We’re all children of our histories. Some of us become victims, others reactors and rebels. Some of us just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Commemorations, celebrations and memorials become important, documenting what is, what was and what might have been.
Germany commemorates the 50th anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall this week. That wall wasn’t as lengthy as the Great Wall of China, nor did it have the mythic significance of the wall that Joshua’s trumpet brought down at Jericho. But the Berlin Wall marks a significant milestone in the history of the Cold War, when a supposedly civilized nation locked in its people and described the barrier, in Orwellian rhetoric every government bureaucrat could envy, as an “anti-fascist protection rampart.”
West Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt correctly called it the “Wall of Shame.” This was not the beginning, the middle or the end of German history, but it will be remembered for a long time because it affected so many lives personally, politically, nationally and worldwide. The wall sealed in the East Berliners, but it told the Allies that the Soviet Union was not likely to make a move on the rest of Berlin. The wall became a concrete expression, literally, of the evil inherent in communism.
The wall contributed to the growth of two separate cultures, communist and capitalist, conformist and free, rigid and expansive. Initiative and creativity in art and the spirit were limited in East Germany, stifling the soul and wounding the spirit, but imagination and ambition inspired those eager enough for freedom to try all kinds of adventurous attempts to escape. Some East Berliners dug tunnels, others launched themselves aloft in primitive hot-air balloons. Some even tried sliding across aerial wires that crossed over the wall. A few tried to sneak through “ghost stations” of the subway that no longer resounded to the noise of trains from the West.
Workmen first chipped away at the cobblestone streets, using the stones to build barriers, but quickly moved on to barbed wire and ugly concrete blocks. Ida Siekmann, an ordinary Hausfrau, watched in desperation as the wall rose to block the view from her third-floor apartment. She finally jumped rather than be stuck permanently behind a wall. She would have been 59 the next day. A memorial, often decorated with flowers, marks the spot where she died.
Between the end of the war in 1945 and 1961, when the wall was built, more than 3 million Germans fled the Soviet occupation to the Federal Republic of Germany and the West. Those who lived on Bernauer Strasse at the base of the wall, who had always just walked across the street to the West, couldn’t believe their eyes. They soon learned that more than their view was blocked.
Today, 22 years after the wall fell, their neighborhood is the center of city life. Mothers push children to the market in strollers and shop for a variety of good things to eat that East Berliners never dreamed of having. The neighborhood also is home to a museum about the wall, which tells its story in film and exhibits.
With the same thoroughness the Germans used to record atrocities committed in their name by the Third Reich, the victims of the commissars of East Germany are commemorated as new research uncovers chilling facts from the files of the Stasi, the secret police that replaced the Gestapo in East Berlin. Many were shot by guards when they tried to climb over the wall. A few tried to swim across the river Spree and were shot or drowned. One baby was smothered accidentally while hiding in a truck with his parents.
“The Victims at the Berlin Wall 1961-1989,” edited by historians Hans-Hermann Hertle and Maria Nooke, tells the stories of 136 men, women and children who died at the wall. (Full disclosure: My daughter, Miriamne Fields, translated the stories into English.)
Siegfried Kroboth, age 5, was playing at the bank of the river Spree after his family had safely fled East Germany and fell into the water. A little friend ran for help, but the West German police couldn’t save him because he was bobbing in a stretch of the river under Soviet control. The West German cops sought permission from guards to retrieve him, but their pleas were ignored. The East German government said the guards, “good Germans all,” had acted “in accordance” with the rules.
The 50th-anniversary commemoration is a reminder of how quickly times change. John F. Kennedy was right when he went to Berlin in 1963 and sent Berliners on both sides of the wall into a frenzy with his proclamation that “Ich bin ein Berliner.” He was, he said, a Berliner, too. And so we all are.
Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.