The West German Chancellor walks through the Brandenburg Gate to shake hands with the East German Prime Minister
- December 22nd 1989 -
two great post World War 2 peace conferences at Yalta and Potsdam created a situation that was to symbolise the Cold War – and the idea of an iron curtain. The defeated country, Germany, was to be divided up into four parts. The east was to be controlled by the Soviet Union whilst the west was shared between the US, Great Britain and eventually France. The great city of Berlin, entirely enclosed within Soviet controlled land, was also to be divided up in similar fashion with the Soviets getting the east and the US, GB and France the west. Berlin was over 100 miles from the border of what was to be called West Germany in the newly formed German Democratic Republic (GDR or East Germany). This arrangement, though fine on paper, was always going to be problematic. The Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev described the existence of a capitalist West Berlin in the heart of a socialist country as, “Like a bone stuck in the Soviet throat.”
Thus in 1948 the Soviets blockaded West Berlin to try and starve the westerners out of the city. However, the US and British supplied the city from the air with over 2.3 million tons of food, fuel and supplies. It was to be known as the ‘Berlin Airlift’. This lasted for more than a year and in 1949 the Soviets gave up. Nearly a decade of calm followed with free movement of people from one side of Berlin to the other on buses, trams and on foot.
In 1958 the situation started to change. The Soviets were highly embarrassed by the exodus of people from East to West. People were migrating to West Berlin and then flying off to other western countries. Among these were skilled workers – engineers, doctors and teachers. This could not be allowed to continue. In June 1961 19,000 people left the GDR through West Berlin. In July this rose to 30,000 and in the first 11 days of August 16,000 had left. On August 12th 2,400 people emigrated on that one day alone – the biggest amount of traffic in 24 hours. Something had to be done. Khrushchev gave permission for the East German government to close its borders that night and in two weeks a temporary wall with barbed wire had been erected. There were 3 checkpoints – Alpha, Bravo and Charlie, in Western speak – and these were heavily guarded and passes were needed to get back and forth.
Eventually a 12-foot-tall, 4-foot-wide re-enforced concrete wall topped with an enormous pipe, that made it almost impossible to climb, was erected. Guard towers were placed at regular intervals and there was also a strip inside the wall known as ‘The Death Strip’ that contained anti-vehicle trenches. Officially the wall was known as the ‘Antifaschistischer Schutzwall’ or Anti-Fascist protective wall. The purpose was to ‘Protect the East German from the fascist elements conspiring to pervert the “Will of the People” in building a socialist state in East Germany.’ In reality it was to keep the East Germans inside their own country.
It is estimated that 5,000 people tried to escape over it and that there was a death toll of between 136-200, although these figures are hard to quantify.
In 1989 a radical political change swept through Eastern Europe accompanied by a more liberal regime and a lessening of the power of the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev and his perestroika, or change, and Glasnost, openness. On 9th November 1989 the East German authorities announced that their citizens could visit West Berlin triggering one of the biggest street parties ever known. On 22nd December the West German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, walked through the Brandenburg Gates to shake hands with Hans Modrow, the East German Prime Minister. The demolition of the wall did not officially start until the summer of 1990, although people were taking chunks of it away as souvenirs, and was not completed until 1992. Re-unification of Germany was completed on 3rd October 1990 bringing about one of the most momentous political revolutions in modern times.