As we are getting ready to celebrate the 30th anniversary of German reunification, we also remember the day Germany’s cold war division in East and West which was to last for 40 years became concrete in the literal sense.
59 years ago, in the morning hours of the 13th of August, 1961, the East German communist regime started sealing off the demarcation line which separated the eastern sector of Berlin under Soviet authority from the American, British and French sectors forming the western part of Germany’s divided capital. First by barbed wire, and then by brick and mortar, as armed East German forces looked on and stopped anybody who still wanted to pass between East to West. From one day to another, thousands of Berliners were cut off from their places of work and study, from friends and family. Simultaneously, the three western sectors of the city were also fenced and walled off from the surrounding parts of communist East Germany which had proclaimed its separate statehood as “German Democratic Republic” in 1949. West Berlin had now effectively become an island.
This dramatic step was taken by the East German regime, with the blessings of the Soviet Union, as a measure of last resort to stem the ever-growing tide of East Germans no longer willing to live under the yoke of communism, looking for a better life in West Germany with its parliamentary democracy and free-market economy. At that time, it came as a shock to everyone nonetheless, and while what was to become the Berlin Wall went up under the eyes of an incredulous TV audience around the globe, East and West seemed to be at the brink of war as Soviet and American tanks faced off in Berlin.
Military escalation was avoided in the end, but the wall remained and was built up in the following years and decades to become an impenetrable death zone which would claim the lives of at least 140 people trying to cross over.
When we celebrate the anniversaries of the fall of the Berlin Wall and of German Reunification, we remain mindful of 40 years of separation and its toll in human lives lost and upended, families divided, economic hardships endured and political freedom denied.