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Death at the Berlin Wall

East Berliner Peter Fechter, 18, lies dying on the Eastern side of the Wall after he was shot by border guards while attempting to escape to West Berlin. Photo: Bettmann. - Credit: Bettmann Archive

There was no more brutal expression of the divisions of the Cold War than the Berlin Wall. IAN WALKER looks back at the moment the barrier went up, and how the world reacted.

On the night of August 13, 1961, the East German Government closed the border between East and West Berlin with barbed wire, fences and armed guards.

This barrier, which would later become a concrete and brick wall, was presented to the world as a defensive measure against the West. As the East German leader Walter Ulbricht put it: ‘Counter-revolutionary vermin, spies and saboteurs, profiteers and human traffickers, prostitutes, spoiled teenage hooligans and other enemies of the people’s democratic order have been sucking on our Workers’ and Peasants’ Republic like leeches and bugs on a healthy body.’

Ulbricht’s vivid imagery was deluded. There was nothing healthy about the body of the East German Workers’ and Peasants’ Republic. Life in the DDR was mostly rotten.

However, Ulbricht did have a point about how the capitalist West was sucking what little life there was out of East Germany. People were leaving the East German workers’ paradise in their tens of thousands.

In the years leading up to the closing of the border in Berlin, East Germany had been haemorrhaging people to the West, especially skilled professionals and young people. Approximately a quarter of a million a year left between 1955 and 1958.

This figure dropped slightly around the turn of the decade but rose sharply as the 1960s began. Between 1954 and 1961, 20% of East German doctors had fled to the West.

Since 1952 the Inner German Border, the barrier that separated East and West Germany, had been heavily militarised and fortified, and increasingly difficult to cross.

This left Berlin – a divided city in the heart of East Germany – as the easiest place to get over the border. And it was here where most of this haemorrhaging of youth, skills and talent from East to West had been taking place.

So this Berlin Wall was never designed to stop the Western ‘Counter-revolutionary vermin, spies and saboteurs’, getting in – it was designed to stop the East Germans getting out.

As such, this Wall, which surrounded the whole of West Berlin, created what the Hungarian composer György Ligeti called ‘the surreal cage’ – a prison where, paradoxically, the inmates – the West Berliners – were free, and those outside the cage were imprisoned.

And they were imprisoned, because if an East Berliner tried to escape he or she was likely to be shot.

The Wall had been up for about a year when, on August 17, 1962, 18-year-old Peter Fechter and his friend Helmut Kulbeik, tried to cross. The plan had been to hide in a carpenter’s workshop not far from the border so they could observe the guards. The idea was to wait for the moment when the sentries would be least able to stop them, then jump from a window into what was known as ‘the Death Strip’ – a no man’s land area that ran along the East German side of the Wall. The two young men would then sprint across it and try to clamber over the Wall into the Kreuzberg district of West Berlin.

The plan worked for Kulbeik. Both men got across the Death Strip to the final wall and Kulbeik got over. But as Fechter was scaling it he was shot in the pelvis by the East German guards and fell back into the no man’s land.

He lay there for about an hour screaming in pain and crying for help, as he bled to death. No one helped him. Hundreds of people on both sides of the border stood there and watched this young man slowly and painfully die.

The culpability of the East Germans was plain – the guards had murdered this young man (and were awarded bonuses for doing so). But there was also a degree of culpability in the West. Other than the West German police throwing him bandages which he could not reach, very little was done to help Fechter. There was a report that a US 2nd lieutenant was given the order to not get involved. It was also said that an American GI at nearby Checkpoint Charlie shrugged his shoulders and said ‘Not our problem’.

This American response fuelled a sense among West Berliners at the time that the West did not really care about this small surreal cage of freedom surrounded by a murderous totalitarian regime. And it wasn’t just the seeming indifference of the Americans to the death of Fechter.

For almost two years after the closing of the border and the building of the Wall, none of the leaders of the occupying Western Powers – the USA, France and Britain – had visited West Berlin. The city may have been in the front line of the Cold War, but it really seemed as though no one in the rest of the West was that interested.

A visit to Berlin during this period by the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan never seemed that likely. It would have been a reminder to him of the UK’s status as the USA’s poor cousin in the post war Cold War order of things (very poor cousin – the British economy was struggling with a huge balance of payments deficit).

