Last Sunday at 1:50 pm, I ran through the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin’s best-known landmark, as one of 36,054 marathon participants. With just 200 meters to go to the finish line, I wasn’t thinking deep thoughts. However, after I’d gotten my medal, my snack bag, and, most importantly, my Erdinger alkoholfrei beer, I looked back at the gate and reflected on the first time I’d seen it, in 1983.
I spent the autumn of 1983 in Mainz, West Germany, with one of Dartmouth College’s language study programs. In Bonn, massive demonstrations were underway against NATO’s plan to station medium-range ballistic missiles, aimed at the Soviet Union, in West Germany. The Cold War seemed to be heating up.
Our group took a trip to Berlin, traveling by train through the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (East Germany) to the walled city of West Berlin. We were warned not to attempt any humor when the train stopped at the East German border for the inspection of documents.
In the center of Berlin, the Reichstag building, which had housed the German parliament before and during World War II, was still partially damaged and was mothballed except for a small exhibition area. Just behind the Reichstag, we climbed up onto a platform and looked out over the Berlin Wall to the Brandenburg Gate, on the eastern side. When the wall was constructed in August 1961, the gate became a symbol of the divided city, stranded in a no-man’s land between the graffiti-covered wall to the west and fortified barriers to the east.
When I returned to Germany to work in 1992, the Cold War was over, and Germany was reunited. Tiny pieces of demolished Berlin Wall featured heavily in the souvenir shops. Parliament had decided to relocate the federal capital from Bonn back to Berlin, and, throughout the former Soviet sector, a construction boom was gathering steam. Riding through the Brandenburg Gate in a taxi gave me goosebumps.
How do I explain that goosebump feeling to my children, who were born years after the wall fell? Many Americans of my generation and younger are aware of the Berlin Wall as a Cold War symbol, but don’t understand how it came to be in the first place.
At the end of WW II, the four allied victors divided Germany into four zones of occupation: American, British, and French zones in the west, and a Soviet zone in the east. The wartime capital, Berlin, located within the Soviet zone, was similarly divided into four sectors.
The marriage of convenience between the Western allies (France, Great Britain, USA) and the Soviet Union, expedient for defeating Hitler’s Germany, was already on the rocks. A currency reform in 1948 and the announcement of a new German constitution in May 1949 laid the groundwork for a new, economically vigorous state in the western zones of occupation, the Bundesrepublik Deutschland [Federal Republic of Germany]. The Soviet Union countered, first with an economic blockade of West Berlin and then with the declaration of a rival state, the Deutsche Demokratische Republik [German Democratic Republic], in the Soviet zone.
Germans residing in the Soviet zone had gone from the frying pan of one totalitarian system into the fire of another. The border between the two Germanys was all but impenetrable, so many people travelled to Berlin in hopes of getting through one of the checkpoints into the western part of the city. One of them was our friend Günter, who, in 1958, invented a reason to travel to East Berlin that would withstand the scrutiny of border guards. Luggage would have aroused suspicion, as would traveling together with his wife. So they traveled separately, with little more than the clothes on their backs, made it through the various checkpoints and inspections, and were able to pass into the western part of the city.
Of the 4 million East Germans that fled to the West between 1949 and 1990, some 1.35 million (including Günter) passed through the emergency reception center Notaufnahmelager Marienfelde in West Berlin, where they received immediate aid and were resettled – most in West Germany. It was a brain drain the East could ill afford, and the Berlin Wall was built, virtually overnight, in an effort to stop it.
On Monday after the marathon, after a good night’s sleep, I decided to go in search of what remains of the wall today. The Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer [Berlin Wall Memorial] stretches almost a mile along Bernauer Straße. It includes fragments of the original wall, but mostly it evokes the wall using simple elements of landscape and sculpture, old photographs and explanatory text. Plaques in the ground remember those who fled to the West and those who died trying.
Bernauer Straße itself belonged to the French sector, so the wall was built along the south side of the street, cutting off access to all of the cross streets. In the houses abutting the wall, people climbed out of upper-story windows and jumped into blankets held ready by those below on the western side. These houses successively had their windows bricked up, were vacated and demolished by the East German authorities.
Along much of its length, the Berlin Wall was actually two walls, running parallel to each other with a no-man’s land in between. That no-man’s land was known in German as the Todesstreifen – the “death strip”. A line of lamp posts kept the Todesstreifen brightly lit around the clock, so soldiers in watchtowers could easily spot anyone trying to cross. It’s estimated at least 138 people were killed trying to flee over the Berlin Wall between 1961 and 1989.
Along Bernauer Straße, parts of the death strip have been redeveloped with apartment blocks. One section is a park where kids play soccer and tourists pose for photos. Elsewhere in the city, the Todesstreifen is completely obscured by new construction.
Back in 1983, I remember we had a German instructor who, when asked about the future of the Berlin Wall, said that living standards in East Germany were steadily improving and that a day would come when East and West would be equally prosperous and the wall would be superfluous. Could he have been more wrong? His answer ignored the fact of the wall an instrument of political power. Moreover, it wasn’t rising prosperity, but the economic collapse of the Soviet system that led to the end of the Cold War and the destruction of the wall.