Sixty years ago, on August 13, 1961, the German Democratic Republic started to build a wall across Berlin. Today, in the age of social media, it’s even harder to believe that the leaders of eastern Germany were able to secretly plan and organise the construction of this monstrous and inhumane structure, and that this secrecy would not be compromised.
The Berlin Wall lasted 28 years. It separated the eastern and western part of the city and the people who lived there. As a result of the Peaceful Revolution in the GDR, this division came to an end when the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989. The most notorious symbol of the Cold War, built to isolate the city’s western half, came down thanks to the East Germans’ courage. Today, few remainders of the Berlin Wall can be found. Very often visitors to Berlin, or younger people who never experienced the Wall, wonder: Where was it exactly? What did the city look like at that time? What was life like on either side of the Wall? Still, three decades after the Wall fell, many people in this reunited city and country still speak of a “wall in the mind” that continues to divide east Germans and west Germans. Some even argue that the division is more profound today than it was during the time of the Wall. But what if, all of a sudden, the Wall were re-constructed? What if Berlin were separated again?
To evoke the inhumane character of the Berlin Wall 60 years after its construction, Berlin-based photographer and designer Alexander Kupsch has visually reconstructed the Wall. Using 40 photomontages, he shows what it would look like if, besides the mental wall, the actual wall was back again.
The photomontages combine historical images of the Berlin Wall from police archives and contemporary pictures of the same sites. To achieve this comparison, Kupsch searched for traces of the wall along Berlin’s internal border. He sought to identify the places in the historical images so that he could take new pictures from the same perspective.
Sixteen montages were created from pictures taken by the GDR border patrol in the 1980s and contemporary drone images. The GDR pictures were made from 7 to 10 meters above the so-called death strip. Cameras had been installed on the platforms of vehicles that would normally be used to clean the lighting system of the border installations. By superimposing images from different eras, Kupsch transmits a view from the past into the present; he thereby disrupts the modern backdrop of permanent traffic, new buildings and passers-by moving effortlessly from east to west and from west to east. Suddenly, they are met with concrete, barbed wire, and anti-tank obstacles
The photomontages show how the construction of the Wall changed Berlin after 1961. Citizens could only watch helplessly as the Wall was erected under the strict watch of armed GDR personnel. Imagine the Berlin Wall being built again: What influence would it have on your life? Kupsch has asked himself this very question. In disrupting everyday life in contemporary Berlin, he confronts bystanders with the illusion of a re-erected Berlin Wall.
This exhibition was created by Deutschland Archiv, a department of the Federal Agency for Civic Education. It aims to inspire viewers to reflect on history, as walls and high fences continue to secure borders in other regions of the world. It also reminds us that many people in Germany still recognize the “mental wall” that separates its citizens.
A VR-Animation about: The Berlin Wall - Heidelberger Strasse/corner of Elsenstrasse - An intersection that tells history
The Berlin Wall - Heidelberger Strasse/corner of Elsenstrasse
Today, the Berlin districts of Treptow-Köpenick and Neukölln border each other at the intersection of Heidelberger Strasse and Elsenstrasse. The Berlin Wall used to run through here. Using virtual reality, this animated film retraces the story of a divided city through the eyes of a Berlin street intersection.
The end of the Second World War and the occupation
At least 55 million people, including 25 million civilians, lost their lives due to the war and the crimes of the Nazi dictatorship. That’s why the unconditional surrender of the German Wehrmacht in May 1945 was also a liberation. In 1945, Germany was occupied by the victors of the Second World War. The Allies divided the country into a Soviet, American, British, and French zone. Berlin, the former German capital, was also partitioned into four sectors. In each of these sectors, one of the Allies took control and defined the new political, economic, and social order. Their most important goals were demilitarization and democratization, along with ridding the country of Nazism. As soon as the war was over, however, the anti-Hitler coalition fell apart. Post-war Germany and a divided Berlin were destined to become the Cold War’s main stage.
1949: Two German states are born
In the three western zones and the western sectors of Berlin, military governments controlled by the US, Britain and France forced West Germans and West Berliners to adopt a Western-style democracy. In 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany was born: It was based on a capitalist economy, a democratic and constitutional state with a multiparty system, separation of powers, pluralistic institutions, and free elections.
