Within the Communist nation of East Germany was the isolated Western exclave of West Berlin, the Allied-occupied remnants of the former capital of Nazi Germany. West Berlin was not a part of West Germany — its residents couldn't serve in the West German military or vote in federal elections. But it was still connected to West Germany, and it was a little node of freedom inside the oppressive Eastern Bloc. If you could get to West Berlin, you could get to anywhere in the West. And for a time, many East Germans did exactly that, or died trying.
Until 13 August 1961, when the East German regime put a stop to it by building a Wall of Tyranny separating the two halves of the city. And in doing so, they provided some of the most powerful evidence of the evils of communism, because while most walls are designed to keep people out, this one was designed to keep people in.
Facts about the Wall
- A good third of the "wall" wasn't actually a wall at all, but rather just a barbed wire fence. These sections were mostly found in the rural areas on the city's outskirts. Within Berlin proper, the wall evolved from barbed wire to brickwork to specially designed L-shaped concrete elements. They were designed to be hard to scale, and if you tried to ram it with your car, the L-shape would make it topple forward — on top of your car. And the East Germans were constantly improving the wall, with yet another upgrade in the pipeline when the wall fell.
- The Berlin Wall was actually two walls. The one next to the border (that the Westerners saw and liberally graffitied) was a couple of meters inside the border, so if you were right up against the wall on the West Berlin side, you were technically in East Berlin. There was a second interior wall about 100 meters into East German territory relative to the outer wall. The void between the two walls was referred to as the "Death Strip" — it was empty except for tripwires, it had a raked dirt surface to make footprints easier to spot, and the border guards were instructed to shoot on sight. Escapees who thought they had made it when they crossed the first wall suddenly realized that they had to make it through a football field's length of empty space and then a second wall before they could make it to freedom.
- It's claimed that more than 200 people were killed trying to cross the wall from East to West. A research project in 2005 placed the death toll at 136, including 8 guards killed by escapees and 3 suicides after failed escape attempts, but not including 16 cases of drowning which are definitely connected to escape attempts. The overwhelming majority of the victims were men in their twenties. The most infamous case came early in the wall's existence, in 1962, when Peter Fechter was shot just short of the Western side of the wall and fell back into the "death strip" — the West Germans could see him but could do little to help, and the East Germans just let him bleed to death.
- In spite of all this, the Berlin Wall was actually slightly less deadly than the "inner German border", which separated East Germany from the mainland West Germany and was a big part of the Iron Curtain. That border included not just fences, guards, dogs, and alarms, but also automatic guns and minefields. The Berlin Wall didn't have those because it was in the middle of a major city and within easy viewing of the West, which would make for spectacularly bad publicity if someone died that way — which the East Germans already found out the hard way with Fechter's death.
- The wall's reputation for graffiti arises in part from its position entirely in East German territory — meaning the Western police couldn't do a thing about it. The East Germans tried painting it over but gave up quickly. However, part of the wall's reputation for graffiti comes from the modern-day East Side Gallery, which is one of the few remaining stretches of the wall — except it's part of the original Eastern Wall, and all the paintings there were added after the wall fell.
- West Berliners had limited visiting rights to those living in East Berlin, and of course East Berliners had none. But one exception were pensioners, who were allowed to visit relatives in West Berlin for up to four weeks per year. This was because the wall was intended to prevent the workforce from leaving. It was possible to obtain a special permit to visit West Berlin outside of this, but this was rarely granted.
- Two U-Bahn lines and one S-Bahn line operated by Western transit authoritiesnote ran through East Berlin territory, and they paid East Germany 20 million (Western) Deutschmarks a year for this privilege. Almost all the stations in GDR territory were closed, with the trains not stopping there and their street-level entrances sealed off — but they were dimly lit and clearly patrolled by border guards. This gave them the name "ghost stations". The only exception was the Friedrichstraße station, which served as a border checkpoint and transfer station for West Germans. The "ghost stations" retained their Nazi-era look up until the fall of the wall, including the adverts on the walls. Maintenance on the lines in East German territory was difficult, and if a train broke down, the passengers had to wait for the border police to escort them out.
