Despite Walter Ulbricht’s promise « Niemand hat die Absicht, eine Mauer zu errichten! », the Berlin Wall was built in the night of August 12 to 13, 1961. From this period onwards and until the reunification of October 3, 1990, Germany was divided into the so-called West, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), and the so-called East, the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Both states were under the influence of the Cold War superpowers, the USA and the USSR.
The city was divided, brutally separating families, friends, people from their work. Around 63 000 East Berliners lost their jobs in the West. 10 000 West Berliners lost their jobs in the East due to the construction of the Wall.
The Wall became a physical embodiment of the ideological, social, cultural, and political frontier between the Eastern and Western blocks. Berlin thus became an outpost of confrontation from the two opposing political camps facing each other through the Wall.
This picture taken by Günter Zint on August 13, 1961, illustrates the sudden and brutal division of Berliners. That is to say, the day following the night of the erection of the Wall or at least the physical barrier between East and West Berlin conveys a vivid sense of how unpredicted and shocking it was for Berliners. The photographer captured a heartbreaking scene of parents holding their children over the wall hoping that the grandparents, on the other side, will catch a final glimpse of their grandchildren.
Following the erection of the wall, out of 81 crossing points between West and East, 69 were closed with barbed wire and brick walls. Furthermore, a checkpoint was established for foreigners in Friedrichstraße, open day and night. The division of Berlin introduced a total scission of West and East Berliners who could access the other part of the city only following a strict protocol of rules and regulations, especially for East Germans. Only a selected number of East Berliners and East Germans were allowed to cross under specific conditions. West Germans and West Berliners could travel to the East under strict conditions. Crossing the Wall thus became a whole experience of discovering a lost part of themselves for some and unknown for some others.
By looking at experiences of crossing the Berlin Wall, we can see the depth of the division of West and East Berlin, which is key to understanding the stakes of the reunification process and the city nowadays.
In this paper, I will explore experiences of crossing the Berlin Wall in the following order: First, detailing the erection of the Wall, its structure, and the crossing process, then showing to which extent the Berlin Wall shaped the lives and experiences of Berliners both from the West and from the East. I relied on interviews with a West German woman who first came to West Berlin when she was 24, a couple who lived in East Germany, and a French student discovering Berlin for the first time right after the fall of the Wall. This period was also documented well by archives and expositions that I could access thanks to the DDR Museum, the Spy Museum, and the Stasi Mediathek.
I – The Berlin Wall: « anti-fascist protection wall », « wall of shame »…
1. Construction and implementation of the Wall
On morning August 13, 1961, Berliners and Germans woke up only to discover that their city had been separated into two halves, streets were cut by a brick wall or barbed wire, and people were cut off from their families. West Berlin had become an enclosed space surrounded by a physical wall and « walls, » cutting off communication, railway, and metro access to East Berlin. GDR, influenced by Nikita Khrushchev, the head of the USSR, decided to implement this radical measure to prevent working-age adults from fleeing to West Germany through West Berlin. Indeed, about 2,6 million adults fled East Germany’s authoritarian regime, attracted by the Western promises of freedom and work opportunities given by capitalism. The SED, GDR’s only party, led by Walter Ulbricht, qualified the wall as an « anti-fascist protection wall. » Until the creation of « crossing permits » given to West Berliners to visit their families in the East in 1961, only foreign nationals, West Germans, and diplomats were allowed to cross.
In the years following the erection of the Berlin Wall, the East German government reinforced the frontier and built two walls. First, the known figure of the Wall, a blank grey wall with a cylinder and some graffiti, is the vision from West Berlin. Then the no man’s land and the wall from East Berlin. The walls were about 3,5 meters high and covered about 155km of ground surrounding West Berlin, as stated by the French history website Herodote. The no man’s land disposed of several pieces of equipment and mechanisms to prevent escapes. There were land mines, lorry traps 3 meters wide and 1,5 meters deep, control strips revealing footsteps or traces, spring guns, observation towers. The Bernauer straße in Berlin was the most significant straight portion of the Wall in the erection of the Wall.
There are elements such as the former emplacement of the Church of Reconciliation (Versöhnungskirche), destroyed to create the no man’s land, and the organization of the no man’s land with the two walls, a mirador, and mechanisms destined to stop any escapes.