In the Soviet zone and the Soviet sector of Berlin, a communist system was established that was based on a nationalized economy The Socialist Unity Party of Germany (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands/SED) compelled the traditional democratic parties to form a bloc. Any opposition was quashed and there were no free elections. On October 7, 1949, the German Democratic Republic was proclaimed in the territory of the Soviet zone. Many inhabitants of the GDR would later flee for economic, political, and familial reasons. From 1945 to 1961, three and a half million people escaped from the Soviet zone and the GDR to the Federal Republic. By the spring of 1961, the economic situation in the GDR had deteriorated rapidly. Basic supplies were increasingly scarce and the number of people taking refuge in the West exploded. The GDR’s economic and political collapse seemed inevitable when Walter Ulbricht, president of the GDR state council (Staatsrat), called for radical action. In the summer of 1969, against the backdrop of intensified conflict between the Soviet Union and the Western allies, the president of the Soviet communist party and government, Nikita Khrushchev, agreed to shut down Berlin’s East-West border.
Construction of the Wall in 1961
“Nobody intends to build a wall,” Ulbricht said on June 15, 1961 at an international press conference in East Berlin. Nevertheless, he gave the order to lock down the border on Sunday, August 13, 1961. Politburo member Erich Honecker supervised the operation, hoping that East Berliners would be distracted by the weekend. In the early morning hours, over 10,000 police and border patrol officers, supported by several thousand members of Kampfgruppen (paramilitary units formed by workers of larger companies), tore into the pavement in the middle of Berlin. They ripped out asphalt and cobblestones and used these materials to build barricades; they rammed concrete piles into the ground and started closing the border with barbed wire; they locked down all crossing points except for 13 checkpoints; underground and suburban railway connections between East and West Berlin were permanently cut; and all rail traffic between sectors was reduced to no more than two platforms at Friedrichstrasse station. In the background, the Nationale Volksarmee (GDR armed forces) had deployed more than 7,000 troops and several hundred tanks to prevent any attempts to penetrate the border. Additional security was provided around Berlin by Soviet troops. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of East and West Berlin looked at each other through the barbed wire with puzzled expressions. On the east side, Kampfgruppen and police units equipped with machine guns held bystanders at bay. Protesters were detained. On the west side, police kept citizens from approaching the border installations.
The Berlin Wall
The total length of the Berlin Wall was 156.4 km. The shorter part – 43.7 km – ran directly through the city, while the longer part – 112.7 km – separated West Berlin from its rural surroundings, which now belong to the state of Brandenburg. A total of 63.8 km ran through urban areas, 32 km across forests, 22.7 km through open landscape, and 38 km along waterlines (lakes and rivers).
Over the years, the Berlin Wall was reinforced several times. In its first and second generation, it was made of hollow blocks, concrete slabs, and barbed wire. In the second half of the 1960s, the wall was rebuilt out with prefabricated, fortified concrete. From the mid-1970s on, the fourth-generation Wall was built with concrete slabs used in agriculture for silos and manure tanks. These slabs were 3.60 m high and weighed 2.75 tons each. Yet another incarnation of the Wall was supposed to be equipped with modern electronic technology, but was never realized. Up until 1970, roughly 100 million GDR marks were spent on barrier installations alone in Berlin. Additional funds were needed for border patrols and the demolition of houses that stood on the border. The total cost of the wall before it fell in 1989 is still unknown. The GDR government reported an annual border-patrol budget of 600 million DDR marks in 1970. By 1983, the amount had risen to almost 1 billion GDR marks.
On December 17, 1963, an agreement was signed that permitted inhabitants of West Berlin to visit relatives in East Berlin during the Christmas season. Through 1966, another four agreements regarding border crossings would follow, but there was no way for West Berliners to enter East Berlin on a regular basis before the Four Power Agreement on Berlin was signed in 1971. Starting in 1964, retired East Berliners were also allowed to travel to the western part of the city. Younger citizens had to wait until 1972 in order to visit the western part for “family emergencies.” First, they needed to obtain a permission at their place of work, which was granted rather arbitrarily.
Escape, injury, and death
To make the border impenetrable, the GDR regime combined a variety of methods. Besides massive barriers, frequent patrols, and regular and secret police monitoring the surroundings, a decisive element of GDR border control was that guards would shoot to kill. The threat of immediate death was the only way for the SED regime to completely prevent citizens from escaping. Recent research shows that at least 140 people died along the wall. Of these, 101 sought to escape by crossing border installations; others either died by accident or took their own lives. Thirty people, from east and west, along with a Soviet soldier, were shot dead without even showing any intention to escape. Eight patrol border officers were also killed on while on duty. In addition, West Berlin police recorded the following events between 1961 and 1989:
At least 5,075 successful escapes across the wall and the death strip, 574 of which were desertions
1,709 shots fired by border patrol officers, injuring at least 119 people while trying to escape
456 bullet impacts in West Berlin; the police there returned fire 14 times
37 bomb attacks against the Wall
While top SED officials justified the killings, they knew that the gunfire and deaths along the border in Berlin would not improve their international standing. Consequently, working with border patrol troops and the Stasi (secret police), they obscured border deaths whenever possible. The Stasi even stopped keeping records. Often, victims’ relatives only learned about the circumstances of their family members’ deaths in the 1990s, after the GDR archives were opened, and during criminal investigations into the violence committed on the border.