Famous Wall Locations
- The Brandenburg Gate, where Ronald Reagan made his famous "Tear Down This Wall" speech. It was just within the Eastern side of the wall, and before the wall was built, it was a common (and lightly controlled) crossing point between the East and West. The contradiction of a grand triumphal arch with an impenetrable wall in front of it was one of the symbols of the Cold War.
- Checkpoint Charlie was the only road crossing point for non-Germans, named Charlie because it was the third crossing. It was on the border between the American and Soviet occupation zones, and was the site of a stand-off between those countries' tanks in the early 1960s. Nowadays, the location is commemorated with a big sign, an incredibly tacky museum (that's been there since 1962), and a number of street stalls selling GDR memorabilia, most of which are just reproductions.
- The Glienicke Bridge, where three spy-swaps took place.
- Friedrichstraße station, which as mentioned served as the border crossing point for rail travelers. It was in particular a way to travel between East and West by train, and the station became (and to some extent still is) a veritable maze of corridors as people moved from East to West, or West to East, or even West to West (between the S-Bahn and U-Bahn). Some of those corridors were secret and used by the GDR to smuggle operatives into West Berlin. The Western side had an Intershop, which was an East German duty-free shop which only accepted Western currencies and sold higher-quality goods typical of a duty-free store (e.g. alcohol and tobacco), thus providing revenue to the East Germans from Westerners who weren't even planning to enter East Germanynote . The border crossing became known as the Tränenpalast or "Palace of Tears", as it was where Western visitors would say goodbye to those not permitted to cross.
- Bernauer Straße, a street which was in the West but whose houses were in the East. The GDR solved this problem by literally walling the windows shut. The residents were forced to jump from the upper-storey windows; the first fatality linked to the wall was a woman who jumped to her death on this street, and the years have provided several dramatic images of people jumping from windows into the waiting arms of West Berliners and rescue workers. Today, there's an on-site museum that's much less tacky and much more chilling than the one at Checkpoint Charlie.
Ways People Tried to Illegally Cross the Wall
- Flying over it. One escape involving a hot-air balloon was successful, yet very dangerous. Another attempt featuring a homemade motorized aircraft (using, among other parts, a butchered motorcycle) failed; The Stasi got them first. A third involved three brothers; one had already escaped by swimming across the Inner German Border, the second rappelled across the border with an Improvised Zipline, and they both went back for the third by landing a private plane with fake Soviet markings in a city park in East Berlin and then flying back out (and filming the process — you can see the tape at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum).
- Barrelling through it. One escapee successfully used a train, because the wall was just laid across the pre-existing tracks; after that, the East Germans tore up the tracks.
- Smuggling oneself in someone's trunk, often a diplomat's car. The East Germans were so used to this that they could spot this by measuring the headlight angles of the driver's Trabant, knowing that the weight of a body in the back will compress the springs in the back and raise the front — and thus the headlights.
- Tunneling under it. Often, one could use existing tunnels like the sewer mains or cut-off U-Bahn tunnels. An NBC reporter blundered into one such effort — the network paid for the construction, in exchange for an exclusive on it (and yes, the attempt was successful).
- Drive straight through the checkpoint. Audacious, to be sure, but it had worked before. A West Berliner studying in East Berlin smuggled his East Berliner girlfriend to the West by putting her in the trunk and driving straight through a checkpoint — he got an absurdly low sports car that fit under the barrier, and the border guards were so stunned that they didn't fire a shot. The East Germans fixed this with a metal beam, only for the next group to try this to modify their car to easily become an Instant Convertible. The East Germans solved that by building zig-zagging roads through the checkpoints.
- Hide behind explosives. A group of East Berliners did this once at Checkpoint Charlie, hiding in a flatbed truck piled high with propane canisters (they were empty, but the guards didn't know that), banking on the guards being too scared of an explosion in a populated urban area to shoot the truck.
- Get a job as a border guard and then desert. It was as simple as running up to the barbed wire barrier and jumping over it. If you were in a "ghost station", you could also try to hitch a ride on one of the trains.
