In two programmes for the BBC World Service – The Day the Wall Went Up – Gerry Northam revisits the site of the Cold War’s most malevolent symbol to tell the story of the post-war political conflict that led to a divided Berlin and unleashed an East-West crisis. With the help of archive and historians, the memories of survivors, and revealing diaries and letters, he explores how the Wall was planned and the plans executed, how the West was indifferent when it wasn’t dubiously involved, and how for half a lifetime the Wall flourished as East Berliners suffered heartbreak and injustice. A CTVC Production for BBC World Service.
Episode 1: Tuesday 16 August (various times)
Episode 2: Tuesday 23 August (various times)
How it all began
On the night of 12. and 13. August 1961, a barbed-wire entanglement was hastily constructed through the heart of Berlin. It metamorphosed into a structure that would come to symbolise both the division of Germany into capitalist and communist blocs and the insanity of the Cold War – the Berlin Wall.
Erected to stop the ever-increasing flow of refugees leaving East Berlin and the GDR, its consequences were horrific in human terms. Millions of East Berliners awoke to torn-up streets, cut telephone wires, and the primitive beginnings of the Wall. Transport was stopped, too. One woman asked a guard, ‘When is the next train to West Berlin?’ ‘None of that any more, grandma,’ he told her. ‘You’re all sat in a mousetrap now.’
Thus began – though none knew it at the time – the enforced separation of East Germans from their loved ones in the west for nearly three decades.
Extraordinarily, considering the number of border controls, some 475,000 East Berliners managed to escape to the West between 1961 and 1989. People swam, jumped, and dug for freedom. But this was mostly during the early years. As time passed, the noose tightened, and for many the Wall seemed impenetrable and eternal. 125 people died trying to escape.
Guardian: Building the Wall (video)
Guardian: Berlin Wall 50 years on: timeline
BBC: Berlin marks 50 years since Berlin Wall (text and video)
Die Welt: Die Mauer vom Bau bis zum Fall – selection of articles on the Berlin Wall and the 50th anniversary (in German)
Spiegel online: Berliner Mauer – selection of articles on the Berlin Wall (in German).