In My Father’s Words
03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018
The Garden Fence
Well, to be perfectly frank, I have to say that, although it started out as a fence, the fence I want to discuss quickly became a wall. Conversely, the garden was not always there either, but commenced as some 155 kilometres of streets and people’s houses. I am speaking, of course, of the Berlin Wall; ‘die Mauer’.
On 13th August 1961 members of the ‘People’s Police’, the Vopos, began laying rolls of barbed wire around the Russian zone of Berlin. The Deutsches Democratik Republik, the DDR, known as East Germany to the West, became effectively cut off from its western neighbour, Bundesrepublik Deutschland, the BRD, or West Germany. East and West Berlin became separate entities.
Why did this happen? To find an answer we must go back to the Second World War. During the Allied conferences in the last two years of the War, in Tehran, Casablanca and Yalta, it was agreed that only a German unconditional surrender would be acceptable to the US, Britain and the Soviet Union.
It was further agreed that when surrender occurred, Germany would be divided into four zones, American, British, Soviet and French. Berlin would also be split into four sectors. The two Germanys were created in 1949, a capitalist democracy in the west and a Soviet dominated communist republic in the east.
The DDR did not prosper, unlike its neighbour, the BRD. By the late 1950’s the east was leaking people. Some 145,000 people left in 1959 to the west including 91,000 through Berlin. In the following year, the numbers rose to 200,000 emigrating, with 150,000 using West Berlin as their conduit.
By 1961 the DDR government was determined to stop this crippling haemorrhage. They laid their barbed wire as a prelude to a wall, which eventually grew to a height of about 12 feet. Stretching back eastwards, there developed a ‘No man’s land’ about 100 yards wide.
Further wire fences were constructed in this zone which was also patrolled by armed guards and German shepherd guard dogs on running leashes. Arc lights illuminated the area in the hours of darkness.
The crossing points between east and west were reduced to a handful of which the most famous was Checkpoint Charlie which is now a major tourist attraction. The city’s underground railway system, the S Bahn was cut and barriers were even constructed in and across rivers and waterways.
This system lasted for 28 years, and brought visits of support to West Berlin from US Presidents Kennedy, Johnston and Ronald Reagan.
West Berlin became an island of capitalism in a huge Communist sea.
Over the years, potential escapers were killed as they tried to flee. It is difficult to calculate exactly how many people died because the East Germans did not release statistics on the matter. However, it is known for certain that 86 people died and some estimates are up to 240. Naturally, these deaths caused worldwide condemnation but the East Germans and their Soviet masters were unmoved. As Josef Stalin once remarked, “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”
In 1985 I attended a conference in Hamburg with my wife and another British couple. With business out of the way, we drove across the DDR to visit West Berlin, where we stayed for two or three days. It was a salutary experience, and one which was, on occasion, plain scary.
We did, of course, visit East Berlin. Well, you had to really, having come so far. It was a sterile dull and humourless place. Our visit was managed, controlled is a better word, every inch of the way, by a hatchet faced female party apparatchik. We visited museums and memorials against fascism.
On our break, we stopped for a beer and a snack at a hotel. A policeman stood outside the toilet and inspected it after each person had used it. In a park next to the hotel, the aroma of grilled sausages drew us close. I tried to buy four bratwurst for our little party. I had been selected because of my reasonable German language skills. The man hissed at me out of the side of his mouth that he was not allowed to sell sausages to Westerners. “Good God”, whispered my shocked wife when I translated.
We visited the Wall and from a raised platform we viewed the dead no man’s land. The western side of the Wall was smothered in Graffiti. The most memorable to me was “Deutschland is grosser als Die Bundes republik.” Germany is bigger, or more, than the Federal Republic.
West Berlin was an island of light and laughter and music in a dead Communist sea. The laughter was high and edgy as the inhabitants stared the Russian bear in the eye. They knew that the American, British and French forces in the city were incapable of stopping that bear if he decided to occupy their city.
Later in the 1980’s it became obvious that Communism had failed and with its failure the DDR was on a very slippery slope. Increasingly, its citizens demanded freedom; freedom to oppose, freedom to demonstrate and freedom to travel. Up to 300,000 people attended a church prayer service in the square outside the St Nicholas Church in Leipzig, which was a barely concealed cover for an anti government rally. The police did nothing and the Army stayed in barracks. The end was nigh, as Private Fraser might have said in Dad’s Army, and the East German government was doomed.
On the ninth of November 1989, in front of the world’s television cameras, the East Berliners poured through the Wall into the arms of their brothers and sisters in West Berlin. The people in the People’s Republic had spoken, spoken decisively and they reinforced their words by tearing apart the hated wall.
Not a shot was fired. Lt Col Harald Jager, the officer commanding the border police later stated bitterly. “When they started to press forward to go through the barriers, I phoned my bosses for orders. The bastards wouldn’t answer their bloody phones.”
The Wall was demolished and its pieces sold at auction. On 3rd October 1990, East and West Germany were reunified, forty five years after being divided.
In 2009 I had a five day holiday in Berlin. It is a vibrant, beautiful city with an almost tangible feel of excitement about it. My imagination informs me that you can feel and taste this in the air. One section of the Wall remains, perhaps 100 metres long, acting as a memorial to the people who died there. The surrounding area has become a garden, a further memorial to tyranny.
Written by BM