Berlin, Germany, and perhaps all of Europe are celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s opening the weekend of November 9, 2014. The Berlin Wall was built in August 1961 to stop the flow of people leaving communist East Germany for democratic West Germany. As such this monstrous concrete and barbed wire barrier to migration was an integral part of the 866 mile Iron Curtain that physically divided Germany into two distinct political entities from 1946 to 1990. But in early November 1989, in response to civil unrest the East German government began easing travel restrictions to West Germany by funneling those wishing to leave the country through a remote border station in the country’s southwest corner. However, a bungled press conference announcing these new regulations was misunderstood by Berlin residents (as well as the shoot-to-kill East German Wall guards) as also applying to the tightly control Berlin Wall border crossings. As a result thousands of joyful East Berliners crossed into West Berlin during the night of November 9th (mainly in the early morning hours of November 10th) resulting in an accidental opening of The Wall that the East German government could not stop. Not only did this lead to the physical destruction of the Berlin Wall within weeks but also to the fall of the East German government and, within a year, the unification of Germany, East and West. At a global scale this radical political change in Berlin and Germany was closely linked to political changes in Moscow leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union and, further, to a wave of political and economic change in the former Soviet satellite states of Eastern Europe.
More Information on the Berlin Wall:
• Wikipedia’s entry on the Berlin Wall is here
• Numerous photos of the Berlin Wall are found here.
• A n excellent 43-minute National Geographic video on The Wall is here.
• The 25th Anniversary celebration website (in German and English) is here.
A Personal Note
Berlin had been a continual source of tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union since WW2’s end in 1945 because the former German capital lay within the Soviet zone of occupation. Like occupied Germany itself, Berlin was also divided into four sectors (British, French, Soviet, and American) with free movement between sectors guaranteed by international treaty. Unlimited access across the Soviet zone to Berlin from the west to Berlin was also a part of this treaty, however this became problematic when the Soviet puppet state of East Germany was created in 1949. One of the first major crises of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union started in June 1948 when Moscow blocked all access to Berlin. (See Wikipedia “Berlin Blockade” here) Although Moscow backed down a year later in 1949 when the western allies gave tacit approval to the creation of the Soviet puppet state of East Germany (which led to a division within Berlin of East and West Berlin, one communist, the other not), the United States’ commitment to the city grew as the Soviet Union expanded its power over all of Eastern Europe. Thus the building of the Berlin Wall around East Germany in August 1961 with its denial of free movement for the city’s residents created an international crisis that many thought would trigger WW3. Indeed, in October 1961 Soviet and U.S. tanks and soldiers faced each other with loaded weapons at point blank range at Checkpoint Charlie, the U.S. entry point to East Berlin. Fortunately no shots were fired and after several days the Soviet armor withdrew. But tensions remained high between the two superpowers as each country expanded its military presence in Western and Eastern Europe.
At that time (and continuing until 1973) the U.S. armed forces relied heavily on the compulsory military service—known simply as The Draft—required of all male citizens. And although college students were usually able to defer their service until after graduation the 1961 Berlin crisis reshuffled these rules so that many young men who had not given much (if any) thought to their military obligation found themselves drafted into the U.S. Army and shipped off to West Germany to prepare for war with the Soviet Union and its East European allies. I was one of those young men taken from college, and after several months of infantry training I found myself in Germany in March 1962 carrying a rifle and preparing to meet the enemy.
Within a month, however, I was able to trade my rifle for a typewriter, as I was transferred (at my request) to the 24th Division headquarters in Augsburg, Germany to work as a newspaper reporter in the Public Information Office (PIO. With reporter’s notebook in hand I saw the Iron Curtain up close, traveled to Berlin to write about The Wall, and crossed through Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin. My experiences were rich and life-changing, resulting in a lifelong interest in European affairs. I’ve traveled back to Berlin numerous times, and recently returned to the Iron Curtain to hike and bike along the former border that I knew as a soldier. I’ll post more on those recent trips soon.