The Berlin Wall

About a year ago, I became interested in Germany. I do not recall the why of it but only that I consumed anything I could get my hands on. It began as stories of what happened after the Germans were defeated in World War II and the horrors women had to endure at the hands of their liberating Russian soldiers1. A decade before the Berlin Wall was constructed, there was the Berlin Blockade from June 1948 to May 1949, which attempated to cut off supplies and transportation to West Berliners. Then, in the early morning hours of August 13, 1961, construction of the Berlin Wall began. It eventually became a 159 km wall of concrete, metal fences, observation towers, soldiers, mines, and dogs that separated West Berlin—the Allied Forces' sectors—from the rest of East Germany. Officially, the GDR2 called it the Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart and was billed as a way of protecting East Germans!

An image of what used to be the Death Strip between the Berlin Walls.
This patch of grass used to be the death strip.

The words “Ich bin ein Berliner” were said in front of a crowd of 450,000 in West Berlin by American President John F. Kennedy in 1963.

In 1987, another American president, Ronald Reagan, stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate and implored Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.”

The Center for Contemporary History Research has confirmed at least 140 deaths at the Wall3. In the days following the construction, East Germans would jump out of windows into West Berlin. East German soldiers, to prevent it from happening, forced the tenants of the apartments to brick up their own windows.

David Bowie, in 1987, gave a concert close to the wall in West Berlin, at which thousands of East Berliners listened to on the other side. In 1988, Bruce Springsteen gave a concert to East Berliners in East Berlin. The FDJ, an East German youth group, believed that giving the younger generation of the GDR a concert by a Westerner would help alleviate some of the growing unrest. It proved to have the opposite effect. I have watched some of this concert on YouTube4.

An image of the Berlin Wall victims.
These were all the people that died trying to cross the Wall

Then, on November 9th in 1989, about an hour before midnight, East Germans began pouring into West Berlin after a botched press conference mistakenly informed the public that new regulations concerning round-trip travel to the West would go into effect immediately. I remember watching young men and women stand atop the wall on the television screen in my parent’s living room. I was eleven years old at the time. I did not understand the gravity of what I saw.

Two months later, in January of 1990, the Stasi5 headquarters in Berlin was overrun by angry protestors. The Stasi officers destroyed a billion sheets of paper before they were forced to stop. These were the documents they had created over decades of spying and informing on their own people. Those billion sheets? Estimated to be only 5% of the total6. Some of the things the protestors found were smell jars where Stasi officers kept the smells of East German residents.

When my friend and I went to Berlin this past spring, the Berlin Wall was the only thing I had to see. I had to place my hands on that cold concrete. I needed to see the scars of the city. When we arrived at the Wall, I lost my breath. To watch people laugh and run, smile and take selfies, the Wall as their backdrop with outstretched hands, fingers poised in the peace sign…it was all so much. It was all surreal and unreal.

A piece of the original Berlin Wall.
A section of the original Berlin Wall.

Today, I just finished Stasiland by Anna Funder7. It is part history and part autobiography. She writes the stories of those from behind the Wall, both by the Stasi officers and those that were their victims. But victims isn’t the correct word. These people survived. These people had things taken from them, things they may never get back. These stories are viewed through Ms. Funder’s time in Berlin in the years after the Wall fell.

Each story…how do I explain how I am feeling today? Pieces of me are ripped apart by what one human does to another, by what one human must endure to survive. I am in awe of how resilient and resolute a single human can be. This book, over all the other books I have read and films I have watched, is what gave me that visceral, raw feeling that assaulted me when I stood in the middle of the death strip in April while in Berlin.

I wrote an email to Ms. Funder today. I failed in trying to convey just what her words did for—and to—me. After finishing the book, I realize I must go back to Berlin. There are things unfinished. There are things I still must understand. There are things I need to see again. I must find a way to spend more than four days there.

  1. “How many times?” was a common greeting among women after liberation. They were inquiring as to how many times they had been raped. Stalin considered rape as part of the spoils of war.
    Paraphrased from Faust’s Metropolis by Alexandra Richie. ↩︎

  2. German Democratic Republic. How’s that for irony? ↩︎

  3. See Wikipedia and Chronik der Mauer↩︎

  4. It’s a phenomenal concert. Go watch it. Watch the expressions of the audience. My understanding is that the East German television didn’t have the best gear, which is why the quality is less than stellar. ↩︎

  5. Stasi is short for Staatssicherheitsdienst, translated in English to State Security Service. ↩︎

  6. See Wikipedia↩︎

  7. I cannot recommend the book enough. Even Tom Hanks agrees with me! ↩︎