Sixty years ago this month, two tired, gray-haired women stood waving their handkerchiefs. Tears spilled down their cheeks as they strained to see a baby, lifted high in the air by its parents. They were the child’s grandmothers, separated from their family by a newly built wall. Just days earlier, on August 12, 1961, officials strung barbed wire through the heart of Berlin. The wire was then replaced with rows of concrete blocks, now nearly five feet tall and growing by the day. The Berlin Wall, built by the German Democratic Republic (GDR), would separate East Berlin from West Berlin. It remained standing for the next 28 years until the Cold War thawed and protestors tore it down in 1989.
As WWII came to an end in 1945, leaders from the Soviet Union, the UK, and the United States gathered at the Yalta and Potsdam Conferences to discuss the postwar reorganization of Germany. They decided to divide Germany into four zones. The Soviet Union occupied the eastern part, while the United States, Great Britain, and France combined their zones and occupied the western part of the country. As the capital city, Berlin would also be divided into similar sectors, even though it was located entirely in the Soviet part of the country.
In 1948, the Russians tried to starve the Allies out of Berlin by creating a blockade to prevent food and supplies from reaching the city. Rather than retreating, the Americans responded with the Berlin Airlift, which supplied food to the residents of Berlin. The Soviets called off the blockade the following year. Between 1949-1961, an estimated 2.5 million people left East Germany for the west. The steady stream included younger skilled workers and educated professionals. The exodus threatened the economic viability of East Germany, so to stem the tide, government officials decided to seal the border.
On August 12, 1961, East Berlin started building a wall. Residents living on Harzer Strasse (the road that delineated East from West Berlin) found themselves in a unique situation. Their front doors were in East Berlin, and their back doors opened to West Berlin. Shocked residents watched as workers arrived to nail their back door shut and then further sealed the exit by building brick walls inside the door frame. After rolling out barbed wire to create a temporary barrier, construction began immediately on a more permanent structure. Over time, the concrete block wall was further fortified with barbed wire on top, watchtowers, and electrified fences. Border guards were under orders to shoot anyone attempting to flee. Over the next several decades, there were many attempts to escape. Refugees tunneled under the wall, climbed over it, or even flew to West Germany in homemade hot-air balloons. About 5,000 were successful and made it to West Berlin. Another 5,000 were captured, and nearly 200 died trying to escape.
In October 1989, the chief of the Communist Party in East Germany was forced from power. He had rejected the growing chorus of calls to reunite East and West Germany saying, “Socialism and capitalism can no more be united than fire and water.” Just weeks after his departure, East Germany announced that they would relax restrictions, allowing citizens to apply for a visa to travel to West Berlin. Ecstatic crowds gathered at the wall to celebrate the news. Border guards, unsure what to do, opened the gates. A flood of people poured through while others climbed the wall or began to chip away at it with sledgehammers and tools. The Berlin Wall came down, both physically and figuratively. On October 3, 1990, East Germany and West Germany officially reunited.
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