The Wall That Shut Out the West

It wasn't really a wall at first. In the early hours of Aug. 13, 1961, the monstrosity that was to become the Wall consisted of thousands of armed troops and police of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). They were deployed along the border separating the Soviet sector of Berlin from the American, British, and French sectors of the city.

By dawn, with the security forces in place, work gangs had begun ripping up cobblestones, sawing down trees, and jackhammering holes in the ground for poles along which barbed wire was strung. Before the more protracted task of building a concrete wall was to be undertaken, the people of East Berlin and East Germany were to be sealed off from their escape route to freedom. Vast numbers of East Germans had been simply walking across the sector border or taking the subway. More than 2 million had fled in the previous 10 years. In the previous weeks, the exodus had become a flood, threatening the existence of the GDR.

As word of what was happening circulated, anguish and foreboding spread through the city and the surrounding area. To East Berliners and other East Germans, the building of the Wall meant the gate to a better life in the West had been slammed shut. In West Berlin, fear was rampant that the Soviets had launched a campaign to seize control of the western sectors of the city, as well as their own. President Kennedy, humiliated only months before by the botched CIA-orchestrated Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, had vowed that would not be permitted to happen.

The token American and other Western military garrisons in the city were far outmatched by the Soviet divisions based in East Germany, which had just taken up positions around Berlin. I was a journalist; history was being made, and the pressure to keep on top of the unfolding story was intense. But my main concern at that moment was for the safety of my wife and infant daughter, born a month before in Berlin's Moabit hospital, and how to get them out of the city if the crunch seemed imminent. My wife rushed to the American Mission to get the baby a passport in case a hasty flight became necessary.

I also felt wider unease. Having covered the stormy summit meeting between Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna two months earlier, I realized this cold-war crisis could easily develop nuclear dimensions. Khrushchev had already been issuing nuclear threats over the Berlin situation.

Berliners had more immediate anxieties. A cleaning woman who worked for an American family in West Berlin collapsed in hysterical weeping because her daughter who lived in East Berlin was supposed to undergo major surgery that day. With phone communications cut and permission to cross the sealed border doubtful, she would have no way of learning how her daughter fared. One East Berliner who, like others, had been gradually shifting his furniture and other possessions to the West prior to the big move, found himself separated from his wife, now stuck behind the barbed wire. Businesses and service industries that relied heavily on grenzgaengers (border crossers who lived in the east and worked in the west) wondered how they would cope without them. West Berliners who had been overnighting in the east were trapped there and had great difficulty getting permission to leave.

I DROVE into the east at midmorning, grudgingly cleared through a makeshift checkpoint by an East Berlin Volkspolizist (People's Policeman), under Soviet instruction not to make extra waves for the moment by harassing nationals of Berlin's Western occupation powers. Karl-Marx-Alee, East Berlin's normally busy showcase boulevard, was deserted. It was spooky. The scene at Alexanderplatz, at the heart of East Berlin, offered a nightmare of a different dimension. Dozens of people shuffled back and forth across the square, clutching battered suitcases or cardboard cartons tied with string. Having learned too late that the border was closed, they had abandoned their homes in East Germany to travel to East Berlin and walk over to West Berlin and freedom. They now realized the West was as much beyond their reach as Mars. They could only go home, but knew it was likely the local Volkspolizei already knew of their "treason."

Somber as the atmosphere in East Berlin was, the mood in West Berlin was electric. When grocery stores opened the next morning, people rushed to stock up on nonperishable foods to prepare for a blockade, such as the Soviets had imposed on the western sectors once before. Callers jammed the phone lines of moving firms specializing in West Berlin-to-West Germany transport to make bookings or inquiries. As the Wall's first concrete blocks were shifted into place behind the temporary barbed-wire barrier, everyone waited for the American government's response to the gross violation of postwar agreements guaranteeing unrestricted movement throughout the former German capital.

AS the hours and then the days passed, it became apparent that Washington had been caught by surprise and had no contingency plan to deal with the situation. After anguished consultation, President Kennedy decided to accept the Wall as defusing the dangerous situation that had been posed by the mass refugee flight from the East, an exodus that had threatened the collapse of that key Soviet satellite.

However, the Soviets were served notice that no attempt to intrude on the presence of the Western Allies in Berlin would be tolerated. Gen. Lucius Clay, who had faced down a Soviet threat there before, was dispatched to be the president's personal representative. And an American battle group, based in West Germany, was sent roaring down the autobahn through East Germany to reinforce the American garrison in the divided city.

West Berliners were reassured; and with the passage of time, most, though not all, East Berliners grew reconciled to their plight. The situation in the city gradually stabilized. But the Wall stayed, standing 10 to 13 feet high, meandering through Berlin, hacking the largest city between Paris and Moscow into two distinct entities. The Communists called it the Wall of Peace. But it remained an unloved thing where tears were shed, curses uttered, threats snarled, and blood spilled.

I was in London in 1989 when the GDR finally collapsed as a viable state and the Berlin Wall was torn down. I was tied down by a deadline of a different sort, and couldn't get to Berlin to celebrate the occasion. Someone who did go offered me a piece of the Wall he brought back.

I didn't want it. No small chunk of concrete could conjure up for me the disgust and foreboding I felt during those days of August 1961 when that gruesome monument to human discord rose in the middle of Berlin.

Norman Gelb, author of "The Berlin Wall," was the Mutual Broadcasting System correspondent in Berlin at the time of the building of the Wall.

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