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News and views from the German-language region of Europe

August 13, 2011

The "wall of shame"

Filed under Life in Europe

50 years ago today the German Democratic Republic ("East Germany") began construction of the Berlin Wall.

On June 15, 1961, the leader of the "Socialist Unity Party" (SED) Walter Ulbricht stated in an international press conference, "Niemand hat die Absicht, eine Mauer zu errichten!" ("No one has the intention of erecting a wall!"). It was the first time the term "Mauer" (wall) was used in this context. Berlin wall Less than two months later, it appeared that Ulbricht and his colleagues had changed their mind when construction of the Berlin Wall began on August 13, 1961. East German troops and workers began to tear up streets running alongside the border to make them impassable to most vehicles. They then installed barbed wire entanglements and fences along the 97 miles of city border around the three western sectors and the 27 miles that divided West and East Berlin. The barbed wire was later replaced by large concrete blocks. The wall was built slightly inside East Berlin or East German territory so it did not encroach on West Berlin territory at any point. In June 1962, a second parallel fence some 100 meters farther into East German territory was built. The houses between the two fences were destroyed and their inhabitants relocated, thus creating what later became known as the "Death Strip." The wall closed a loophole in East Germany’s border with the West. Until August 13, 1961, an East German citizen could visit East Berlin, get on a subway line that ran between the two Berlins and get out at a West Berlin subway station. Prior to the construction of the Berlin wall, some 3.5 million East Germans had defected to the West by 1961 – approximately 20% of the entire post-war East German population. During the wall years, around 5,000 people successfully defected to West Berlin and 136 people died attempting to flee to West Berlin. "Time" magazine called it the "wall of shame." I visited East Berlin in 1971, the first of some 150 trips through the "Iron Curtain". Germans often asked me, "Can you imagine a wall being built across the Mississippi River and your movement restricted?" No, I could not.

Paul Kieffer's blog with personal insights and news from the German-language region in Europe.


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