The West qualified the wall of « wall of shame » as Willy Brandt, West Berlin social democrat mayor, stated in a broadcasted address:
« Ce n’est pas une simple frontière qui a été érigée en plein coeur de Berlin mais plutôt une cloture comme celle des campus de concentration. Soutenu par les pays du bloc de l’Est, le régime d’Ulbricht a exacerbé la situation qui prévaut à Berlin et une fois de plus rompu avec les accords juridiques et les obligations humanitaires. » // (It is not just a border that has been erected in the heart of Berlin, but rather a fence like that of the concentration campuses. Supported by the Eastern Bloc countries, the Ulbricht regime has exacerbated the situation in Berlin and once again broken legal agreements and humanitarian obligations).
The Wall completely shattered the relations between West and East Berlin and their inhabitants as wanted by the GDR’s government. Despite some transit facilitation, for West Berliners essentially, over the years, inhabitants from a city and a country were almost wholly separated for 28 years, shaping the lives of millions.
2. Means of crossing the Wall
The construction of the Wall led to a precise and organized structure destined to keep people in East Germany and control those visiting. There were 45 000 DDR Border Guards. It was an independent military organization with instructions to « fire on those trying to escape with live ammunition after issuing a warning. The use of firearms to prevent an escape was rewarded with medals and bonuses » 1.
Because of the harsh guidelines given to the border guards, between August 1961 and March 1989, « at least 140 people were killed or died in other ways directly connected to the GDR border regime between 1961 and 1989, including 100 people who were shot, accidentally killed, or killed themselves when they were caught » 2. However, 5 075 people escaped from East Germany to West Berlin, using cars transformed to hide people as displayed in the Mauer Museum, tunnels represented on the Bernauer straße, and even swimming across the Spree 3.
To Petra, seeing the Wall was a truly « impressive » experience. Coming from West Germany, she had never experienced the division so closely. She explained what it was like for her to see the Wall:
« I mean, crossing the border was not really seeing the wall. What impressed me most, it is a very known place in front of the Brandenburger Tor. There were some steps and platforms with which you could look at the Brandenburger Tor. And there you had the wall. This was really frustrating. You couldn’t really look into the city, but you could see the Brandenburger tor. This place was very impressive ».
The official and legal way to cross between West and East Berlin was through the eight checkpoints installed by East Germany. They were controlled day and night, first known as « Kontrollpassierpunkt » then from December 1996 onwards, the official name « Grenzübergangsstelle » or GÜSt. West Germans and West Berliners could cross at eight different points in the city. 7 were in the streets, like Checkpoint Charlie, and one at the train station Friedrichstraße.
PHOTO GALLERY 8 CROSSING POINTS
The crossing point located in the station Friedrichstraße was the most important one and the principal, as depicted by the interviewees who all crossed through it.
« The railway station « Bahnhof Friedrichstraße » is the largest and the most complicated border checkpoint in the capital of the GDR. The checkpoint is licensed for all categories of border-crossing traffic. For citizens of West Berlin, West Germany, and for foreigners Friedrichstraße fulfills three functions: border checkpoint, commuter hub and transfer station. At the same time, the railway station is a border checkpoint and a major commuter hub for citizens of the GDR » 4.
Checkpoints were organized meticulously, and people wishing to go from one side to the other had to follow precise steps. Gilles Duhem described precisely his first experience going through the border process in Friedrichstraße.
« Au Tränenpalast, Friedrichstraße. Et là je me souviens avoir eu peur parce que on a été séparé. Il fallait, lui qui passe dans une fil des berlinois de l’Ouest et moi fallait que je passe dans la ville des forces d’occupation, des étrangers enfin. Et je me souviens un grand couloir, il fallait marcher, marcher. Je suis passé dans cette guérite. Moi, j’avais jamais fait ça. J’étais jamais allé dans les pays de l’Est, c’est à dire que on arrivait dans une pièce de guérite la porte, se fermait derrière vous, la porte de devant était fermée. Il y avait le type dans son dans son petit, dans son petit aquarium là, et puis vous donniez votre passeport. Il vous donnait un coup de tampon dessus et vous ressortiez, mais moi je me suis dit comment, je vais le retrouver parce que c’était pas vraiment donné au rendez vous il y a pas les portable, il avait pas tout ces machins qui aussi mais comment je vais le retrouver ? Comment est-ce qu’on si on sort pas au même endroit, comment est-ce qu’on va se retrouver ? Et puis il y a un moment. J’sais plus, les files se remettait ensemble.Et puis on s’est retrouvé sur la Friedrichstraße sur le trottoir. Un seul coup on est sorti, puis je l’ai vu, j’ai dit Roland, t’es là ».
