• How the Berlin Wall Rose in a Single Night

    From (David P.)@21:1/5 to All on Thu Aug 19 11:30:55 2021
    How the Berlin Wall Rose in a Single Night
    By Helena Merriman, 8/12/21, Wall St. Journal

    When the Berlin Wall came down in Nov 1989, it was one of
    the most thoroughly documented events in history. Each
    anniversary, TV networks replay footage of Germans dancing
    on the wall & hacking into it with hammers.

    Far less revisited is the night when the wall first went
    up—Sunday, Aug. 13, 1961, 60 years ago this week—in one
    of the speediest, most audacious plots a govt has ever
    carried out to constrain its own people. In a few hours
    between midnight & dawn, the initial barbed-wire barrier
    was completed & the border sealed. Within days, it had
    became a concrete-block behemoth.

    For many East Berliners, the previous Saturday evening had
    been the highlight of summer. It was the date of the annual
    children’s fair, & the streets were filled with people
    eating ice cream & watching fireworks. Meanwhile, in the
    People’s Army HQ, the country’s most senior military
    commanders were gorging on a luxurious buffet of sausage,
    veal, smoked salmon & caviar. In front of them were
    envelopes containing secret instructions to be opened at 8 pm.

    Elsewhere in East Berlin, Walter Ulbricht, leader of East
    Germany, was hosting a garden party. It was out of character
    for him—he was a serious, friendless man, terrible at small
    talk—but tonight he’d invited the most senior govt ministers
    to his woodland retreat. There was music & a Soviet comedy
    film played in the background, but it was awkward; almost no
    one knew why they were there. Eventually, Ulbricht directed
    his guests into a room & told them he was about to close the
    border between East & West Berlin.

    For years, Ulbricht had watched as East Germans had packed
    their bags & crossed the border, fed up with poor living
    conditions, censorship & the feared secret police, the
    Stasi. By the summer of 1961, East Germany had lost 3 million
    people, around 1/5 of its population; there were towns without
    a single doctor or teacher. A 900-mile barbed-wire fence ran
    the length of East Germany; the unsealed border between East
    & West Berlin was where people crossed.

    So Ulbricht proposed his plan. His Soviet commissars were
    initially appalled at the potential PR disaster: How could
    Moscow persuade the world of communism’s superiority if East
    Germany had to build a wall to stop people from escaping?
    Instead, their instructions, as recorded in letters held
    in the Russian Central Committee Archives, were surprising:
    If you want East Germans to stay, improve their lives.
    After all, the Soviet Union was beginning to reform, yet
    here was East Germany continuing down a Stalinist path.

    Ulbricht resisted, & East Germany continued to hemorrhage
    its youngest & brightest. Documents in the committee
    archives reveal monthly meetings between the East Germans
    & Soviets to discuss the exodus. Finally, Ulbricht asked
    the Soviet ambassador to pass along a message to Nikita
    Kruschev warning the Soviet leader that “collapse is
    inevitable.” A few weeks later, a message came back for
    Ulbricht: Close the border.

    When Ulbricht finally shared the details of his plan with
    his ministers, if any wanted to stop him, warn friends or
    even escape themselves, it was too late. In a few hours,
    what he code-named “Operation Rose” was about to begin.

    At 1 am, streetlights were switched off. Tens of thousands
    of soldiers moved into position, forming a circle around
    West Berlin. Then the construction began. Ulbricht delegated
    the task to his most trusted units: border police, riot
    police, secret police & 12,000 members of the Betriebskampf-
    gruppen—a militia of specially trained factory workers.

    Ulbricht had designated how many men to have at each
    crossing point & how much ammo each got—enough to scare
    people off but not so much that things would spin out of
    control. Trucks drove toward crossing points, depositing
    soldiers armed with machine guns who crouched on streets.

    Ulbricht knew the operation depended on surprise, and he
    had chosen a Sunday morning in the height of summer when
    many East Berliners were away on holiday.

