Greater Divides

While both Germanys excelled in their respective spheres, they did not exactly form a mutual admiration society. The West German constitution always held the division of Germany as temporary and considered the eastern regions and its people as ultimately belonging together with them in one, united Germany. All East Germans were regarded as citizens of the Federal Republic and immediately granted passports with full rights of citizenry as soon as they re-settled in the west, a boon that many East Germans took advantage of over the years.

Recognizing that large numbers of their citizens were deeply dissatisfied with the dictatorship and the lower standard of living, the East German authorities responded by constructing a giant network of fences and walls snaking all along their common border with West Germany. Heavily armed soldiers and, later, hidden machine guns that fired automatically when tripped off were added to discourage any Germans from fleeing to the West.

While these fortified borders were somewhat effective at keeping East Germans in, there was one giant, gaping hole in the shield: West Berlin. For twelve years after Germany had been officially split into two states, it was still possible for disenchanted East Germans to simply walk into one of the three Western Allies’ zones – or simply ride an Underground train there – and become instant West German citizens.

This was happening more and more as the Cold War headed into deep freeze, especially amongst well-trained professionals whose skills could earn them much more in the West. The DDR continued to hemorrhage its best and its brightest until East German leaders decided they could no longer tolerate this opening. Early on 13 August 1961, they announced a cancellation of all transport moving through the two parts of the city and then set to work stringing barbed wire fencing all around the western sections.

It was a well-planned, lightning-fast operation, so much so that West Berliners woke up on that morning shocked to find their city totally surrounded by a fence, reinforced by armed East German soldiers. As soon as architecturally possible, the fences were replaced by a 16 centimeter-thick concrete wall with an imposing height of 4.10 meters (13 1/2 feet).

The Berlin Wall quickly became an imposing symbol of both the division of Germany and a Communist state’s contempt for its own citizens’ freedom to choose. The Wall and the many people who died trying to breach it only deepened the chill in inter-German relations for the rest of the decade. A slight thaw began in 1970 as a result of Willy Brandt´s Ostpolitik (Eastern Policy), and for the next two decades, the two sides moved fitfully towards accommodation and even some kind of normalization.

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