Berlin remembers August 13, 1961, the day on which construction began on the wall that divided the city until 1989 and whose remains are now an object of curiosity for the visitors or of reflection on the traumatic division.
Two months after the head of state of socialist Germany Walter Ulbricht assured on June 15 that “no one intends to build a wall”, Berlin dawned divided by concrete posts with barbed wire and barricades erected from the eastern sector with pieces of asphalt and cobblestones.
On that day, the citizens were astonished witnesses to the preparations for what five days later, on August 17, would be the beginning of a division cemented by a wall, which would be extended, modernized and perfected until the year of its fall in 1989, in order to fulfill its task of preventing the escape from socialist Germany.
For more than 28 years, the 156.4 kilometers of the wall were a physical representation of the “iron curtain” that divided Germany and Europe and were the scene of at least 140 deaths, but also of at least 5075 successful escapes.
Almost 44 kilometers ran through the middle of the city, the remaining 112 kilometers encircled West Berlin like a corset to the north, west and south.
Today, sixty years after its construction and almost 32 years since its fall, the story of the so-called Wall of Shame continues to attract millions of tourists and onlookers every year.
The remains of the Berlin Wall
The best-known remnants still standing are to be found, among other places, in the so-called East Side Gallery — 1.3 kilometers of wall with graffiti by various artists, including the famous “screw kiss” between the Soviet and East German leaders Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker by Dmitri Vrubel — and at Potsdamer Platz.
The section in Niederkirchner Straße — near Checkpoint Charlie, the former border control between the East and the American sector — also attracts the curious, as well as the remains in Bernauer Strasse, symbol of the German division because it was split by the wall and where the wall documentation center is also located.
Due to their location, other pieces of wall go unnoticed by tourists and Berliners, such as the section at the intersection of Dolomitenstrasse and Maximilianstrasse in the Pankow district in the north of the city, which last year lost 60 of its 70 meters still standing to make room for a new housing project.
Berlin’s mayor-governor Michael Müller today described the construction of the wall in a statement as a “decisive event” for the city and for the entire country.
The dead of the wall and socialism
Every August 13, Berlin remembers first and foremost the dead who lost their lives along the wall and barbed wire, but also “the human suffering caused by the division of the city and the country with the separation of families, friends and relatives and the loss of life opportunities,” he said.
He called to keep alive the memory of what happened on August 13, especially because the younger generations “were lucky enough not to live through this division” and the collective memory will allow them to value the concept of freedom.
“The common experience of division, its overcoming, especially for the citizens of East Berlin and the German Democratic Republic, as well as the hard yet hopeful period of cohesion of our Berlin are a unique story for a city in the world. They make Berlin a ‘city of freedom’,” he added.
Culture Minister Monika Grütters, for her part, stressed in a statement that the critical review of the dictatorship of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and the remembrance of its victims “will remain a central task in the future.”
The remembrance of the victims of the Wall should also serve to convey to those who did not experience the horrors of a totalitarian regime “the value of fundamental democratic rights and the dangers of totalitarian ideologies,” he added.
The central event of the 60th anniversary of the construction of the wall, at which German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and the mayor-governor of the city will speak, will take place tomorrow at the Berlin Wall memorial and documentation center in Bernauer Strasse.