Berlin wall, 20 years later: people still try to flee

"Freedom ends here," the graffiti proclaim in large block letters on the Berlin wall. In other patches, the message is wry: "Socialist paradise: 100 meters." "Jump over and join the party."

The scribblings are a touch of humanity on the impersonal stretch of concrete that cuts through the heart of Berlin. So are the wreathes and crosses commemorating lives lost trying to cross the perilous, 103-mile obstacle course to the West.

But the wall, created 20 years ago today, is an accepted eyesore in the landscape of the divided city. West Berlin's 2 million inhabitants largely cope with the barrier the way commuters bear up to expressway detours: Some are resigned, others cynical, but most view it as the natural consequence of grim political reality.

"Ideologically, I used to want the wall to come down," says a medical student in West Berlin. "But now I don't know. Many young people just don't consider reunification a possibility anymore. I am afraid that if the wall was broken down, we would have nothing in common with the Berliners on the other side. I have lots of chances to go there, but I never do."

The wall is old enough that a generation of Germans has grown up knowing nothing else. "The younger generation born after '61 will have great difficulties communicating with East German youth," said Conrad Schumann, who as a young border guard fled to the West just two days after the first barrier was erected. His escape was captured in a now-famous photograph showing him bounding over barbed wire with a rifle slung over his shoulder.

Schumann notes that attitudes have changed since he made his bold step. "When I watch people looking at the wall now, I see that they just walk by and accept it. When I stand in front of it, I think what a crazy thing it was to have put up the wall."

But in August 1961 the building of the wall had its practical as well as ideological purpose. With a flood of refugees, especially skilled young people, leaving East Germany each day, the authorities created an artificial frontier to stem the brain drain.

Under cover of darkness East German security forces strung the first lengths of barbed wire Aug. 12-13. Within days, as thousands scrambled to get out, the first permanent sections of the wall were erected. By mid-September, the monument to East-West tension was completed.

Today, East Germany argues that it built the wall to foil a planned NATO attack aimed at reuniting Germany. The official press has praised the "antifascist protection wall" in recent weeks.

To mark the day, East German combat groups who helped build the wall will march down streets festooned with red flags, national banners, and placards saying "Aug. '61 -- your security."

Despite such propaganda, would-be refugees still try to steal across. But the risks are greater than ever.

Some 250 dogs prowl the inner zone of the wall, and some 14,000 troops, ordered to shoot on sight, are employed to watch over the barrier.

The only escapes that work are the ingenious ones. One group of Berliners made it across at night in a makeshift ski lift. In 1979, Andreas Strelzyk reached the West in a hot-air balloon.

In all, 76 East Germans have died crossing the wall. The latest, 18-year-old Marie-Netta Jirkowski, wasn't even born when the wall went up. Her futile escape attempt underscores the disparity of views of young Germans on either side of the barbed wire.

"East Berliners still pray for the wall to come down," says a West Berlin housewife with two sisters living in East Germany. "The young here don't really care so much about the wall."

Even the older generation has learned to live with the wall. One pensioner said she resented the feudal quality of such a barrier, but could not image life otherwise. "Calling Berlin a 'divided city' is a foolish deceit," she says. "It is two cities--and not just two cities--but East Berlin is another land, another world."

It is Berlin's loss of identity--it is technically part of West Germany but has no voting representation in Bonn--that saddens her and other city dwellers more than the territorial limitations, she says.

"We are not West Germany.We are not Germans. We are . . . only Berliners."

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