Moreover the UK was increasingly at odds with the Franco-German driven early years of the European project (and, rather stupidly – and portentously, it turns out – was happier to pursue a policy of economic stagnation than have anything to do with the rapid economic growth that West Germany was experiencing at that time).

It was probably this Franco-German economic union that led to the French President Charles De Gaulle deliberately ignoring Berlin altogether while on a state visit to West Germany in September 1962.

De Gaulle’s decision to ignore Berlin suited French interests and it also suited the West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. While happy to pay lip service to the idea of a unified Germany, Adenauer was a conservative Catholic Rhinelander, who was fiercely anti-communist and anti Prussian. The existence of the communist East Germany and the divided and defeated former Prussian capital of Berlin legitimised not only his political world view, but also his desire to link West Germany’s economic future with France and with Western Europe. This was pretty much what De Gaulle wanted as well. They were best pals when it came to ignoring Berlin.

This idea that these Western leaders were indifferent to the plight of Berlin really began the moment the border was closed. On the day the East Germans had closed the border, Harold Macmillan was grouse hunting in Yorkshire. He saw no reason to cut short his holiday. De Gaulle was also on holiday. He was out of Paris at his country home at Colembey-les-Deux-Èglises. As soon as he heard the news of what the East German Government had done in Berlin, he stayed where he was.

The Americans, however, did react. It was arranged for Vice President Lyndon Johnson to visit the city. He was sent, somewhat reluctantly on his part (he was reported as saying ‘Why me?’), by the Kennedy administration to bolster the morale of West Berliners. But even this decision to send the second in command (or second best choice) was never that clear cut.

On the one hand, there were those in the Kennedy administration who were cautious. Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara, National Security Advisor, McGeorge Bundy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy all advised a low key approach.

They saw this act of building the Wall by the East Germans as being defensive. This was not the East Germans, or their Soviet masters, pushing for some sort of conflict. Instead the Wall was just giving physical form to the defensive political stand-off that existed between East and West.

On the other hand, there were those that had experience of life in Berlin, such as the CIA man David E Murphy, who argued that the morale of West Berliners was fragile. And President Kennedy was about to experience that fragility first hand.

The moment the border was closed the Berlin mayor Willy Brandt wrote a letter to Kennedy which admonished the US Government. Brandt bemoaned the allies’ ‘inactivity and pure defensiveness’. He demanded political action.

This was an extraordinary letter; a city mayor, albeit the mayor of a city at the heart of one of the greatest political showdowns in the 20th century, was playing political hardball with the most powerful political figure on the planet.

Brandt’s reason for doing this was, partly, political ambition. He was positioning himself as the SPD rival to Adenauer (this is another reason why the politically-canny Adenauer kept De Gaulle, and the world’s cameras, away from West Berlin).

But Brandt’s letter was nonetheless genuine and heartfelt, and he was arguing with the voice of his constituency. West Berliners, many of whom had families and friends in the east of the city, were scared and angry. Moreover, the Wall was an affront to how Berliners often tended to see themselves.

It isolated Berlin from the world, and while you couldn’t expect the world to be that sympathetic – the Second World War only ended 16 years earlier – Berlin had always been a place of exiles and migration and movement. As a city, it never seemed that fixed. It was a city that always felt like it was in a process of flux.

The building of the actual Wall, which would replace the fences and barbed wire that had been thrown up on the night of August 13, 1961, began in Potsdamer Platz on the morning of August 18.

Potsdamer Platz had originally been a trading centre that sat just outside the city walls, by the Potsdam Gate. It was a place where roads converged, carrying trade routes that ran right out across Europe, from Paris to St Petersburg.

On that morning of the 18th, crane trucks delivered giant concrete slabs, and then concrete mixers and brick workers started their work. By dawn on the 19th, a wall ran across this part of Berlin. This centuries old intersection of trade and traffic, of movement and migration, at the heart of Europe, was now closed.

Much like the Nazis, who loathed Berlin, this Wall was an attack on the very things – migration, movement, flux, change – that had made Berlin.

Vice President Johnson came to Berlin and did his bit. He rode through West Berlin waving at Berliners and greeted the 1,500 US troops from the First Battle Group of the 8th Infantry Division who had been sent to reinforce the city. The West Berliners were temporarily reassured.

Brandt, however, saw things differently. Johnson was in Berlin for about 48 hours. He did his job but he also seemed just as preoccupied with shopping. He was after some loafers he had seen Brandt wearing and he fancied getting hold of some Prussian porcelain to take back to the US.