- Get the West Germans to help you. West Germany actively encouraged escape attempts, as their constitution said that as far as they were concerned, there was only one Germany, so East Germans automatically had West German citizenship. The GDR was constantly short on foreign currency, and the Bonn government was known to offer to pay the East Germans to get troublesome dissidents off their hands — this made the GDR 3.5 billion (Western) Deutschmarks. Some West Germans (a few of them actual police officers) even provided covering fire for escapees.note
The Fall of the Wall
The Berlin Wall was finally brought down on 9 November 1989, when Günter Schabowski, an East German minister announcing new regulations regarding exit visas for East Germans that were to take effect the following day, got confused and said they were effective immediately. Thousands of people turned up at the border crossings and overwhelmed the guards — who, unwilling to use lethal force on so many unarmed demonstrators, let them through. The Westerners on the other end decided to throw a big party, where they knocked down the wall with sledgehammers, drank lots of beer, and even loved them some David Hasselhoff.
Bits of the wall ended up all over the world, including at Ronald Reagan's Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, Gerald Ford's Presidential Library (we're asking the same question) in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the gardens of UN Headquarters in New York City, the Newseum in Washington, D.C., next to the Baker Institute at Rice University, and in Seoul, the capital of another country divided in two by a "wall" of sorts, even to this day. There is also a bit of wall in Schengen, Luxembourg, where the treaty establishing open border in most of Europe was signed. And there are still little bits of it in Berlin, most famously the East Side Gallery, as well as a few panels in the Potsdamer Platz.
But the wall hasn't collapsed entirely — ever since, Germany has dealt with what it calls die Mauer im Kopf, or "the Wall in people's heads". The disparity in attitudes, living conditions, and politics between East and West could not be papered over by the fall of the wall, and many people in East Germany, not too happy with how the West had been treating them, wandered into the arms of the extremist Left Party (the direct descendant of the Socialist Unity Party that ruled East Germany) and the right-wing extremist Alternativ für Deutschland party. But this only seems to affect people who remember the wall. People born after about 1985, who are too young to remember the wall (i.e. most German Tropers), tend to regard all of this as a non-issue, and see the main cultural divide in Germany as between North and South rather than East and West. The wall only stood for twenty-eight years, and more time than that has elapsed since the fall.
And the wall itself might not exist, the physical divisions it caused still do, especially the wider Inner German Border. Although much of the transit system has been reconnected, there are still some obvious "holes" in the network (which the German Unification Transport Projects only partially addressed). The building style is totally different between East and West. The local wildlife still follows the pattern of the border even when no physical trace of it is left. And you can you can still see the impact of the wall from space. Bottom line, for as lucky as we were that the wall didn't make it to three decades of existence, the damage it did is proof enough of the harm caused by heavily militarized borders.
The Wall in fiction:
- In Cyborg 009, a young truck driver and his girlfriend tried to go through the Berlin Wall and run away to West Germany. They were discovered, and the guards shot at them: the truck blew up, the girl died and the badly-injured man was taken away by a group of Mad Scientists who rebuild the driver — Albert Heinrich — as Cyborg 004.
- An episode of Lupin III: Part II involved a hang glider escape over the Wall.
- Aquarion Evol features a massive wall named after it which separates the male and female sides of Neo DEAVA Academy.
- In the opening credits of the Patlabor TV series, we see military Labors (mechas) with Bundeswehr insignia standing guard at the Berlin Wall.
- Spider-Man versus Wolverine
- Mortadelo y Filemón managed to cross it twice in In Germany (from East to West because they stink so much the guards can't stand them, and from West to East by going really fast on a car), which Ibáñez wrote for the comic's German fans.
- Albert Uderzo has stated that Asterix and the Great Divide was a social commentary on divisions caused by the Berlin Wall.
- The amount of angst/romance/family fanfics about the Berlin Wall between Germany and Prussia in the Hetalia: Axis Powers fandom is unsurprising. Most of the fan-stories involving the pairing have at least some portion of it, or a reference to, the Berlin Wall.
