Thursday, January 29, 2015

Learning about the Wall

Still more was learned on this trip. I realized I knew nothing about the Berlin Wall except those videos of people climbing over and tearing down the wall. As I wrote this, I double checked my information against the memorial/museum website, which has a lot more info and pictures for those interested.

Example #1 - I assumed that Berlin fell in the path of the dividing line of East and West Germany and was therefore divided. Wrong. As I planned for the Berlin trip and looked at the map, I thought well Berlin seems really far east to have been the middle of Germany....that seems odd.  But I didn't question it much other than to think that just didn't feel right. For reference, here's a map of Germany with Berlin highlighted by a red pin. 

It wasn't until the tour that our guide explained that the dividing line ran more through the middle of the country and the U.S., Britian and France took (& split) the west and the Soviets took the east as they could not all agree on how to "guide" Germany after the war. I'm not sure what the appropriate term is, I don't think govern, so I went with guide. Back to the division. Berlin was the capital and therefore similarly divided. There were four different sectors, but the US, Britian and France would oversee their sectors similarly, supporting capitalism. Whereas the Soviets supported communism. Thus creating an East and West division as well. 
This shows the sector splits for both Germany and Berlin. 

Example #2 - I assumed the wall existed as soon as boundaries were set. They were set in 1945 after the war but were basically lines on a map.  There were plenty of East Berliners who lived in the East and worked in the West. 

Things proceeded similarly directly after the war. However, as the West began to show progress and enjoy different successes than the East, things started to change. There was a "brain drain". Recently, I've heard this term more frequently, but it alludes to all the smart people of an area getting out while the "getting is good". As the boundaries weren't physical, it was relatively easy for East Germans to defect. 

Example #3 - I don't know what exactly I thought the Iron Curtain was before this, probably a metaphor only.  In 1952, Soviets began to separate West from East via what would be dubbed the "Iron Curtain" by Winston Churchill. While describing the ideological differences between East and West, it was also a physical barrier (at least in Germany). This portion of the wall split East and West Germany. However the problem of Berlin remained. Walk over to your friend's house in West Berlin and don't go home. By August 1961, one sixth of the East German population had left. Therefore, the Soviets decided a physical barrier was needed.  

It was a Sunday, August 13, 1961, and a mass of men were deployed to erect a fence of sorts (mostly circles of barbed wire) encompassing East Germany all during that one day. This is for the protection of the people against the horrible policies/practices of the West (or something along these lines) is what was told to the people. Within Berlin the impact was felt immediately. Monday morning a man leaves his family to walk five blocks to work at the factory only to find a barbed wire fence and guards two blocks away telling him he can't go. Your boyfriend/girlfriend across town can no longer visit. Your elderly grandma is now all alone. Immediate change. 

The fence itself was cleverly built/installed well within the East Germany or East Berlin boundaries so that the Americans, British nor French could have a reason to be concerned within their own sectors. The balance of the Cold War. The wall basically encircled all of West Berlin, with various checkpoints (e.g. Checkpoint Charlie) to allow the limited movement in and out. 

Example #4 - I assumed everyone stayed on their side of the wall. Incorrect. West Berliners were allowed to visit friends and family in East Berlin and then return home (without an East Berliner stuffed in their suitcase). Also, East Berliners could apply for visas to leave. Who was granted visas? The old and infirm who communists wouldn't want to support. Those people were easily granted permission to leave. 

The wall started as a fence and slowly became the wall that was "torn down" in 1989. First it was knee high bricks. Then eye level bricks. Then bricks too tall to peer over. People were still escaping. So the Soviets had to continue to add to and improve the wall. If the wall ran up to a building, the building wall was used as an extension of the wall. But, then you had to brick up the windows and secure that wall from inside the building as well. 

The wall became two walls. In between was a "death strip". The strip was lined with light gravel, sometimes boobie traps and well lit for the guards to watch over. On either side of the strip, you had very tall walls of concrete and/or barbed wire. The checkpoints then became the best chance of defecting because if you found someone within the strip, guards had orders to shoot to kill. And they did. 

(See also present day re-created wall in pics below)

In the 1980s and under Mikhail Gorbachev's leadership, changes were introduced. Other Eastern European countries under Soviet rule were given the ability to establish their own national policies. Hungary opened its borders and with that, a hole in the iron curtain was created on May 2, 1989. 

Example #5 - I assumed the East Berliners were fed up, wanted to come West and mounted a united front that overcame a portion of the wall and they physically were able to tear through it. The government was overwhelmed and acquiesced. 

If you can imagine, I was wrong again :). The coming down of the wall was one of the most peaceful turns in government ever. Mostly because they were surprised (based on what I was told about the events). The website doesn't get into detail, but here's what our tour guide provided. 

A new leader had come to power recently in East Germany. He was very young. Many of his elders did not think him capable of the job and did not respect/like him. He was new in office and wanted to do something big - to make a statement, to get the people on his side and to prove himself as a politician/leader. One of his plans was to begin allowing more movement of East Germans outside the country. This travel update is one update that was included with updates on a whole host of other topics. The new leader does not share this information with the public. Instead there is a guy who is in charge of weekly press conferences to share updates. Well, he was on vacation as the new leader developed all these plans. His first day back from vacation is the press conference. He declines a prep session with the new leader and provides an update to the press that afternoon. It's an hour or two long session with not much going on, i.e. the usual updates. Then towards the end, a reporter asks about a potential new travel policy. The guy reads through his materials and says yes, East Germans will now be able to travel abroad. The press is silent as they digest this info (not having been able to travel freely for about 25 or so years now). One follow up question is asked about the effective date of the new policy. The guy refers to the notes. Searches them. Says it is in effect immediately, or without delay, or some words to that effect. The conference ends. 

That night on the evening news, West Berlin media announced this turn of events. While East Germans should not watch West German TV, they get the signals and they do. So everyone hears about this and is in disbelief. They, East and West Berliners alike, start going out to the wall, to the checkpoints, to see if things have changed. I think the number of people doubled like every twenty or thirty minutes. Meanwhile there are only maybe 7-10 guards at the main checkpoint and thousands of citizens are showing up. The guards didn't see the news. They can't shoot all these people. They make a phone call and relay the situation. The higher ups, not being prepared for this situation, basically say good luck. Eventually the guards just open the gates and people flood through. No shots fired. No huge riot. All because no effective date was given. The original intention was for a citizen to apply for a visa, go through proper channels and then the visas would be approved more frequently. Instead everyone can move at once and East Germany as you know it is basically over. 

I don't know how true that all is. We were given names but I didn't remember who was who. 

Today, you can remember the wall in several ways: 

In downtown Berlin where it has been removed, they have left a marker of bricks (I think two bricks thick) to show the outline of where the wall stood. You can see some of it in the middle of the road in front of Brandenburg Gate (very faint, running horizontal about a third of the way up from the bottom of the picture). The gate was in East Germany, but they built the wall so that the gate sat in the "death strip".  

There is a memorial and museum for the wall along one section at Bernauerstrasse. It maintains a copy of a portion of the final wall (death strip and all) and has a viewing platform so that you can climb and see it. There are also exhibits to honor the 100+ who died related to the wall and to share some of the stories, such as the cemetery the wall ran through and the dead were dug up and re-buried (if lucky). 

Showing the original cemetery which today has completely moved behind the wall. 

There's also the more famous wall of art/murals. The concrete portion of the wall was left up and painters from around the world were invited to Berlin to paint a section. There are all sorts of themes along this stretch of wall and it was neat to walk along. 

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