The Berlin Wall: From Erection To Demolition

The erection & demolition of the Berlin Wall, a brief history (1961-1989), as told from the perspective of East and West Berliners; and its human impact.

To the people of East and West Berlin, the Berlin Wall was much more than a symbol of cold war politics and saber rattling. Berliners had seen these before in the years following the Potsdam and Yalta Conferences during which the Allies divvied up Germany. They had learned to live with them. The Berlin Wall was different.

West Berlin in the post World War II years was surrounded by East Germany. Access was always a sensitive, if not contentious, political issue. In the time between June 1948 and September 1949, the Western powers were obliged to fly all supplies to West Berlin, some 27,000 flights delivering two million tons of supplies for the besieged populace, because the Soviets had sealed off all surface traffic. This was the famous Berlin Airlift.

By the late Fifties, eight to ten thousand East Germans were fleeing to West Germany daily, many of these skilled tradespeople and professionals, many of these moving into West Berlin. Other East Berliners worked in West Berlin. Still others had friends and relatives living there.

The economics of daily living were the primary reasons for this exodus. Shortages of housing, food, and health care were more acute in the east than the west. Ironically, the more people who left, the more the situation worsened.

Finally, on August 13, 1961, the frustrated government of East Germany constructed a wall around Berlin and through its center. Outside Berlin, the wall ran across Germany from the Baltic Sea to the border of Czechoslovakia in the south, effectively shutting off East Germany from the West.

Klaus Dieter Hauser was an East Berliner, a printer by trade, with a wife and a three-year old son. He worked a few hours overtime at his job in West Berlin on August 13th. He did not see his wife and son again for fourteen years. The border was sealed. Hauser's case was not exceptional.

Rudolph Braun was an East German jack of all trades who happened that day to be in the west near Hildburghausen in the south, repairing a farmer's mowing machine. He had to wait until the 14th for a part. He had to wait until November 10, 1989 before he saw any of his family again.

Some limited travel was available for those caught in this dilemma, but it was strictly one way. Most people, recognizing this, chose to stay in the West. Friends and relatives on both sides had been separated in an instant. Few West or East Berliners were spared this.

The exodus slowed to a trickle; risks were too high. Before the wall came down seventy people died trying to escape. Those caught and imprisoned far exceeded that number.

Although the economic situation in the West continued to improve, that in the East remained as static as anywhere in the U.S.S.R. West Germany rebuilt itself into an economic powerhouse. The job demand was so high that thousands of workers from all over Europe flooded to the country. In the East, a new generation, born to seeming stoic acceptance of their lot, and knowing no alternative, made the best of it, which, given limited possibilities, was comparatively unrewarding.

Perestroika in the Eighties suggested shifts in political policies, but these did not filter far into the daily round of East Berlin life. Residents still found empty shelves in their shops, inflation had rendered their currency almost worthless, housing shortages were still endemic, and long lineups were still commonplace at medical clinics.

In May 1989, Hungary opened its borders to Austria. Hungary was promptly flooded with East Germans seeking exit by that route. So many arrived, Hungary relented and briefly (several hours) allowed some to cross. In those few hours 4500 made it. Others crammed the West German Embassy property in Prague.

A groundswell had begun across Germany. Throughout October of 1989, protests grew in frequency. By mid-October protesters were estimated to number in the millions in East Germany. The East German government allowed the East Germans in Prague access to the West.

This action merely fueled the fire. In early November, the East German government had to announce opening of the border to West Germany. The West German government offered East Germans 100 deutschmarks each as "welcome money". Thousands took the offer.

On November 11th, citizens began dismantling the infamous wall. Family members and friends were reunited, a time for many of jubilation. For Rudolph Braun reunions were bittersweet. In 1968 his mother had died in the East, in 1971 an uncle; and his wife divorced him in 1972 to re-marry; all of this a mere six miles from where he lived in the West. It may as well have been six million.

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