- This is based on the popular fanon assumption that Prussia becomes East Germany after World War II... which later became Ascended Fanon through Word of Himaruya. He stated that Prussia was smaller than Germany to from malnutrition to represent the economic differences between the West and East, also said that Prussia was "stuck doing menial jobs under Russia's thumb after World War II, and made allusions to the Östalgie — represented by Russia inviting himself to Prussia's place when he's in Östalgie-ful moods.
- Briefly visited in Chapter 3 of The Conversion Bureau: Cold War, where an American patrol squad in West Germany gets ambushed by PER terrorists.
- In Make a Wish, Harry visits the Berlin Wall's museum and finds out there is a magical section - turns out several Russian wizards put wards on the Wall. When a couple of German Aurors following Harry (who they think is a super-powerful wizard called Mr Black) enter the museum later, the museum guide slightly misleads them over the conversation she had with "Mr Black", and they find a picture with a man that has a strangely blurred face - which leads them to think "Mr Black" may have been there, destroying the Wall along the East Germans.
- Bornholmer Strasse is the Based on a True Story account of the East German border guard who opened the Wall up on the night of November 9, 1989.
- Good Bye, Lenin!: The protagonist's mom was a fervently patriotic East German, who fell in a coma after her son was taken away by the East German police in a protest rally. By the time she wakes up, the Wall has already been torn down and East Germany is no more. What's more is that the doctors say that a shock will kill her so her son goes to great lengths to hide the fact.
- James Bond
- In Casino Royale (1967), it's secretly a spy training facility that looks like a set from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, run by a Baroness type and an excitable dwarf who runs on batteries. It's that kind of movie.
- It appears in Octopussy. They filmed it on location too, albeit with West Berlin passing as East Berlin. They had to remove graffiti from the wall to create the illusion that they were on the other side.
- Funeral in Berlin involved the titular faked funeral as a ruse to smuggle defecting Soviet intelligence Colonel Stok across the Wall for MI 5. The German gangster and escape maestro Kreutzmann even has a lookalike East German pensioner killed and organizes a fake "relative" in the West to claim the body. Long story short, it was all a Soviet ploy to expose Kreutzmann, and when the coffin is opened in the West, it's him in it - dead - instead of the Colonel.
- Hedwig and the Angry Inch
- Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire
- "Der Tunnel", about the NBC-supported tunnel escape.
- In the 1982 film The Soldier, some renegade KGB agents set up a nuclear weapon in the Saudi oil fields, which would contaminate them and render the oil useless, and will detonate the bomb unless Israel removes its settlements from the west bank. The US is going to have to force the Israelis. The title character, an American agent, decides to Take a Third Option. His team captures a US missile silo in Smith Center, Kansas, and obtains independent launch capability. He and a female Israeli agent then break into East Berlin by launching a car over the wall, confronting the rogue KGB agents and informing them that if their nuke in Saudi Arabia is detonated, his team in Smith Center will nuke Moscow.
- In Spy Game, Brad Pitt's character Bishop is trying to run an agent from East Berlin to West Berlin. He is told at the last moment to dump the agent just before reaching Checkpoint Charlie. Turns out the whole operation was simply an attempt to get a Soviet mole to reveal herself, and the poor agent that Bishop just dumped to his death was simply bait.
- In The Debt, Israeli operatives try to smuggle a Nazi war criminal from East Berlin to West Berlin via an S-Bahn 'ghost station' (Wollankstraße, which in reality was in use, elevated and accessible only from West Berlin). The guy wakes up too early and the guards are alerted.
- The Lives of Others
- The Disney film Night Crossing is a fictionalized version of the hot air balloon escape.
- Its fall is one of the events the titular character in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery watches on tape to drive home just how much he missed in the thirty years he was kept cyogenically frozen, along with the Apollo Program and Liberace turning out to be gay.
