Berlin remembers its wall of history

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Fifty years after construction began on the barrier that defined the Cold War, Germans are looking back with mixed feelings on the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall. Tony Paterson reports

Fifty years ago this morning, Berliners awoke to the sound of pneumatic drills digging up the road in front of the city's famous Brandenburg Gate.

They watched incredulously as squads of labourers, guarded by armed Communist militiamen, unrolled huge reels of barbed wire and pinned them to the tarmac with giant staple guns.

The barrier erected on 13 August 1961 was the beginning of that infamous structure which even today – nearly 22 years after its fall – remains one of the Cold War's most potent symbols: the Berlin Wall. At noon today, Berlin will come to a standstill. Chancellor Angela Merkel and German President Christian Wulff will be among 100 dignitaries who will attend a memorial ceremony close to the site of the former Wall to remember the fateful day of its building half a century ago.

Buses and tubes will stop running and many Berliners, especially the thousands whose lives were forever changed by the Wall, will stand in silence for a minute. The ceremony will end with the reading out of the names of all the 136 East Germans who were shot dead by border guards or otherwise perished at the Wall while trying to escape the tyranny of Communist rule. Many more died while trying to escape over the heavily mined and fenced border between the two Germanys.

The Berlin Wall was a desperate measure taken by the rulers of "the first workers' and peasant state on German soil" to stem the human haemorrhage it was suffering in the months leading up to 13 August 1961. Until then, tens of thousand of East Germans were voting against the system with their feet and staging a mass exodus to the West.

By the summer of 1961, the communist leadership was panic-stricken: not only had vast numbers of doctors, teachers and engineers left the country. Factories were losing staff and there were fears that there would not be enough farm workers to bring in the harvest.

The Wall was the leadership's answer to the problem. But barriers and barbed wire were not enough. The so-called "anti-fascist protection barrier" had to be "defended" by Kalashnikov-toting border guards to render it effective. The death toll began nine days later when Ida Siekmann, a 59-year-old East Berliner, died from the injuries sustained after she tried to escape to West Berlin by jumping out of the window of her apartment, which stood directly on the border.

The first person to be shot dead, two days later, was Günter Litfin, a young Berliner who had been visiting his mother in the east before the Wall suddenly went up. He couldn't believe that he could never return to the flat he had just rented in the West. He was shot in the back of the head by border guards while trying to escape across the Spree River that flows through the city centre. Hundreds of stunned West Berliners lined the river bank to watch firemen retrieve his dead body.

The Wall claimed what was to be almost its last victim in February 1989, just eight months before it fell. 21-year-old Chris Gueffroy was shot in the heart by an East German border guard as he tried to escape across the Wall next to two allotment gardens called "Harmony" and "Carefree". He had mistakenly assumed that the regime had suspended its order to shoot escapers. A month later the East Berliner Winfried Freudenberg plunged to his death in West Berlin from the home-made hot air balloon he had built to escape in.

For thousands of Berliners, the Wall is still something they would rather forget. The remaining traces of it have all but disappeared from the reunited capital. Its politicians have yet to decide how best to keep its memory alive for posterity.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Analyst - 12 Month FTC - Entry Level

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Analyst is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Chefs - All Levels

£16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To succeed, you will need to ha...

Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Engineer

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an award winni...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive & Customer Service - Call Centre Jobs!

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Day In a Page

Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

Tribal gathering

Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

Power of the geek Gods

Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

Perfect match

What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
10 best trays

Get carried away with 10 best trays

Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high