A recurring question from tourists in West Berlin not only back in the day but also these days is: "Where is the wall?"
The answer was easy when the nearly impenetrable barrier not only divided West Berlin from East Berlin but also became the desperate place where nearly 200 East Germans died as they tried to slip through the Soviet-backed snare into the West. Many were murdered mercilessly with gunshots in the back, leaving them writhing in the barren dirt of what became known as the "death strip" as they tried to claw the final inches to freedom.
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Today, on the 20th anniversary of the wall's fall to dissent and a new government, the answer to the question lies at tourists' feet. The wall itself has all but disappeared, with only a few sections and guard towers remaining (tourist guides pinpoint existing guard towers). Throughout most of the wall's previous course, two rows of pavers mark where the lethal barrier once stood and would-be escapees died.
Those deaths occurred between Aug. 14, 1961, when East Germany closed the border, through the wall's erection, and into early 1989, a few months before a new government lifted travel restrictions on Nov. 9.
The wall's back story traces to 1946, according Berlin Wall Online. That is when the Soviet Union decided to police the postwar demarcation lines between Soviet sectors of Europe and the West.
Propelling that decision was tension between the Soviets and their Western allies, according to Frederick Taylor, a British author and Berlin Wall expert who chronicled the barricade in his book, "The Berlin Wall — A World Divided 1961-1989."
In 1949, the Western zones of Germany split from the communist, Soviet-allied government in East Germany, which surrounded Berlin, Taylor said during a recent interview with Voice of America's VOA.com.
"Berlin, sitting inside the Soviet zone — a kind of Trojan horse, if you will, of capitalism as the Soviets and their German communist allies saw it — became this symbol of a Western way of life continuing to exist inside what was increasingly the frozen and repressive Cold War Soviet bloc," Taylor told VOA.com.
When the Soviets decided to draw the line, travel was restricted to the extent that people needed a pass to go from one sector to another. Crossing without permission was possible, but increasingly dangerous, according to dailysoft.com.
Because thousands escaped to the West across the borders between East Germany and West Germany, and within Berlin, the East German government opted in 1952 to close the border altogether and establish a frontier between East Germany and West Germany.
After that, Berlin, which itself was divided into American, British, French, and Soviet sectors, provided the only safe egress to the West. The border was opened daily in Berlin and upwards of a half-million people traveled one way or the other for jobs, commerce, and entertainment. (Dailysoft.com includes this historical notation: "Many East Berliners go into the cinema or discos in the West, they even work in the West or they go shopping in the West. Women get the first seamless panty hoses in the West, tropical fruits are only available there.")
That ended in 1961, when Communist leaders meeting in Moscow decided to split Berlin with an inescapable barrier. Thus rose the Berlin Wall, which actually was a 96-mile, barbed-wire barricade and concrete wall with an average height of 11.8 feet, ranging to more than 15 feet in some places.
The wall was the visible symbol of the Soviet Union's vaunted, but ephemeral, Iron Curtain containing the citizens of several Eastern European countries. (Winston Churchill coined the term "Iron Curtain" in his controversial "Sinews of Peace" address in Fulton, Mo., where he declared, "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an 'iron curtain' has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia; all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject, in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and in some cases increasing measure of control from Moscow.")
After the wall was built, people from all walks of life, from border guards to entire families of civilians, from very young to very old, tried all manner of ways to escape. They desperately tried to clamber over fences, barbed wire, and the wall and race to the safety of West Berlin, or to jump from apartment buildings in the border area and scramble for their lives, or to slip silently through under the cover of night, eluding the spotlights in the guard towers.
Other escape ploys included vehicles adapted to conceal escapees, chairlifts between buildings adjoining the wall, tunnels, balloons, and gliders.
Some escapes succeeded, with those victories chronicled on the evening news of the day. But many did not, and the East German border guards' slaughter of the would-be escapees also were common bulletins, and photos, on the evening news.
Those images, whether of glorious freedom or of miserable death, haunt even today.
For example, "Some of the photo images will live forever," Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute wrote in an article that appeared on National Review Online on Sept. 30, 2003. "On August 15, 1961, we see Conrad Schumann, the first border guard to escape, gracefully leaping over a tangled roll of barbed wire. On August 17, 1962, 18-year-old Peter Fechter bled to death while calling for help, shot down before he could reach sanctuary in the West."
East Germany persistently denied that it ordered such killings, a claim that Spiegel Online refuted with documentation: "East Germany's ex-leaders always denied they had ordered soldiers to shoot people trying to flee across the Berlin Wall. However, documents which surfaced in 2007 proved without doubt that such an order did exist. 'Don't hesitate to use your weapon even when border breaches happen with women and children, which traitors have often exploited in the past,' reads an order dated Oct. 1, 1973."
Actually, the wall's death toll is only a fraction of those who died trying to escape East Germany, as many fell victim to the minefields all along the 860-mile border between West Germany and East Germany. Although experts disagree on the total, Spiegel online cites the private effort of The August 13 Working Group's tally of more than 1,200.
Bandow's death toll is similar, tempered with thousands of successes: "All told, 5,075 people are known to have escaped despite the wall. Unfortunately, 176 died in the attempt [other estimates vary, but most generally are around 200]; nearly 800 more were killed attempting to escape across the border elsewhere into West Germany."
The wall stood for more than a quarter century, despite increasing pressure from the West to end what amounted to genocidal incarceration.
That pressure included President Ronald Reagan's exhortation to Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 to "tear down this wall."
Although many credit that challenge with being the beginning of the end, it was two more years until a regime change in East Germany prompted the rapid series of events that culminated in the official end of the travel restrictions on Nov. 9, 1989. The dismantling of the wall took place in various stages, until completed the following year. Remnants remain in some areas, but the deadly barrier has been largely erased.
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