- The Wall plays a major role in Bridge of Spies, which is about the arrangement of the first prisoner exchange between West and East during the Cold War. The day of the Wall's first construction is depicted (ahistorically shown as being masonry from the start) and an American student is taken prisoner by the East Germans after foolishly trying to rescue his girlfriend. Later the American protagonist makes several crossings of the Wall to negotiate with Soviets and East Germans in East Berlin, and witnesses two people being shot by border guards while trying to cross illegally. The film ends with the actual exchange at the Glienicke Bridge.
- The otherwise forgettable 1968 comedy The Wicked Dreams of Paula Schultz features a unique method of defection, with the title character, an East German Olympian, pole-vaulting over the Berlin Wall (the existence of the death strip is ignored). In the process, she loses her clothes on the Wall's barbed wire. Yes, it's that kind of movie.
- The 1985 spy film Gotcha where college student played by Anthony Edwards gets seduced by a mysterious East European woman (Linda Fiorentino) into traveling to East Berlin. His attempt to get back into West Berlin - going through a humiliating body search at Checkpoint Charlie - is one of the funnier moments in the movie:
Jonathan: Am I in West Berlin now?
American military guard: You sure are.
Jonathan (turns towards East Berlin and gives it the finger): FUCK... YOU!!! (smiles at the guard) Good night. (storms off angry)
American guard: Man, I've been wanting to do that for the last six months.
- The wall is seen several times in Atomic Blonde, then footage of its demolition is featured after Lorraine leaves the city.
- The Bernard Samson Series.
- The Spy Who Came In from the Cold
- The East German writer Christa Wolf wrote a novel Der geteilte Himmel ("Divided Sky"), about two lovers who have differing political views; the man moves to the West just before the wall is built.
- The MacGyver (1985) episode "Deathlock" features Mac trying to sneak out of East Berlin (in a coffin) via what looks like it's meant to be the Glienicke bridge. He ends up turning said coffin into a speedboat as the East Germans demonstrate that the Border Troops clearly attended the Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy. As a side note, much of the sequence is actually Stock Footage from Funeral in Berlin, mentioned above.
- A History Channel special once covered the history of the wall and some of the more impressive escape attempts. Among them was a guy who took advantage of the laws in the GDR to drive an armored vehicle (military vehicles were given right of way on all East German streets) to drive up to the border. Rather than risk the guards at the gates he rammed the wall counting on the vehicles massive weight to make it through.
- Two more cases involved people going WAY over the wall. One family built a homemade hot air balloon and tried to float over the wall, they made it on their second attempt. Another one involved two brothers flying a ultralight airplane over the border at night and flying out with their third brother; in order to avoid getting shot he painted very prominent red stars on the planes wings counting on the guards confusion to avoid death.
- Kind of a meta example, but in The West Wing episode "The Shadow of Two Gunmen" you can see portions of the Wall in the shots of Rosslyn where the President was shot. This is because the scene was actually filmed outside a museum in LA, where the pieces of the wall were being displayed.
- The Wall is mentioned in the 7th season, just before Bartlet is about to walk his daughter Ellie down the aisle: he relates a moving story about when he went on a Congressional delegation to East Germany, bringing his family along. As they were about to pass through Checkpoint Charlie, Ellie (who was 4 or 5 at the time) ran out into the middle of No Mans Land. Watch it here.
- The fall of the Berlin Wall is one of the historical events shown in the opening credits of As Time Goes By.
- A few pieces of it turned up in an episode of Pawn Stars, only for Rick to point out that since the wall was so long, only the parts with well known artwork are actually worth anything.
- The Kraft Suspense Theatre episode "The Easter Breach" is about a young couple attempting to reunite when an escape attempt leaves them trapped on opposite sides of the wall.
- The Same Sky features several trips through Checkpoint Charlie, including one unlucky guy ending up undergoing a cavity search.
- The German TV series Tannbach - Schicksal eines Dorfes (literally Tannbach - A Village's Fate, but released online in Britain under the English title Lines of Separation) is a historical drama telling the story of a fictionalised version of the village of Mödlareuth, a village on the border between the regions of Bavaria and Thuringia, which was consequently divided by the inner German border and was nicknamed "little Berlin".
- A picture of the Berlin Wall can be seen on the back cover of George Harrison's Wonderwall Music.
