long struggle to start new lives from nothing to finally becoming an esteemed executive in the firm.
I don’t know how much of the story was true and how much was peppered with exaggerations honed over the many years of re-telling. I found out later that every new recruit in his department got this escape story within a month of starting. And, it did vary ever so slightly with each telling. Still, that blue-gold day, the cigar smoke pungent in my nostrils, the aftertaste of German beer in my mouth, and my boss’ ever-clear Germanic enunciations were forever etched into my consciousness.
Going home on the crowded Eisenbahn that evening, I looked around me at all the usual faces and wondered: which ones were Easterners and which ones were pretending to be Westerners like my boss? And, would things get easier? (They did.)
There’s a lovely short novel about the Wall (likely the best one out there) by Peter Schneider, called The Wall Jumper: A Berlin Story. Before the Wall came down, he wrote:
It will take us longer to tear down the Wall in our heads than any wrecking company will need for the Wall we can see.
And, now watch this historic 4-minute news report of the Wall coming down in 1989.