So when Johnson went home with his loafers and his porcelain, the citizens of West Berlin were left to get on with things. West Berliners just had to put up with occupying Allied soldiers who were seemingly indifferent to the murders of East Germans trying to escape. And they had to put up with the indifference of the remote Allied leaders.

But then in June 1963 President Kennedy visited the city. He had always been a hawk in his anti-communism. In 1954 he had been the only Democrat to abstain in the Senate’s vote of condemnation of the ludicrous anti-communist witchfinder general Joseph McCarthy (his brother Robert had worked on McCarthy’s Permanent Sub Committee on Investigations).

Kennedy’s legacy – the space programme and the Vietnam War – were products of his Cold War mentality. His greatest political disaster (the Bay of Pigs debacle) and his greatest political success (facing down the bully Khrushchev over the deployment of missiles in Cuba), came entirely within this ‘us and them’ Cold War world view. Kennedy was a cold warrior every bit as much as Khrushchev was.

But the American and his administration were also pragmatic. There was no way the USA was going to go to war with the Soviet Union over Berlin, especially as the Americans understood that the Wall was a defensive measure by the East Germans.

As such, an uneasy status quo had been established in Berlin between the superpowers. Moreover, in a famous speech that Kennedy had delivered a few weeks earlier, at the American University in Washington DC, the president had talked of curbing nuclear arms, and that there needed to be a closer relationship between the USSR and the USA.

As part of his visit to Berlin, Kennedy was to make a speech on the steps of the Schöneberg Town Hall. The 450,000 Berliners who turned up for it were looking for reassurance, but in reality Kennedy was expected to deliver either platitudes, or perhaps continue that slight move towards dètente that had been heard in his speech in Washington.

But that never happened. The speech he gave had little in the way of platitudes or dètente. In what turned out to be one of the greatest political speeches of the 20th century, Kennedy laid into the communist East. He argued that communism could not be compatible with capitalism. He pointed out the failure of communism. He said the Wall was ‘the obvious and vivid demonstration of the failures of the Communist system’.

Included in the speech was the famous line ‘Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is ‘Ich bin ein Berliner!”

Kennedy would then go on to say that he himself, as a free man, was a Berliner. This was Kennedy at his most stridently anti-communist. This was also what the crowd wanted to hear. They cheered and applauded they chanted his name.

So why had Kennedy suddenly gone off message? One suggestion is that it was because he had just seen the Wall for the first time. According to Frederick Taylor, in his excellent book The Berlin Wall Kennedy had been ‘visibly moved’ by what he had seen.

The Wall did that to the people. Again and again you read of people being shocked when they saw it for the first time. You can understand in the abstract that a wall like this is an affront to freedom, but when confronted in reality, all that fear and oppression is suddenly as solid and real as brick and concrete.

While it is true that Berlin is a city built around migration and movement, so is London, New York, Paris. So are all great cities. Freedom, movement, energy, invention and creativity, the necessity of tolerance, the insistence of concessions, the equation of public space and of freedom – all of these things are true of all great cities.

And the Wall was the denial of all these values. Kennedy had his faults but he was a democrat and a liberal, and he believed in freedom. In what was probably a rush of blood, for once he stopped politicking and said what he thought. What was expressed in that speech was a sincere and genuine contempt for the totalitarian East.

Kennedy’s speech has, like much of the history of Berlin, become part of the fabric of the city. There is a memorial plaque at Schöneberg Town Hall and the square in front of the Hall was renamed as John F. Kennedy Platz. His brother Robert would visit a year later to celebrate the anniversary of the speech.

And the phrase ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ has entered folklore. The joke is that people say it can be translated as ‘I am a doughnut’ (a Berliner is a type of cake). Unfortunately this isn’t really true.

Later on his trip to Berlin, Kennedy dialled down his response. He made a second speech which was more measured and less principled and was more about keeping the status quo of the Cold War.

And it was this second speech that had more to with what followed. The Wall would remain for another 26 years. It continued to prop up the degenerate East German state which, by the end of its political life in the late 1980s, was so broke it even considered selling the Wall to the West.

And in some ways the Wall became the centrepiece of global politics – from the Soviet Union to the USA it helped politicians of all political persuasions define what they were and what they were not.

And West Berlin, during this period, was more often than not just left to get on with it.

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