Berlin, Germany, Oct 25 – For nearly three decades the forbidding Berlin Wall separated communist East Germany from the West, becoming the emblem of the post-World War II split of Europe into Soviet and Western spheres.
Here is some background.
– 155 km of concrete and wire –
The Soviet-allied East German authorities built the Berlin Wall from August 1961 to stop a flood of defections to the democratic West through the city.
The 155-kilometre (96-mile) barrier essentially surrounded West Berlin, which was an enclave within East Germany. The portion that split Berlin from north to south was 43 km long.
Concrete panels 3.6 metres (12 feet) high made up 106 km of the wall; the rest was composed of barbed wire.
– 7,000 guards –
A heavily guarded no man’s land known as the “death strip” ran along the Eastern side of the Wall.
More than 7,000 East German soldiers manned 302 watchtowers and 20 bunkers. At night, with lamp posts every 30 metres, it was the best-lit part of Berlin.
There were also alarms, ditches, barbed wire, guard dogs and devices that automatically fired shots at would-be escapers.
– Checkpoint Charlie –
The Wall had seven official crossing points, the most famous being Checkpoint C, called Checkpoint Charlie by Western troops.
It was located in the heart of Berlin in a sector secured by American troops.
In a high-stakes standoff at the checkpoint in October 1961, the US and Soviet militaries stared each other down for several hours in a dispute over an attempt by US diplomat Allan Lightner to visit East Berlin.
A year later East border guards at the checkpoint shot 18-year-old Peter Fechter as he was trying to flee to the West. He was left to bleed to death under the barbed wire, in view of onlookers and journalists.
– Tunnel 57 –
About 140 people died attempting to make the crossing between 1961 and 1989, according to the Berlin Wall Memorial.
The most successful escape route was Tunnel 57, dug by students from the West from the basement of a disused bakery into the East. In October 1964, 57 East Germans used the 140-metre tunnel to defect.
One of the more extraordinary escapes came in August 1988 when a family of four made it over the Wall aboard a small crop-duster plane.
Electronics engineer Winfried Freudenberg was the last to die, crashing in March 1989 in West Berlin having made it over using a self-built inflatable balloon.
– ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ –
US President John F. Kennedy’s stirring declaration, “I am a Berliner,” issued just metres from the barrier in 1963, has become its most celebrated condemnation in a message of solidarity with the East Germans.
In another famous speech by a US president at the Brandenburg Gate, Ronald Reagan challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 to “tear down this wall!”.
Just two years later, as Eastern Europe’s communist regimes began falling, the embattled East German authorities unexpectedly ceded to weeks of mass demonstrations and allowed the checkpoints to be opened on November 9, 1989.
Over the next days euphoric Berliners perched on the wall and used pickaxes and hammers to knock out chunks. Its systematic demolition followed, with just sections remaining today as historical monuments.