“The Wall will be standing in 50 and even in 100 years, if the reasons for it are not removed,” Erich Honecker said as late as January 1989. Nevertheless, the secretary general of the Soviet communist party, Mikhail Gorbachev, was rallying for glasnost and perestroika (transparency and reforms), which upped the pressure for change in the GDR. More than 100,000 people had been waiting for permission to leave the country.
More and more citizens were now openly demanding their right to move freely, most famously perhaps during spontaneous demonstrations in Leipzig. On May 2, 1989, Hungarian border patrol officers began to dismantle the “Iron Curtain” that separated the country from Austria. At the start of the summer holiday season, East Germans who were eager to leave sought refuge in the Permanent Representative of the Federal Republic in East Berlin, as well as in the West German embassies in Warsaw, Prague, and Budapest. Thousands of mostly young people took vacations in Hungary with the intention of never returning to the GDR. Instead, they planned to continue on to the Federal Republic via Austria. This mass exodus was followed by mass protest: On September 18, thousands of protesters took to the streets of Leipzig after a peace prayer at St. Nicholas Church (Nikolaikirche). Leipzig was not the only place with stirrings of unrest. Everywhere, members of the opposition who had only dared to meet in protected spaces decided the time had come to openly organize.
By the end of September, several thousand East-German citizens had invaded the Federal Embassy in Prague. They hoped to force their way into the Federal Republic. Erich Honecker eventually gave in: On September 13 and October 4/5, 1989, the refugees were allowed to leave the embassy and travel to West Germany in special trains. On October 6, the 40th anniversary of the GDR was celebrated, with party leaders of the Eastern bloc attending as guests of honor. During the official celebration, demonstrators were subject to police violence. On October 9, some 70,000 people demonstrated peacefully in the streets of Leipzig to demand reforms. State security was so overwhelmed by the unexpected number of protesters that it refrained from intervening.
On October 17, Erich Honecker was removed from power in the Politburo. His successor, Egon Krenz, announced a “Wende” (turning point). At the time, the GDR was deeply in debt with its Western creditors, almost bankrupt. On November 4, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in East Berlin called for democracy, reforms, the abolition of the secret police Stasi, and a general right to travel. On November 6, a draft bill to liberalize travel was presented, which came short of the citizens’ expectations. Even more intense protests followed.
The Politburo asked the Council of Ministers to redraft a travel directive as soon as possible. SED Politburo member Günter Schabowski read the new directive aloud at the end of a live press conference on November 9. When the journalists asked him when it would come into effect, Schabowski quickly scanned the text. He then he gave a short reply that would go down in history: “As far as I know, it is effective … immediately, without delay!“ No one had told Schabowski that this press release was not supposed to be issued until the next morning, November 10. The live airing of his statement and its repetition in the Western media triggered a massive movement, as East and West Berliners converged on the border checkpoints and Brandenburg Gate. The evening of November 9, 1989 meant more than just the opening of the border. The fall of the Wall, resulting from an act of self-liberation, signaled the demise of the GDR’s most powerful symbol. The literal and figurative impact of this event caused the SED leaders to lose control over the border. Courageous citizens chose to defy the internal German border. Within weeks, the main structures of the communist party collapsed, including the Politburo, Secretariat of the Central Committee, and the Central Committee. As the party’s command center had been eliminated, the organs of state power followed suit. Soon, the GDR was no more. In the summer of 1990, the first freely elected GDR parliament laid the groundwork for joining the Federal Republic. At long last, a divided Germany was unified on October 3.
By the end of 1990, most of the barriers within the city of Berlin were gone. The part of the Wall that traversed Brandenburg was demolished in late 1992. Owing to the Berliners’ contempt for the Wall and the pride they took in demolishing it, there were very few places in the German capital where even small sections of the wall and the death strip could be preserved.
Historical photographs of the Berlin Wall: Polizeihistorische Sammlung Berlin; Berliner Mauer Archiv, Hagen Koch Berlin Contemporary photographs and photomontages: Alexander Kupsch (designer and photographer), Berlin Drone photography: Thomas Rosenthal (photographer), Berlin Exhibition design: Alexander Kupsch Explanatory texts: Dr. Hans-Hermann Hertle, Potsdam Text referring to places: Deutschland Archiv, Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung/Anja Linnekugel Project and editorial lead: Anja Linnekugel Image sources: Alexander Kupsch, grussausberlin.de