The Berlin Wall: 1961-1989
When Berliners woke up on Sunday 13 August 1961 they found themselves living in a city more divided than ever before. However, little did they know that the barbed wire fence which now separated Berlin would result in a 12 feet high concrete wall dividing friends, families and partners for almost three decades and taking many innocent lives. The Berlin Wall was constructed overnight on 13 August 1961 by the German Democratic Republic (GDR) whilst its citizens slept. Officially, GDR authorities referred to the wall as the ‘Anti Fascist Protection Rampart’, claiming it was necessary to protect against the lingering threat of fascism in the West. However, in reality this wall was a cruel ploy by the GDR to halt the defection of its own citizens (over 3.5m East Germans defected to the West prior to 1961).
Life was extremely difficult for those trapped in the East. The GDR was a ruthless communist dictatorship which repressed all dissent and imprisoned anyone who spoke out against the regime. The infamous Stasi employed over 274,000 persons between 1950 and 1989 to control a population of just 17 million people. When taking into account part time secret policemen this equated to approximately one informer per 6.5 citizens. Tens of thousands of citizens were detained as political prisoners at the hands of the Stasi. The failure of the centrally planned economy also meant that East Germans faced much economic hardship compared to their fellow countrymen. At the time of reunification, GDP per capita in the East (€9,400) was half that of the West (€22,000). Such desperate living conditions motivated many East Germans to try to escape despite shoot to kill orders. At least 136 people lost their lives at the Berlin Wall (Potsdam Center for Historical Research). The wall fell peacefully on 9 November 1989, leading to formal reunification on 3 October 1990.
The Berlin Wall Today: Eastside Gallery
On a recent trip to Berlin I was fortunate enough to visit the Eastside Gallery, a 1.3km long section of the Berlin Wall located in the borough of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg. Following the fall of the wall in 1989 this remaining section was turned into a large open air gallery with paintings by artists from around the world in celebration of freedom. However, the greatest achievement of the gallery is not that it acts as reminder of the evils of repression and dictatorship (although it does) but that it has turned what was once a symbol of repression into a symbol of hope and freedom. When visiting the wall I was at first taken aback by its sheer size and the way it towered over me. However, much more powerful than its physical presence was its symbolic significance. Whilst I still cannot imagine what life was like for families and friends divided by the wall, as I walked alongside it I could feel the despair, heartbreak and loss of lives etched into the concrete.
More Work To Be Done
However, it would be wrong to assume that following the fall of the Berlin Wall and with it, the end of the Cold War, that democracy has triumphed and that our work is done. The Eastside Gallery is a celebration of freedom but it also serves as a reminder that much more remains to be done. On the western side of the wall, facing the River Spree, the gallery is home to images of other walls throughout the world that continue to divide friends, families and partners today. The DMZ dividing the Korean Peninsula. Peace walls in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The Israeli West Bank barrier. These are just a few examples. However, this section of the gallery should not cause us to despair or lose faith in the power of freedom and democracy. Instead we should view it as a challenge to us all to ensure that these walls, like the Berlin Wall, also fall.