After the establishment of the GDR (German Democratic Republic) and the FRG (Federal Republic of Germany) in 1949 at the dawn of the Cold War, a prolonged tension between East Germany and West Germany took place. Distracted by their intentions to push the Allies out of West Berlin, the GDR was initially unaware that the citizens of the East were beginning to travel towards checkpoints to leave East Germany.1 The eventual influx of East German citizens funneling into West Berlin through various forms would eventually be recognized as a dangerous factor that threatened the existence of the GDR, leading them to make breakneck decisions.
By the 1950s, the post-war East German economy was still left broken following the war. Although this itself was a large problem, there had been an unforeseen factor. Although the East German state was attempting to socialize their economy with centralized production and distribution of capital goods, its citizens were still suffering from a lack of basic consumer goods. This factor of a broken economy motivated citizens to begin travelling from East Germany to West Germany via the checkpoints in East Berlin. The departure of these citizens developed into what would be considered a large-scale brain drain of the Eastern state. Many of the citizens that had been moving to West Germany through Berlin were citizens around the age of twenty-five. These young people were the primary workers of the East German economy, and they were leaving for the West, seeing their future as best served in West Germany. The West German economy in the 1950s became known as “The Economic Miracle,” as a phoenix rising from the ashes of World War II. The workers draining from East Germany to the West contributed to the declining economic condition of the GDR, and a continued drain threatened the existence of the Eastern state as a whole. Because of the slow trickle of citizens draining from the East in the early to mid 1950s, Stalin–who at the time was much more concerned with pushing the Americans out of West Berlin–was not aware of this loss of citizens. But this leak eventually turn into about 3.5 million East Germans defecting from the GDR by the late 50s and early 1960. By 1961, the leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, recognized that something had to be done to address this problem.2
The night of the formation of the Wall was August 12th, 1961. Diplomats from the West at the time were hearing rumors that the East was going to take some kind of action to increase the difficulty of crossing between East and West Berlin. It was around midnight that the East German troops and workers began to create a barrier and close off the border. The barrier was especially shocking as it was put up with such speed, being erected by the morning after it had begun. Additionally, the barrier was put up with no actual disruption of the agreement between them and the Allies, so legally, the barrier was allowed. This made many citizens outraged as it left some East Berliners on the West side and others on the East.
The fence and small walls would eventually be replaced with a ten-to-thirteen-foot-high cement barrier and encircle West Berlin in its entirety.3 But despite the barrier, many East German citizens would try to escape with the majority ending up dead and the rest being capture and jailed. To the satisfaction of East Germany, they successfully cut off the draining of their citizens to that of a mere trickle and secured the existence of the “people’s republic.”4 The Berlin Wall forever after became the most prominent symbol of the Cold War. It was before this Wall and because of this Wall that two American presidents famously claimed the superiority of American values over that of “communism.” With Kennedy, we all became Berliners, and with Reagan, we applauded when Berliners began to “tear down this wall.”
- Norman Gelb, The Berlin Wall: Kennedy, Khrushchev and a Showdown in the Heart of Europe (Simon & Schuster, 1988), 34-35. ↵
- Frederick Taylor, The Berlin Wall: A World Divided (HarperCollins, May 2007), 17-20. ↵
- Salem Press Encyclopedia, January 2016, s.v. “Berlin Wall,” by Herbert Luft. ↵
- Wole Soyinka, “Beyond the Berlin Wall,” Transition, no. 51 (1991). 1-2. ↵