"No One Intended to Build a Wall"

Reflections on the Building of the Berlin Wall

Berlin wall at winter with mist an nightlights
Berlin wall - the dead zone. spreephoto.de-Moment@gettyimages.de

In 1961, two months before construction work on the Berlin Wall began, Walter Ulbricht, Head of the State Council of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) from 1960 to 1973, said:

“Niemand hat die Absicht, eine Mauer zu errichten.”

In Germany, these are truly iconic words. They mean: “No one intended to build a wall.”

A Wall to Keep People In

The Berlin Wall was only a rather short part of the actual border between Eastern and Western Germany, which had a length of 1378 kilometers.

The inner German border was fortified by the GDR in 1952. The goal was to stop GDR-Citizens from fleeing to Western Germany – a phenomenon that had occurred since the founding of the GDR and the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) in 1949. Fractions between the Western Allies (France, the UK, and the USA) and the Soviet Union had de facto split Germany in half and brought the occupying forces to create two new states, in what can be viewed as the beginning of the cold war.

A divided Berlin was the last bit of quasi-open border between these two states. In fact, it was more of a bottleneck, the last hole that was sown shut. In an immense effort, the whole city was parted by the GDR-Government. It built a wall – sometimes actual concrete, sometimes fortified borderline y – over the length of the whole city, roughly 170 kilometers. Just as the fortified border itself, the wall was erected to keep people in.

Ulbricht’s famous words sparked a large exodus over the Berlin border. In the two months before the Berlin Wall was built alone, almost 200.000 GDR-citizens flew the country.

“Schießbefehl” and “Todeslinie” – Firing Order and Death Line

In the early hours of August 13, 1961, GDR-Troops began sealing of Eastern Berlin.

Soldiers marched up to the perimeter, fortified their positions, built fences and tore up the streets. All train tracks connecting east and west were literally cut off. The actual start of construction works on the Berlin Wall was August 15, 1961. Fleeing the GDR immediately became much harder. In the heat of the moment, some residents of houses built right on the border jumped out of their windows into Western Germany.

In September 1961, GDR-Officials decided to close down all remaining escape routes. This meant, bricking in the houses located directly on the demarcation line, sealing the manhole covers and securing the streets. If the terrain was not easily accessible, buildings were torn down to create a free field of fire. A so-called Death Line was created on the border. A firing order had already been issued to the border patrol in 1960 – meaning that they were ordered to shoot anyone that tried to flee the GDR. This Death Line cost 29 people their lives within the first year of its existence.

The GDR-Government kept fortifying the inner German border. It was upgraded with minefields as well as enormous light systems and thousands of people had to be relocated in the process.

Anti-Fascist Bulwark? – No Comment

The GDR-Officials celebrated the Berlin Wall and the border in total as the “antifaschistischer Schutzwall (Anti-Fascist Bulwark)”.

It claimed the Wall was necessary to fend off a western menace and secure the peace. It further propagated that the fortification was undertaken in full support of the country’s citizens, which of course was absolute nonsense. No citizen had been asked for their opinion, in fact, it is highly likely that most habitants of Eastern Berlin and the GDR were against shutting down all connections to the FGR. Such opinions could not be voiced, though, as they resulted in police investigations and prosecutions.

Almost no western leaders and officials issued any immediate statements on the erection of the Berlin Wall. In the first few days, neither US-President John F. Kennedy nor British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan commented on the situation. The FGR-Government took three days to call in an extraordinary meeting on the matter while some politicians immediately used it as campaign material.

Nevertheless, it quickly became clear that the separation of Germany was cast in cement and that an eventual unity was further away than ever.