// (At the Tränenpalast, Friedrichstraße. And there I remember being afraid because we were separated. He had to go through a wire of West Berliners, and I had to go through the city of the occupying forces, the foreigners at last. And I remember a big corridor, I had to walk, walk. I passed through this guardhouse. I had never done that. I’d never been to the East, that you arrived in a guardhouse room, the door closed behind you, the front door was closed. There was the guy in his little, in his little aquarium there, and then you gave your passport. He’d stamp it and you’d go out again, but I thought, how am I going to find him because he didn’t really have a mobile phone, he didn’t have all those things, but how am I going to find him? How are we going to find each other if we don’t go out to the same place? And then there’s a moment. I don’t know, the lines were getting back together. And then we found ourselves on Friedrichstraße on the pavement. We went out, and then I saw him, I said Roland, you’re here).
Video « Grenzpassage » 1985 – copyright by Stasi Mediathek
The crossing conditions were institutionalized into strict steps and guidelines that border guards had to follow. There were strong border guard formations as depicted by the video « Grenzpassage » in display in the Spy Museum.
The crossing of the Wall was subject to specific conditions and strict guidelines that shaped lives and experiences.It impacted West Germans allowed to cross but under constant surveillance and pressure. East Germans were kept away from their families and from Western life.
II – Living in West Berlin
1. Depiction of life
West Berlin could be characterized as a bit of an island, lost in the sea of East Germany. The erection of the Wall reinforced this feeling of solitude despite the constant link and support with West Germany. Gilles Duhem, a French student who came to Berlin on November 14th, 1989, explained that even West Berlin seemed to be out of sync with the rest of the Western world; it was a unique city in a unique situation.
« Berlin-Ouest, c’était très différent de l’Allemagne que j’avais connu moi jusqu’à présent. On avait l’impression, quand on arrivait de Paris en 1989, de retomber dans les années 70, c’est à dire d’être au moment au début des années 70. Cette ville, son design là, les affiches, l’ambiance, tout paraissait avoir 15 ans de retard quoi ». // (West Berlin was very different from the Germany I had known until now. When we arrived from Paris in 1989, we had the impression that we were back in the 70’s, that is to say that we were at the beginning of the 70’s. This city, its design, the posters, the atmosphere, everything seemed to be 15 years behind.)
Moreover, Petra Gnädig, a West German who came to Berlin when she was 24/25, depicted coming to West Berlin as an « island. » She had the feeling that the situation was « unnatural,» growing up comfortably in a small town in West Germany, she was not aware of the tensions of divided Germany. Her family met with friends from Leipzig sometimes in the East but mainly in Hungary, where they could all go for the holidays. She was born right after the construction of the Wall, so she had always known Germany as two states, FRG and GDR, and she lived closer to the Netherlands than to the « German-German border. »
Petra also told an anecdote about a friend of hers, born and raised in West Berlin. She told her «, Oh, for me, it’s ok to live in West Berlin, because It doesn’t matter where I go, I always know that I’m in Berlin » to which Petra commented, « I was like this is completely unnatural. » One of the things she valued most, living in West Germany, a democratic state, was the open borders. The difference between the two states of mind is striking. Indeed, the girl is reassured to live in a closed space like West Berlin, wherever she goes, she will always be in West Berlin as it is surrounded by the Wall. The city had a total disconnection with the rest of the world even though it was part of West Germany, as Gilles Duhem emphasizes in his remark about being 15 years behind. For younger generations, the Wall was an integral part of their lives. As Petra explained,
« I didn’t expect the wall to fall. It was only the older ones who always said we would not lose this side, the wall with fall, we want the wall to come down. For me, it was normal, and I was thinking OK we have these two states we cannot do anything. So, I was really astonished when it really happened ».
The opening of the Berlin Wall completely changed the mindset of young people, conditioned by the Wall, who discovered the other half of their nation not just through short trips into the East.
2. The shock of crossing to East Berlin
What was unique with Berlin was the possibility to cross the Wall and dive into East Berlin which was so close physically and so far on every point from what Western people knew.
There were several steps through the years regarding the possibility for West Germans to cross into East Germany 5. DDR Museum, Berlin, Germany.].
