On This Day, The Berlin Wall Began to Rise


East Germany, formally known as the German Democratic Republic (GDR), wanted to be a paradise for the common folk. It called itself a “workers’ and peasants’ state.” Its anthem, “Risen from Ruins,” brought to mind a phoenix rising gloriously from the ashes of World War II. From cradle to grave, the East German government cared for its citizens, providing childcare, housing, and job assignments.

Even now, shops peddling goods from the GDR years dot the former East. They appeal to those afflicted with Ostalgie, nostalgia for life under the bygone socialist regime.

But despite the modern, sanitized images of East Germany––from the tourist haven of Checkpoint Charlie to the toy Trabants present in every souvenir shop in Berlin––the GDR went to extreme lengths to keep its citizens in line, tracking millions of people with unprecedented surveillance and driving them to unimaginable paranoia. One of its most brutal tools, the Berlin Wall, took root 59 years ago today.

Barbed Wire Sunday

On August 13, 1961, Berliners awoke to find the city transforming before their eyes. Overnight, East German troops had razed streets along the border, laying barbed wire in their stead. As construction continued, soldiers and citizen militia groups stood guard along the border, ready to quell any large uprising. Crowds gathered in West Berlin that evening and wept for the loved ones they were now removed from. It came to be known as “Barbed Wire Sunday.”

John F. Kennedy famously remarked, “Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us.”

East Germany’s people had, in fact, been leaving. From farmers to members of the intelligentsia, workers sought higher wages and better opportunities in the West. From 1949 to 1961, roughly 2.5 million East Germans emigrated. In just a six-year span, “4,334 doctors and dentists, 15,536 engineers and technicians, 738 professors, 15,885 other teachers, and more than 11,700 other college graduates” were drawn westward. East Germany grew concerned. It feared looking weak, and besides, this massive brain drain would throw a wrench in the system-for-all it so proudly operated, which provided free education and healthcare to citizens.

To put an end to the exodus, Nikita Khrushchev approved East German leader Walter Ulbricht’s proposal to build a physical fortification. Ulbricht kept his plans under wraps. Just two months before Barbed Wire Sunday, he declared at a press conference, “Nobody has any intention of building a wall,” all while his government purchased incredible quantities of barbed wire, concrete reinforcements, and timber.

Years of fear and months of meticulous planning preceded the fateful events of August 13, 1961. But to the eye of any Berliner, the wall truly did begin to rise overnight. Emigration dwindled precipitously. Between 1962 and 1988, migration rates were about one-sixth of what they’d been from 1949 to 1961. Hidden from the world, East Germany was now fully free to pursue its awful agenda. What began as a length of barbed wire would transform a nation and its people for decades.



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