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Two walls, one destiny

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What is the Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart? In simple terms, it was the Berlin Wall. Let’s find out more about it.

Think about this. What if the city you live in was divided in two by a physical barricade? You cannot travel freely across from one side to the nother. What would life be like if you couldn’t visit relatives and friends who happened to live on the other side or get to your office? This is what the German city of Berlin went through for 28 years — from 1961 to 1989 — when the Berlin Wall divided the city.

Let’s start with why the wall was built. For that, we need to go back to the end of World War II, when Germany was divided into four zones: administered by the U.S., the U.K., France and the Soviet Union. Berlin, which was the German capital, fell inside the last zone but, since it was an important city, it was also split in four. The first three zones were governed like democracies but, the Soviet zone was all about control. The government monitored every aspect of the citizen’s life.

In 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany was formed by merging the British, American and French zones. The Soviet Union-controlled part became the German Democratic Republic (GDR). In Berlin, this created an island of free speech and democracy right in the middle of the communist GDR.

The divide

In the next few years, economic growth in West Germany, which followed a social market economy and had a democratic parliamentary government, saw standards of life improve. Many people from East Germany then began to move to West Germany, which meant first to West Berlin. By 1961, this number was around 2.5 million and the East German government controlled by Soviet Union was desperate to stop this mass migration. How did they do that? By building a wall almost overnight. Remember West Berlin was just an enclave in the midst of the GDR. So if they could build a wall around it, it would slow down the people going across.

The idea of a wall came from the Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev and Walter Ulbricht, the East German leader, agreed that it would stop the people moving. On the midnight of August 12-13, 1961, the Berlin Wall was built cutting West Berlin off from the rest of the GDR. Since this happened suddenly, it left many stranded and separated from family and friends.

Officially, the wall was called Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart by the GDR authorities, while the West Berlin government called it the “Wall of Shame”. East Germany justified building the wall saying it was protecting itself from western infiltration and preventing its subsidised products from being bought. But no one believed this because only East Germans were prevented from moving westwards. People from West Berlin could travel to the east.

The wall did not stop people from trying to get to West Berlin. While thousands escaped by digging tunnels under or climbing over the walls, around 130 were killed in the attempt to flee. Corporal Conrad Schumann was the first to escape while Gunter Litfin was the first to be shot dead on August 24, 1961; the day East German soldiers received shoot-to-kill orders. Chris Gueffroy, who was shot on June 2, 1989, was the last to be killed.

Five months later, the wall came down.

How did that happen?

The wall became a symbol of tyranny and dictatorship and came to be associated with the communist government. Second, in the 1980s, the East European countries controlled by the Soviet Union had begun protesting against the restrictions on their lives.

In the late 1980s, the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev stopped the USSR army from interfering in the internal affairs of the East European countries. Hungary then relaxed restrictions on its borders and East Germans began travelling through it to reach West Germany.

In 1989, mass demonstrations against the East German government began. In October, Erich Honecker, the East German leader, resigned. By November, the number of people moving into Hungary via Czechoslovakia became so huge that the East German government began to open points at the border where people could go across.

On November 9, the government announced the opening of the border and Berliners from both sides gathered at the walls. Celebrations broke out in the city and the wall was pulled down. But it took almost another year for the country to be reunited. This happened on October 3, 1990.

Concrete facts

The wall was around 140 km long. The first version was a fence made of barbed wire and wall built of concrete blocks. Between 1975 and 1980, the wall was worked on again and was called the Fourth Generation Wall. It was made of reinforced concrete blocks to prevent escapees from driving their cars through weak spots.

Around 100 metres to the inside of the wall, houses were pulled down and people forced to move away. A fence ran parallel to the wall. The area in between was known as the ‘death strip’ and strewn with sand or gravel, which would show up footprints easily. There was nowhere for people to take cover and it gave the soldiers a clear view of escapees.

The death strip also had around 130 watchtowers, trenches to prevent vehicles from crossing, floodlights, guard dog patrols and machine guns activated by trip wires.

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Printable version | Dec 9, 2019 6:23:15 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/children/two-walls-one-destiny/article29829269.ece

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