    A 2nd group of soldiers crept down from the trucks,
    pulling out giant coils of barbed wire. There were 150 tons
    of it, bought secretly over the previous few weeks from
    manufacturers in West Germany & even Britain, stockpiled
    by police units who had no idea what they were keeping it
    for. Next, the soldiers brought out wooden posts & then,
    using steel rods, unfurled the barbed wire, stringing it
    between the posts & sealing the crossing points at the border.

    They began at Potsdamer Platz, the busiest crossing. From
    there, the soldiers moved to other checkpoints, ensuring
    the barbed-wire fence followed the border exactly, not
    edging a millimeter into the West: They didn’t want to
    provoke war. And so the barbed wire cut thru parks,
    playgrounds, cemeteries, squares, not stopping for anything.
    Every inch of the 27-mile internal border had been mapped.

    Meanwhile, at 1:30 am, armed units shut down all public
    transport that led to West Berlin. They split train tracks
    & sealed train stations, under & above ground. It was hard
    work, but the night was quiet. Ulbricht knew the operation
    depended on surprise, & he had chosen a Sunday morning in
    the height of summer when many East Berliners were away on
    holiday. By 6 am soldiers had closed off 193 streets,
    68 crossing points & 12 train stations. Their work was done.

    As the sun rose, the city’s workers were up first. In the
    half-light they could see men in uniforms on the streets
    &, looming behind them, the hulking outline of tanks.
    Then, at the border, they saw the barbed wire.

    Reports on RIAS radio (Radio In the American Sector)
    describe seeing East Berliners wandering along the barbed
    wire, trying to work out what had happened. A logbook kept
    by the East Berlin People’s Police describes how a group of
    men gathered at the barbed wire, shouting at the border
    guards, asking what had happened, getting angrier until
    border guards shot toward them with tear gas.

    Then the vans appeared. Weaving thru the streets, East
    German officials announced over their loudspeakers that
    the border was closed. Panic set in. Parents packed
    suitcases & dragged children to railway stations, hoping
    that trains might still be running to West Berlin. But
    when the trains reached Friedrichstrasse station at the
    border, the passengers heard a new announcement: “Der Zug
    endet hier” (“The train ends here.”) Border guards herded
    everyone off the train & onto the platform, which was now
    heaving with people.

    Among those at the train station was the American
    journalist Robert H. Lochner, director of RIAS radio.
    He had been driving thru East Berlin recording what he
    saw. Now at the train station, he watched as an elderly
    lady walked up to a border guard & asked when the next
    train would go to West Berlin. The border guard laughed.
    "That is all over now," he told her. “You are sitting in
    a mousetrap.”

    Those in East Berlin with phones at home tried calling
    kids or friends in West Berlin, but the phone lines
    between E & W Berlin had been cut. And so, as dusk fell,
    East Berliners were reduced to waving: waving from the
    tops of cars, waving out of apartment windows, white
    handkerchiefs in their hands.

    It wasn’t until almost 3 decades later that the Berlin
    Wall came down. By then it was almost impossible to
    breach, with tripwires all around & every inch patrolled
    by border guards equipped with machine guns & mortars.
    Yet between 1961-1989, over 5,000 people escaped, with
    at least 140 dying in the attempt, including one in a
    homemade hot-air balloon that crashed. East Germans dug
    70 escape tunnels, & 19 of them were used successfully,
    including a “senior citizens” tunnel started in a chicken
    coop by 12 elderly people.

    The fall of the Berlin Wall is often described as the end
    of an era, & in one way it was, but we still live in an
    era of walls. Today, over 70 countries have some kind of
    barrier or fence, & many draw inspiration from the one
    built in Berlin in 1961. The politics behind these walls
    varies, but there is perhaps one thing they all have in
    common: Wherever govts build a wall to stop free movement,
    people will try to get over it, or under it.


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