- Several song examples:
- "Drowning in Berlin" by The Mobiles
- The album Stationary Traveller by Camel
- "Bells of Berlin" by Lone Star (the 1970s UK band of that name)
- "Berlin" by Marillion
- "Holidays in the Sun" from Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols by the Sex Pistols
- "Checkpoint Charlie" by Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul
- "Over de muur" by Klein Orkest
- "Raw Deal" and "Dissident Aggressor" by Judas Priest
- "Die Mauer" by Ebba Grön
- "Berlin" by Fischer-Z
- "City Of Night (Berlin)" by Peter Schilling
- David Bowie's ""Heroes"" is meant to be about two lovers at the Wall.
- "Subterraneans" from Low is intended as a depiction of life on the eastern side of the Wall. It's a quiet, disturbing piece of music with Word Salad Lyrics.
- It should be noted that both of these were recorded at the Hansa-by-the-Wall studio, which was (as its name implies) right next to the Wall in West Berlin. "'Heroes'" specifically is directed at Bowie's producer Tony Visconti, who was meeting his mistress after getting off work. The Scare Quotes in the title are intended to be an ironic comment on the whole situation.
- "Hundred" by The Fray references "what once was the wall separating east and west // Now, they meet amidst the broad daylight"
- "Right Here, Right Now" by Jesus Jones was inspired by the massive wave of change in the late 80's / early 90's, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, and includes scenes of the Wall falling in their music video.
- "Oliver's Army" by Elvis Costello
- Running Wild's "Evilution" references the Berlin Wall:
Cries - for one lost nationReaching out against the wall
- Al Stewart's song "Nostradamus" includes the line "A great wall that divides a city at this time is cast aside". It was of course recorded long before this actually happened... spooky?
- Famously, in 1989 Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters announced that he would never again perform the band's famous Rock Opera The Wall until the Berlin Wall was torn down. Four months later, the wall fell. In 1990, Waters assembled an all-star line-up, including Cyndi Lauper, Sinéad O'Connor and Van Morrison and performed The Wall on the site of the Wall, between Potsdamer Platz and the Brandenburg Gate.
- Dancing in Berlin by Berlin:
East, such a mysteryWest, open historyYou, just a moment flashing by
- Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy responds to a comment that the border between genius and madness is very thin by glibly claiming that so is the Berlin Wall. Ford Prefect instantly corrects his grammar to "was", which is even more Hilarious in Hindsight.
- The Collector's Edition of World in Conflict came with a piece of the Wall and a certificate to prove its authenticity.
- And the Soviets' initial offensive at the start of the Alternate History begins when they tear down the wall. With explosives. So their tanks can roll through...
- The Red Alert 3: Paradox Game Mod has the Berlin Wall as part of its 1969 Cold War era world. The irony? The Allies build it, not the Soviets.
- In Wargame: European Escalation the very first Mission for the 'Brother vs. Brother' campaign has you fighting Border Troops who crossed into West Germany. It isn´t exactly the Berlin Wall, but it is a part of the Inner German Border, complete with death strip and guard Towers, and as a bonus target you can even roll over there with your tanks and destroy an outpost.
- Shows up as a multiplayer map in Call of Duty: Black Ops. Linger too long in no-mans-land, and automated gun turrets will shoot you down, no matter who's team you're on.
- Alvin and the Chipmunks featured an episode about the Wall, with Alvin dreaming about a Chipmunks concert shaking the Wall to its foundation.
- Ironically this came out about a year before the real Wall came down.
- Played for Laughs in The Simpsons: when the Soviet Union announces its intent to re-emerge, the turf in the centre of Berlin rolls away and the Wall pops back up, unscathed. Complete with guards and dogs.
- In Animaniacs, one chapter is about the three Warners' exploits throughout the 20th century. That includes smashing the Wall with a Hyperspace Mallet.
- Histeria!, in an episode about the Rise and Fall of Russian Communism, depicted the fall of the Berlin Wall by having Loud Kiddington standing next to the Wall and shouting "BOOM!"