In the early hours of the morning of August 13, 1961, Soviet tanks rolled into position in the Soviet sector of East Berlin to begin the building of one of the greatest obscenities of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall. Last Saturday, 50 years later, German politicians and thousands of people who have not forgotten that tragic day, among them Berliners who experienced those sad times, gathered at a memorial on Berlin’s Bernauer Street to remember first and foremost the more than one hundred people killed attempting to escape the prison the 103-mile Wall had made of East Berlin.
“We are thinking of the suffering that was inflicted on the innumerable women, men and children…,” said Christian Wulff, Germany’s president. “We are lamenting 136 dead. We bow before all who died at the Wall and before the several hundred who died at the inner German border, the borders to third states and on the Baltic Sea.”
But not all Germans were lamenting the unfortunate people who bravely risked their lives for freedom only to be killed by ruthless East German border guards. Some German leftists, most prominently in Germany’s Left Party, refused to observe the minute of silence for the Wall’s victims. While much of Berlin, including all public transportation vehicles, came to a standstill on Saturday for sixty seconds, some Left delegates at a party meeting in the Baltic city of Rostock, in keeping with their belief that the Wall’s construction was a justifiable decision, refused to even stand when the minute was announced
Known in Soviet-controlled countries as the “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart,” it is well known the Berlin Wall’s purpose was not to keep undesirable people or influences out but rather to keep in the Eastern European populations under Soviet control. Due to the disparity in living and economic conditions between East and West, the growing oppression in Eastern European countries and restrictive socialist measures like collectivization, people from East Block countries were using Berlin’s relatively relaxed border controls to cross over to freedom on the city’s western side.
And the number of Eastern Europeans fleeing their countries, primarily from East Germany, to the West via Berlin increased almost yearly. In 1949, 144,000 Eastern Europeans used the Berlin route to vote against socialism with their feet. In 1960, the year before the Wall was built, 199,000 crossed over to freedom in Berlin, while 207,000 did so in the first seven months of 1961. Facing such a drain of people, especially among the young and educated, East Germany’s communist rulers knew they had to act, if they were ever to realise their dream of successfully building socialism. The result was the construction of the Berlin Wall to stop the exodus.
The Wall’s erection in August, 1961, was to have an instant, traumatic effect on Berlin’s residents. The 50,000 East Berliners who worked in West Berlin immediately lost their jobs. East Berlin children suddenly “disappeared” from West Berlin schools. But the biggest tragedy occurred among families the Wall had separated overnight. Some members were not able to see each other for many years.
But opposition to the Wall’s building began almost immediately. One East Berliner, Ulrich Pfeifer, managed to flee to West Berlin in the first few weeks through the sewers, but his girlfriend accompanying him was sentenced to seven years in prison for the escape attempt. Pfeifer later became a construction engineer and sought revenge against the East German regime for imprisoning his girlfriend by building tunnels under the Wall to help other East Berliners to escape.
“You can’t reconstruct the horror of that time,” he said.
Others were not as lucky as Pfeifer. Only 11 days after the beginning of the Wall’s construction, the sealed-off border claimed its first victim, Gunter Litfin. Litfin, 24, was shot in the head by a border guard while attempting to swim the Spree River to the West Berlin bank and was left to drown. He was only 20 meters from freedom. Litfin was a tailor and was one of those suddenly left unemployed by the new, heavily armed and hostile city boundary. A day later, the border guard responsible for the murder and his superior received an honour medal, an expensive watch and 200 marks personally from the hands of East Germany’s interior minister.
“What crime did my brother actually commit?” his surviving brother, Jurgen, is still asking 50 years later.
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