Berlin 1961: Soviet Union sends concrete message to the west

Following the most devastating conflict in global history, Germany was in shambles.

That was understandable after the Nazis waged a massive war across multiple fronts and continents for six years. Approximately seven million German soldiers and civilians were killed in the Second World War, with the European Theatre more or less coming to a bloody and bitter end in the spring of 1945 following Adolf Hitler’s suicide in a Berlin bunker and the subsequent surrender of Germany’s armed forces.

The economical, political and social tolls on the country are almost unfathomable by modern standards. And despite what a given German’s allegiances may have been during the Second World War, much of Germany would continue to suffer in some regard well through the remainder of the 20th century, particularly those who lived in the capital city of Berlin.

At the conclusion of the Second World War, the Soviet Union had emerged as a world superpower. The countries and territories the Red Army had annexed through its triumphant liberation march to Berlin it simply incorporated into its vast communist realm that encompassed over 22 million square kilometres at the height of its power. Liberator on one hand, occupier on the other.

The U.S.S.R.’s growing might and the potential spread of the socialist ideals it embraced directly confronted the ideological principles of the capitalist west, and namely the world’s most wealthiest nation, the United States. A direct confrontation between the two seemed imminent, and the Cold War would play out over the next five decades in a series of indirect conflicts and showdowns conducted mostly outside the two countries’ own physical borders; Korea, Cuba and Vietnam just to name a few. And Berlin post-World War II could be considered the ongoing front line.

Germany and Berlin were divided into four quadrants by the victorious Allies in 1945 – the United States, Great Britain and France would control the western portions of the country and city – while the Soviet Union would govern the east. West Berlin, falling entirely within Soviet jurisdiction, was effectively surrounded by enemy territory. And to ensure that no East Germans further continued their gradual defection into the western part of the city (and from there, West Germany or Western Europe), the Soviet powers-at-be devised the Berlin Wall – a massive 150-km concrete and barbed wire structure that surrounded West Berlin and prevented East Berliners from leaving the Eastern Bloc.

It is interesting that the West-East Berlin border, that was at one point the world’s easiest to cross in terms of defecting ‘refugees’, instantly became the world’s most difficult to cross overnight, when Soviet and East German troops closed all avenues while construction of the Wall began 60 years ago this past August. Unauthorized entries of East Germans into West Berlin drastically decreased from several million over the 10-plus previous years of Soviet occupation to virtually none with the erection of the Berlin Wall.

Families were split apart, workers were separated from their jobs, and the Soviet Union’s symbolic Iron Curtain became a literal one. A physical manifestation of the U.S.S.R.’s strength and resolve against the west. West Germans and international visitors were eventually permitted access to the Eastern portion of Berlin through strict visa applications, but it was a long, difficult process to acquire one, and entry could be denied for any reason by border checkpoint guards. The potential for defection was so high for East Germans into the west that visas for them were generally not even issued at all.

Historical numbers are listed at approximately 200 East German citizens who died trying to flee to West Berlin over the Wall, but the actual number is likely much higher than reported. Some made it over but defection success rates were not high with the level of security at the structure, which only increased as the Cold War continued. Some industrious East Germans dug tunnels or used sewer systems beneath it, others tried to ram their way through using vehicles during its initial construction. Some even flew hot-air balloons or ultra-light craft overtop of it to escape life east of the Iron Curtain.

The Berlin Wall stood for nearly 30 years, before anti-communist revolutions in Soviet satellite states such as Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia eventually spread to East Germany. Global political pressure (U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s 1987 speech that included the impassioned plea to Soviet Union General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!’ urged protestors to seek its dismantling) and massive demonstrations by Germans on both sides of the Wall ultimately led to East German politicians having no choice but to permit people to flow freely through despite the border guards, who were heavily outnumbered.

On Nov. 9, 1989, long-separated family members were reunited and rejoiced with one another, while people from both sides of the Wall danced on top of it. Its unofficial demolition also began that very night, and within two years the Soviet Union would also be no more.

Thanks for reading and I’ll see you back here in a fortnight.

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This is a bi-weekly opinion column; for question or comment contact Dan McNee at dmcnee@midwesternnewspapers.com.

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