Twenty five years ago one of the most extraordinary barriers ever constructed was torn down by the people it was designed to oppress. The Berlin Wall was built in 1961 to prevent East Germans reaching West Berlin, but to understand why it was put up in the first place we have to reach back to events following the end of WWII.
In May 1945 much of the great city of Berlin lay in ruins following intense bombardment by the Allies as they closed in to destroy Hitler and the power of the Third Reich. The image below shows children playing in the bombed out city. This deceptively jolly newsclip gives a flavour of conditions at the time.
In line with the Potsdam Agreement the city was divided into sectors; one for each of the four Allies (Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the USA). Over the next two years tensions grew as the Soviets showed little inclination to rebuild their part of the city. The Allies, however, wished for a thriving new German economy to help Europe recover from the huge cost of the war. In addition Berlin was located in the heart of East Germany, one hundred miles behind the Iron Curtain, in the midst of the Eastern Bloc which was inveterately opposed to Capitalism.
By April 1948 the Soviets had begun to make life difficult for those in West Berlin. This clip from Gaumont British News shows how they disrupted rail traffic for those travelling to the Western Sector across East Germany. Soon a blockade was in place preventing the delivery of food and other materials. The attempts of the Soviets to starve out the West Berliners were foiled by the Allied Forces who ensured regular air deliveries of essential supplies. Click on the image below to see a newsclip showing how this was done. The Cold War had now begun in earnest.
Over a year later the blockade was lifted, but this was only the beginning of problems that grew from the troubled relationship between the Soviets and the Allies. The East Germans themselves were experiencing many difficulties living in a Communist state with a poor economy and a crumbling infrastructure. This dramatic 1953 newsclip tells how riots broke out in protest at government threats to reduce wages; they were quickly and cruelly repressed.
Throughout the 1950s the contrast between the economies of West and East Germany became increasingly pronounced. West Berlin was a thriving place to live with high wages and a good standard of living; despite being completely surrounded by the Iron Curtain. Those in East Berlin had little chance to improve their lives and faced restricted personal freedoms, so it was not surprising that by 1957 a million had crossed the border to the West through West Berlin.
As the years went by the situation became more extreme. East Germans left for West Berlin in their droves to live in transit camps and seek a better life. This interesting Roving Report (Berlin Today) was made on location in 1957 and documents how the people in both sectors were dealing with their problems. As one West Berliner put it : “If we’d spent the last ten years worrying we’d have gone mad by now”.
Another Roving Report made in 1959 asks the question, ‘How Many Germanies?’. Prompted by the forthcoming Geneva Conference, the programme looks at what Germans want now. Students talk about how they can’t really remember when Germany was one country anymore and they would rather keep the status quo than risk any armed conflict arising from the reunification initiative then being promoted by Britain and the USA. The Geneva Conference did not succeed in its aims and by the summer of 1961 a crisis point was reached.
Click on the image above to watch the Roving Report documentary ‘The Divided City‘ which examines living conditions and political attitudes in East and West Berlin in June 1961. The documentary shows the huge divide in lifestyle between the East and West Germans. How could the thriving capitalist sector of West Berlin continue to exist within a Marxist-Leninist East Germany? It was an anomaly the Soviets wished to erase and by the 13th August the turning point had come. On that day 50,000 East German troops constructed the first barbed wire wall around West Berlin within a few hours.
The original wall was eventually reinforced by a second one of brick and concrete which extended around the entire perimeter of the Western sector. The sole aim of the Berlin Wall was to stop East Germans reaching West Berlin and from there defecting to the West.
Click on the image above to watch another excellent Roving Report (Crisis in Berlin) which was broadcast on 23-08-1961. You will hear the reaction of West Berliners; many of whom criticised Britain, France and the USA for taking no actions over the Wall. The mayor, Willy Brandt, wrote to President Kennedy declaring:
Berlin expects more than words…
So why did the West not act more assertively ? It was thought the Soviets would not go to all the trouble of building the Wall if they had serious plans to take over West Berlin, which had been a persistent fear for over a decade. Nevertheless the situation was balanced on a knife’s edge and it was recognised that any movement of aggression by one side could spark off another great conflict, which was to be avoided at all costs.
Click on the image above to hear Hugh Gaitskell, the leader of the Labour Party, discuss the fears and dangers the newly constructed Wall now posed. In a further interview on 6th Jan 1962 Hugh Gaitskell declared the Berlin Wall was “an appalling advertisement for Communism”.
If I were a communist propagandist I would regard this as about the biggest embarrassment I had to face…..
This 1963 Roving Report documentary likens life in West Berlin to being in a gilded cage. The difference in lifestyle between the two sectors was impossible to reconcile. The film is particularly interesting due to an interview with some British exchange students who also visited the Soviet sector. A few days later President Kennedy came to Berlin and made his famous speech ‘Ich bin ein Berliner‘ to demonstrate his continuing support for West Berliners.
At this time the Cold War was at its height. In West Germany alone it was estimated there were 16,000 communist spies, many of whom worked in the capital, Bonn. Another Roving Report (‘The Spycatchers’) looks at the extent to which the Civil Service had been infiltrated and contains a very interesting feature on the Spycatchers Museum which was a training ground for West German Intelligence. It’s no coincidence the James Bond franchise started in 1962 and John le Carre’s book ‘The Spy who came in from the Cold’ was first published in 1963.
The Wall remained in force for over 28 years and became a symbol of great human suffering. Many East Germans continued to try and escape through or over the Wall; some were successful and others died in the attempt. Click on the image above to watch a fascinating clip about the House of Checkpoint Charlie which displays some of the methods used to escape to West Berlin.
By the late 1980s Mikhail Gorbachev‘s policies of Perestroika and Glasnost were bringing about radical economic and social reform within the Soviet Union. He also ensured the Soviet Union no longer controlled the governments of other Eastern Bloc countries which resulted in the end of the Cold War. Along with many other Eastern Bloc states, East Germany experienced a peaceful revolution against Soviet Communism during 1989 which resulted in freedom of movement to the West. And so it was on 9th November 1989 the East Germans unexpectedly discovered they were allowed to cross the Berlin Wall……..
This Channel 4 News programme shows the excitement and joy of the East Berliners as they struggled to understand the Wall was no longer a barrier to their freedom. Most young people under the age of 30 would never have crossed the Wall until this moment.
A couple of days later ITV’s News at Ten showed West and East Berliners celebrating together after 28 years of separation. There had not been scenes like this since the end of WWII in 1945. The work of reunifying East and West Germany began immediately and was achieved in less than a year; however many worried the process was too rapid, as this Channel 4 News clip demonstrates. It would be many more years before Germany felt like one people again and some would argue the scars are still healing.
Berlin.de : The Berlin Wall (The City of Berlin’s official webportal)
BBC Radio 4: Germany: Memories of a Nation (major series)