IT STARTED SLOWLY.
But on Sunday 13 August 1961 the people of Berlin – still occupied by the victorious powers of the Second World War – awoke to find parts of their city in the process of being physically split.
East German troops had started laying out the route of the ‘Anti-Fascist Rampart’- also known as the Berlin Wall. In some parts of the city it was just a hurriedly painted white line, in others rolls of barbed wire guarded by soldiers.
Berliners protested and were often met the pointed bayonets and rifles of GDR border guards. Within days the wall – looking like the sort of wall that might be found between neighbouring gardens or yards – would start to be fortified. Barbed wire screens were added to brick walls. Later concrete blocks would replace bricks.
The dividing lines ran through across streets, cutting through buildings.
At first these became escape routes with Berliners escaping from the East through one side and emerging in the West. Then the East German authorities started to compulsorily empty properties near the wall and brick up windows and doorways.
Over the course of the almost three decades that it stood the barrier would grow from a simple white line painted on the ground to miles of 45,000 concrete panels each 3.6 metres high and weighing 2,750 kg.
They cost 359 Ost Mark (East German Marks) to produce at a time when a loaf of bread was 1.04 Ost Mark. (1)
Some 45,000 sections would snake along for 106 km (66 miles), punctuated by more than 300 watchtowers and 20 bunkers. (2)
The dividing lines cut across streets and even through buildings with (for example) the front half in the capitalist West and the rear in the communist East.
So why was it built?
From the end of the Second World War the German Democratic Republic (GDR) – a satellite state of the Soviet Union – was seeing its population fleeing to the West. This of course included not just older people but young professional Germans who saw the chance of a better life away from Moscow’s influence.
And not just from East Berlin because all though Berlin was deep in the GDR the western sectors were linked to West Germany and beyond. One source quotes that in the two decades from 1945 more that 2 million people left – and not just through the GDR but also via Hungary and Czechoslovakia, countries were citizens of the Soviet Union could go on holiday to. (3)
From the GDR’s viewpoint the Wall helped slow the stream of escapees and made it more difficult – and dangerous – for those who attempted to do so. In addition it went some way to stabilising and then building the GDR economy.
Of course it wasn’t described in these terms to the GDR population. For them the antifaschistischer Schutzwall was to keep the corrupting capitalist influences out.
And here it failed because West German TV and radio programmes – describing a glittering, bright world and affluent world, very different to that experienced by the average East German citizen – could be listened to in East Berlin.
During the wall’s existence around 5000 successful escapes were made into West Berlin. Varying reports cite either 192 or 239 people were killed trying to cross the wall and many more were injured.
Initial attempts – those made in the early days and months of the Wall – involved people crossing the barbed wire fence or jumping from windows of the buildings that lined the wall.
Later tunnels, ‘zip’ aerial wires, air balloons and hiding in special compartments in vehicles were all tried with varying success. (4)
The last person to be die whilst attempting to cross into West Berlin was Chris Gueffroy on February 6 1989. He was 20 years old. (5) (6)
The desire to create something better that lead to families escaping would to also lead to unrest, dissatisfaction against the regime in many more and would see at least 55 deaths in an uprising against Sovietisation in June 1953 as well as many more injured and imprisoned later. (7) (8) (9) (10)
In November 1991 that same desire would lead to the collapse of the GDR and ultimately end in the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
IWM has at least two panels of the Berlin Wall as well as a number of smaller pieces in its collections. The panel outside IWM London was painted by graffiti artist ‘Indiano’ (Jürgen Grosse). (11)
The open mouth with wording – in this case possibly a reference to the ‘poem Archaischer Torso Apollos‘ (‘Torso of an Archaic Apollo‘) by the Rainer Maria Rilke which ends with the words ‘Du musst dein leben ändern‘, which translated as ‘You must change your life.’ – are a repeating theme in Indiano’s Berlin Wall pieces.
(1) www.dailysoft.com/berlinwall/history/facts_02.htm – retrieved 21 January 2018
(2) http://www.dailysoft.com/berlinwall/history/facts_01.htm – retrieved 21 January 2018
(3) https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/30080724 – retrieved 21 January 2018
(4) https://www.nationalcoldwarexhibition.org/schools-colleges/national-curriculum/berlin-wall/consequences.aspx – retrieved 21 January 2018
(5) https://fotostrasse.com/chris-gueffroy-berlin-wall/#.XEZD-c26K00 – retrieved 21 January 2018
(6) http://coldwarsites.net/country/germany/memorial-to-chris-gueffroy-berlin/ – retrieved 21 January 2018
(7) https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB50/ – retrieved 21 January 2018
(8) https://www.opendemocracy.net/node/1325 – retrieved 21 January 2018
(9) https://www.marxists.org/archive/brendel/1953/east-germany.htm – retrieved 21 January 2018
(10) https://www.dw.com/en/berlin-commemorates-1953-uprising-in-east-germany/a-39289423 – retrieved 21 January 2018
(11) http://berlinwall-indiano-art.blogspot.com/ – retrieved 21 January 2018