August 13th in German History: Construction on the Berlin Wall Begins

Berlinermauer.jpg
The Berlin Wall.

The Berlin Wall was the most visible symbol of communist oppression in Europe. For twenty-eight years it stood, holding the people of East Berlin captive under an oppressive government. On August 13th, 1961, the border between East and West Germany was officially closed and construction on the wall began.

East German workers build the Berlin Wall.

After the Second World War, Germany was divided into two zones. The west was under French, British, and American occupation and the east was put under Soviet occupation. Soon, the western powers combined their zone to form the Federal Republic of Germany and shortly after the eastern portion was made into the nominally independent German Democratic Republic. However, these two states quickly saw divergent standards of living. US aid in the form of the Marshall Plan along with superior economic policies led to the standard of living in West Germany rising far faster than in East Germany. Although the main border between the two states was closed, the border between East and West Berlin remained opened, creating a loophole which allowed migration. This allowed a large number of East Germans to flee from east to west. By 1961, twenty percent of the East German population emigrated to the Federal Republic. These people were dis-proportionally young and well-educated, leading to a brain drain. The East German economy suffered and so did the prestige of its ideology, Soviet Socialism. Both the East German government and its puppet masters in the USSR realized that something had to be done. Thus, when John F. Kennedy, president at the time, said that the US would not take military action if the border in Berlin were closed, Walter Ubricht, the chair of the Socialist Unity Party, decided that the time was right to close the border and build a barrier. Thus, on August 13th, 1961, East German troops were sent to the border with orders to shoot those who attempted to cross. On that day, workers began demolishing buildings and setting up the barriers, guard towers, bunkers, and minefields that would make up the wall.

The Berlin Wall did solve the immediate problem faced by East Germany. It prevented illegal border crossings and kept the people of East Germany from fleeing west. However, in the long term it contributed to the destruction of Soviet Socialism as an acceptable ideology. The wall showed the world that the Soviet system was fundamentally inferior to the capitalist one of the west, and demonstrated that force was necessary to prevent people from choosing the west over the east. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the Soviet Union’s grip on Eastern Europe shattered. Its grip on the minds of the people, however, was shattered when the Berlin Wall rose.

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