First, a transit agreement made in 1971 was specified into a traffic agreement in 1972, making it easier for people to travel and not just goods or officials, « enabling single or repeated entry for up to 30 calendar days per year for relations and acquaintances. Those with a commercial, cultural, sporting, or religious reason for coming to GDR require an invitation » 6. DDR Museum, Berlin, Germany.].
In 1973, the minimum exchange sum required to cross for a day increased from 5 Deutschmark (DM) to 10. In 1980, it even increased to 25 DM a day for the GDR and East Berlin. This price contributed to the numerous conditions required to cross the border. There were also administrative documents to fill out such as the one on display at the DDR Museum. It had to be filled out by West Germans to be allowed to cross the Wall.
Petra’s first experience of going to East Berlin was unusual as she crossed with the subway. Indeed, the U-Bahn departed from the West and went through the East, passing ghost stations with tiny lights and patrols.
According to her, the most shocking thing about East Berlin was « feeling you are observed everywhere. Everyone, to not be free and doing what you want. (…). It was really, it was the dark part of Berlin ». She felt it, mainly when she was in East Germany picking up gas and illegally riding an East German hitchhiker girl.
« I left her at the last stop of the highway. And then I went on to cross the border. It was like 11 or 12:00 o’clock in the night. And there were two policemen at the gate. It was a Sunday at late evening. I was the only car. I could see from far away these, two guys sitting there, looking at me driving directly at me. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I could see it with their lips. He was saying “da ist sie”, there she is. I was really afraid, really afraid because I was thinking “Oh my gosh, who knows now where you are? If they don’t let you get into West Berlin”, they always knew exactly what was going on there. For sure. ».
East Berlin was an evident shock for Western people confronted with the harsh realities of an authoritarian state. The Stasi, East Germany’s secret police, operated in Berlin, collecting information on Western people, about their acquaintances, and their actions. They kept fierce surveillance on citizens and had a secret prison compound close to Berlin called Hohenschönhausen. Discovered only after the reunification, the place has become a memorial where former prisoners tell their stories.
The East was perceived as an alarming environment, which could provoke fear and anxiety to people not used to the controls, the threat of the secret police, and the lack of freedom, as it did for the people interviewed.
III – Living in East Berlin
1. East Berlin: life under surveillance
East Germany, known as GDR, was an authoritarian state with a unique SED party that followed guidelines dictated by Moscow. East Germany, despite significant economic difficulties, was considered the crown jewel of the East block. The Eastern ideology was firmly learned by East Germans confronted with propaganda at a young age. Moreover, the harsh repression discouraged any opposition to the regime. As portrayed in the 2007 movie Das Leben der Anderen, directed by Florian Henckel von Dommersmarck, GDR’s government used secret police called the Stasi. This organization was dedicated to the constant surveillance of GDR’s inhabitants. Petra told me a story about Stasi’s threat to a friend’s family.
« a girl whose father was a professor at Institute in West Berlin, they lived in Potsdam. She was raised very happily, discussing and seeing the world with true eyes. She was always talking, discussing in school, she was 13 or 14, and her sister was one year older. And the Stasi went to her mom and said, if you don’t stop your girls, discussing and talking like this in school, we will take your kids away from you. I know a lot of terrible stories like that. Families whoever saw their children again ».
This story details the atmosphere of East Germany’s society. According to Petra, the mindset difference between East and West Germans was striking.
« This is normal that you are different when the possibilities that you have in life influence you, how you are. I have known so many people from East Germany and the people I like a lot, but they were raised never to give someone the possibility to know too much about you, so they can’t turn it around and use it as a weapon against you. So there were people who didn’t open themselves too much to protect themselves, and I think this is an answer to the regime. It has an influence »
Living in East Berlin meant the necessity to be careful about acquaintances, activities, and actions to avoid being cast out of society or even detained in dreadful places like Hohenschönhausen. As the former prisoners who are now guides in the memorial explained, East Germans used physical and, more importantly, psychological, moral torture to obtain false confessions.
Berlin was indeed a key area for the Stasi as they had to prevent any flights to the West. According to the historian Helmut Mueller-Enberg’s 2008 report, the Stasi had about 189 000 informants in 1989.
Barbara and Heinz Hillmann lived right at the border in Potsdam Babelsberg, Karl-Marx Straße. It was a strategic part of the Wall, notably due to the Glienicke Brücke used to trade prisoners between East Germany and West Berlin.
