August 12th, 1961, was a warm summer day in Berlin. Just like today, tourists looked at Brandenburg Gate from all angles. They were interested in this vibrant city, which was about to change substantially.
Munich, August 13th, 2021 (The Berlin Spectator) — The Allies were in town. Officially, Berlin was separated into sectors. The Soviets checked everyone who wanted to enter their part of the city. But hardly anyone, apart from the GDR’s dictator Walter Ulbricht, his future successor Erich Honecker and a few other high-ranking officials, knew what would happen the next day.
Moscow Wanted All of Berlin
East Germany’s border guards were on high alert, but even they did not know why. Early the next morning, West Berlin was closed off. On August 13th, 1961, 60 years ago today, the Iron Curtain literally popped up. It was the implementation of a plan the existence of which Ulbricht had denied shortly before, on June 15th.
Moscow, ruled by dictator Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, wanted all of Berlin for the GDR. But President John Fitzgerald Kennedy made unmistakably clear they would not get West Berlin.
What had been a high fence became the Wall two months later. The GDR’s ‘anti-fascist barrier’ was erected through boroughs, it separated neighborhoods, streets, families, everything. Governing Mayor Willy Brandt felt abandoned and helpless. But when U.S. Vice President Johnson came to visit West Berlin, it was clear the city would be protected. The U.S. Army sent a division.
Escalation at Checkpoints
Shortly after, the situation escalated when the communists denied entry to the head of the U.S. Mission to Berlin. American tanks approached the checkpoints, but stayed on their turf.
The Berlin Wall would soon be so tight that fleeing from the Eastern part became a dangerous challenge. Peter Fechter was the first refugee to be murdered by the GDR’s border guards.
On the eve of the 60th anniversary, Berlin’s Governing Mayor Michael Müller said this was a day of commemoration. The construction of the Berlin Wall had been “an incisive event for our city and our country”. There had been victims at the demarcation line in the heart of Berlin, but also in the surrounding region, as well as at the inner-German and the international borders. Like on every August 13th since 1961, this day was about commemorating the victims, including those who had suffered physical and mental harm during their attempts to flee to freedom.
Dark Chapter in Berlin’s History
The recollection of the events that had taken place 60 years ago made clear what it meant to live in a country without borders. Because of their historical experience, Berliners were sensitive in regard to restrictions of their freedom, Müller stated. The freedom the fall of the Berlin Wall had brought them was a valuable treasure, “Because, in Berlin, we know freedom is not self-evident.”
Ralf Wieland, the President of the Berlin House of Representatives, said what had happened 60 years ago almost sounded like a story from a different world. The construction of the Berlin Wall was one of the darkest chapters in the history of Berlin. With each year the Wall had been standing, the hope for a unified Berlin had faded more. Then, in 1989, the peaceful revolution had led to the fall of the Wall.
Michael Müller and Brandenburg’s First Minister Dietmar Woidke were going to take part in two commemoration events today. One of them will take place in Hohen-Neuendorf (Brandenburg) this afternoon. Both Germany’s President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Michael Müller were scheduled to hold speeches at Berlin’s Chapel of Reconciliation later today as well.
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