Imagine waking up one day to find you are suddenly and permanently separated from family and friends that live only a couple of blocks away. This is what the people of Berlin experienced when the Berlin Wall was erected in the middle of the night of August 13, 1961.
“I have family that lived on the border of East and West Germany,” Steffi Schmitt, German citizen, said. “During the separation there was no contact allowed between my family in the East and my family in the West.”
After 28 years of dividing the populations of East and West Germany, the Berlin Wall was brought down by a peaceful revolution on Nov. 9, 1989. This year Germany will celebrate the 25th anniversary of that historic event.
“I remember clearly where I was when the Berlin Wall ‘fell’ on November 9, 1989. I had just come home from work,” Birgit Wassmuth, director of the A.Q.Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications, said. “People were dancing on top of the wall. It was eery. I was in disbelief. So, I quickly inserted a video tape into the VCR and hit ‘record.’ Then I slowly took off my coat and started to cry … I cried because, right then, I learned the biggest lesson of my life: Never, ever, give up hope.”
It is difficult for younger generations to imagine where the Berlin Wall once stood. Separating the U.S. friendly West from Germany’s communist East, the actual wall was a bizarre line, wiggling through the city and encircling the perimeter of West Berlin, running approximately 96 miles in length.
When the Wall came down, many had hoped the “us versus them” mentality would also be demolished and Berliners would once again be united. While the wall has now been gone for 25 years, the psychological effects which left a strong presence in the city, both at the individual and collective level, still remain.
The construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961 was the result of 16 years of Soviet frustration. At the end of World War II, Germany was divided into four Allied occupation zones, with the eastern part of the country going to the Soviet Union. Additionally, the Allies partitioned Berlin into similar zones giving West Berlin to the U.S., England and France. Germany (and, likewise, Berlin) was divided by the Allies (England, France, Soviet Union and the U.S.) immediately after WWII in 1945. From 1945 to 1961 the border was open between West Berlin and the surrounding East Germany territory. The wall was built around West Berlin in 1961 because East Germany had lost millions of workers, professionals, etc to the West.
Berlin lies in the eastern part of Germany and had become a landlocked island deep inside communist controlled East Germany. Having capitalist countries occupy territory within East Germany was unsettling, causing Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to state that it was “like having a bone stuck in the Soviet throat.”
Since the partitioning of Berlin, 3 million refugees had fled from the East to the West, many of them young skilled workers such as doctors, teachers and engineers. This embarrassment was the driving force behind the East German government closing the border and building the 12 foot high structure around the perimeter of West Berlin. The wall was heavily fortified with armed guards, barbed wire fencing and a sand pit lined with machine gun trip wires.
Gerlinde Lindsey, a German-born resident of Manhattan, recounted the brutality inflicted upon those trying to escape with the example of Peter Fechter, an East German civilian. Shot while attempting to escape, he was left at the base of the wall screaming in agony. The Allies tried to intervene and to give him medical aid but were denied access. Lindsey said she remembers the West German radio broadcasting the event until Fechter eventually died. During the existence of the Berlin Wall, approximately 136 people were killed trying escape over the wall.
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, people danced in the streets and believed in a better tomorrow. Manhattan High School German teacher Elke Lorenz had just come to the U.S. in 1989, a few months before the fall of the wall. When it happened, she said it took her a while to fully comprehend the events that unfolded.
“(I) was at the YMCA in Florence, South Carolina on a treadmill watching the news and simply could not understand at all what was reported in the news,” Lorenz said.
25 years later, there are still divides and tensions between the former East and West Germany.
“When the Berlin Wall fell, it was a time of excitement for the most part,” Schmitt said. “Many people from the East rushed to the West. But there was some conflict when the wall fell. Westerners had to give money up to put into rebuilding the east and there was a conflict with the right of ownership between the East and Westerners.”
The communist East had developed more slowly than the capitalist West and therefore over the 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germans in the west have contributed approximately 1.6 trillion Euros to redevelop the East, according to Reuters. The funds have come largely from West German taxes. According to a Washington Post article, despite overall improvement, there is still a noticeable disparity between the former East and West Germany. In 2012, income per capita in the East was 70 percent of that in the West and tax revenues in the East were only 60 percent of Western averages, according to The Economist. Although East Germany is catching up, many people continue to face higher unemployment rates or have left to find work in West Germany.
In addition to economic differences, there are still cultural differences between the East and West as well as mutual stereotypes. Nevertheless, these differences seem to be fading as a new generation emerges whose lives are less determined by the wall. For some of the younger generation, eastern culture has even become “hip.”
Lorenz said it will take time for Germany to grow together completely.
“The progress that has been made over the last 25 years shows that in the not so distant future the division that still exists in some people’s heads will disappear,” Lorenz said.
Written as a group project for the class GRMN523 “Writing Berlin,” taught by Dr. Necia Chronister.
Authors: August Burg, Catherine Caffera, Connor Corley, Emily Hedden Chelsea Holt Bates, Matthew Jepsen, Ashley O’Neil, Raymond Remmert, Anastasia Slough, and Yuwen Weng.