A precise depiction of a prisoner exchange can be found in the movie Bridge of Spies, directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Tom Hanks. They recreate the crossing point that was the Glienicker Brücke.
Barbara and Heinz detailed what it was like for them to leave so close to the border. Heinz told a story about one of his colleagues who built a false swan and was able to put his head in it, crossing the border swimming right under the border guard’s nose, who thought it was an actual swan. This location was indeed a flight risk. Moreover, the couple explained their confrontation to constant surveillance. Their neighborhood was filled with Stasi members living in the district and keeping an eye on it. The couple knew that the secret police got their license plate and information whenever friends came over, especially when they were from the West.
Furthermore, the GDR’s police services also closely surveilled West Berliners and Western people, in general, visiting East Berlin or East Germany. Petra had an encounter with two police officers one night, and she detailed this scary experience.
« Suddenly, two police guys were coming from somewhere, from behind. Surely, they were observing us, and they came up and said they wanted to see the passport. […] I was like, “Oh my God, what a kind of situation I am in, so far away from all we know.” To feel that you are in their hands. It was a bit of scary situation ».
She was visiting a punk friend of hers, from East Berlin. They were going back to the crossing point when two police officers asked for their passports and wrote their names. Petra explained how helpless she felt, knowing that they could decide to arrest her for any reason.
The Wall reinforced border controls and constant surveillance as the regime wanted to avoid flights at all costs.
2. The shock of crossing to West Berlin
Barbara Hillmann was one of the happy few that were able to cross the border from East Berlin to West Berlin. Indeed « the state had mercy only on pensioners and conferred the right to travel to women at 60 or 65. “Travel to family special occasions” such as a funeral or a significant birthday of an immediate relative was permitted from 1972. Nevertheless, approval was a matter of chance and reasons were never given. Complaints were futile » 7. DDR Museum, Berlin, Germany.].
Moreover, East Germans had to go through a thorough process. Here is one of the administrative papers needed to cross the border. The visa or « Ausreise » was essential. It proved the right of East Germans to cross and to be in West Germany and was proof of the legal process. People could generally cross only for a day.
Nevertheless, over the years East Germans were able to cross under lighter conditions which allowed more people to enjoy the West and meet with their families. As depicted by the graph from the exhibition at DDR Museum, the light green curve shows the rise of non-pensioners crossing, as a consequence of measures in favor of border crossing for all East Germans. It shows the government’s will to allow more East Germans to travel to the West.
As a pensioner, Barbara had the opportunity to cross alone while her children and husband were in East Germany. She visited an old aunt on her birthday. She remembered crossing at Dreilinden, in the south of West Berlin. West Berlin amazed her, she went to the KaDeWe, West Berlin’s « grand magasin ». She was shocked to rediscover exotic fruits like kiwis that were not available in East Germany. It was her only experience crossing the Wall.
The couple never stopped believing that the Wall would come down eventually notwithstanding Erich Honecker, who said in January 19th 1989:
« die Mauer wird in 50 und auch in 100 Jahren noch bestehen bleiben, wenn die dazu vorhandenen Gründe nicht beseitigt sind » 8 (The Wall will be standing in 50, even in 100 years).
Their only regret was that their mothers weren’t there to witness the Wall falling down. They never complained about their lives in East Berlin, considering themselves as privileged, without problem with the regime. As part of the « older generation » so to say, they witnessed united Germany and never lost faith in the reunification.
In East Germany, crossing to the West was available almost exclusively to a single older person who had their life built in the East and visited family on a special occasion. The Wall between East and West kept most East Germans away from their families for as long as it stood.
Those interviews conveyed a broad glimpse of life in divided Berlin. The interviewees told anecdotes about their crossing experiences and explained what they felt and how it was like. Through their stories, we understand better the living conditions of West and East Berlin and the mindset of the Berliners. The Wall had a tremendous impact on Germans’ lives and most of all on Berliners. The border disfigured the city for more than 2 decades. It shaped lives and relations between Germans, Berliners, families, states.
The fall of the Wall as well as the reunification came as a shock for the young generations who were born after the erection of the Wall, whereas the older generations never gave up in a unified Germany. The city of Berlin thrived after the reunification becoming a model of modernity, dynamism, and cosmopolitanism as well as a place of memory and history, marked forever by the stigmas of what it went through.
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