By Jeremy Hutton, Policy Analyst
On this day thirty years ago, the infamous Berlin Wall finally fell.
For 28 years the wall stood, guarded by thousands of Soviet soldiers.
For that time it divided families, split communities, and kept over a million Berliners from travelling freely throughout their homeland.
Even today, East Berlin still bears many visible scars of its period as capital of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), which was effectively a Soviet puppet state. Satellite photos of the city at night-time for example, still show the divides very clearly.
The wall was erected in response to high levels of East Germans immigrating to West Germany. Between 1951 and 1955 alone, 1.5 million people migrated to the West. As immigration increased, the Soviets decided they’d had enough. At first, free movement between the two states was closed, though the Berlin border remained open. However, this just led to East Germans increasingly trying to escape through the Berlin loophole.
The Soviets and their GDR puppets were not ignorant of this, nor were they happy about it. The GDR government considered this a “brain drain” and a betrayal of communist ideals. The remedy to the drain? A wall stretching the length of the city, putting an end to east-west immigration once and for all. The inner-Berlin border was closed in mid-1961 and construction of the wall began shortly after.
Although East Germany imposed what are perhaps the most memorable of various drastic socialist travel restrictions, it was not the only country to do so. Over the course of the 20th century, these blockades on freedom became symptomatic of socialist states, who simply refused to let people leave for a better life. Similar restrictions were put in place in Cuba, North Korea and the entirety of the Soviet Union and its satellite states in the Eastern Bloc. You can read more on this in a previous blog here.
Over the 28 year lifespan of the wall, 5,000 East Germans made the courageous trip over the top. However, not all were so lucky. It has been estimated that 262 escapees died at the Berlin Wall. Often they were shot, or blown up having stepped on landmines. In perhaps the most infamous example, about a year after construction of the wall began, 18-year old Peter Fechter was shot by GDR guards as he attempted to climb over the second border fence. In plain sight of many West Germans, Fechter remained legally within East Berlin, and the US army in the area were forbidden from assisting him. In the mean-time the GDR soldiers simply watched, as Fechter bled to death over the course of an hour, before they finally retrieved his body once he had died.
Finally after decades of oppression, the wall fell in the face of massive protests. A miscommunication meant that what were intended to be minor changes to the immigration rules in East Germany, were announced as a complete abolishment of the rules. As thousands flocked to the border, confused border guards opened the barriers, and the road to reunification opened up at last.
Germany has not forgotten the deep divisions sowed by the Cold War. Stretches of the wall remain intact, serving as a reminder of the dangers that socialist policy can wreak upon a nation. If you’re looking to get away in the next few months, you could do a lot worse than visiting Berlin yourself and seeing some of the scars of socialism first hand.