The impregnable fortress

Nobody has the intention of building a wall!” Protested angered Walter Ulbricht during a press conference on June 15, 1961. None of those present had asked him because none of them supposed that this was even possible. The lapsus linguae of the first secretary of the SED was not taken seriously because, who in his right mind could even conceive the idea of ​​enclosing an entire city with two million people inside?

Ulbricht, however, knew very well what he was saying. Two months later, at dawn on August 13, the border crossings between the two Berlines were closed. Shortly afterwards, masons appeared and began to build, block by block, a concrete wall crowned with barbed wire very similar to that of the prisons.

The whole world was in a state of shock. It was one thing to build a fence in the middle of the field and quite another to build a prison wall in the center of a city. Indeed, the border in Berlin crossed the very heart of the city. There were streets where a sidewalk belonged to the East and the opposite to the West. Buildings whose walls were touched at the exact point where both cities were, avenues divided by a checkpoint, shared metro and tram lines. Berlin was a strange place with two governments and four occupation sectors, but it was still a single city.

East German leaders could not tolerate the existence of that anomaly called West Berlin embedded in the very core of their “workers’ republic”. Because of its subjects, especially the Berliners, were the only Eastern Europeans who knew the odious capitalism up close. And, of course, they could compare and, if there was not much left behind, leave that hell.

Thousands of young people who aspired to a better life escaped through that hole in the wire fence every day. On the other side they made it easy for them. In the RFA any East German was received on the spot, a passport was given to him and the Government helped him to settle. The RFA was, unlike the RDA, its communist counterpart, a very wealthy country whose economy flourished in the heat of individual freedom, political pluralism, open markets and the rule of law. East Germans were no strangers to their bad luck and they wanted to change it. Berlin was there to allow it.

That and no other was the true cause of the Berlin Wall, one of the most monstrous works of European communism. The picture was disconcerting. It was not the first time in history that a city was walled in, but it was the first time those walls served so that those inside could not leave.

Until Walter Ulbricht (under the dictates of Moscow), ordered its construction, the walled cities were to prevent invasions and better defend themselves. Thus the walls of Ávila were born, which are still standing, defying the centuries, or the Great Wall of China, a formidable fortification of almost 9,000 kilometers built to stop the incursions of the nomads of the North.

The Berlin Wall was not that. Its parents did not conceive it as a fence against a hypothetical invasion of the West – although then they sold it to their servants – but as the wall of a prison.

The numbers of Wall takes your breath away. It had a length of 150 kilometers, that is, twice the distance that separates Madrid from Toledo. In principle, the Wall was unique, a simple wall of cement blocks topped with barbed wire, but people managed to keep running away. In 1962 the Government of the GDR created the so-called rear wall, separated a hundred meters from the main, which was seen from free Berlin.

This strip, a no-man’s land crossed by a highway for border patrols, soon became the “Death Strip“. It was marked by watchtowers, first portable, then wood, and finally concrete, with a circular lookout point much like the airport control towers. To prevent any uncontrolled with a truck or other heavy vehicle from crossing the line at full speed, a pit was dug before the front wall.

All precautions were few. In the 1960s anti-tank fences were installed, such as the ones the Nazis put on the beaches of Normandy, which were unnecessary but very useful for communist propaganda. The troubled East Berliners could thus conceive an impending Allied invasion. The truth is that on the other side there were no tanks, not even soldiers guarding the front wall, just graffiti, tourists and some observation platforms from which the prison complex that the communists had assembled was seen.

Crossing the line was practically impossible. It was patrolled by armed soldiers 24-7-365. There were 302 towers around West Berlin, which in the 70s were renovated by a new, square-shaped model, which better resisted the inclemency of the weather. Together with them, between 1975 and the first 80 the front wall was changed by what the East German authorities called “Grenzmauer 75“, or fourth-generation wall, much more sophisticated: it was composed of reinforced concrete canvases of three and a half meters high, topped by a joint that made climbing difficult.

Nothing was left to chance. The Wall divided a city that, in turn, is divided by the river Spree, whose eastern bank was covered with barbed wire. Army boats were in the waterway day and night. In spite of everything, the Spree became one of the most habitual “vanishing” points. The guards had orders to shoot without even ask for stopping. Always shoot from behind and kill. A wounded was an uncomfortable witness to the brutality of the masters of East Germany.

Between one city and the another the checkpoints were few and were very guarded. During the first two years, the RDA closed the border, separating families and friends. Then they opened it, but you could only cross from West to East. The trip in reverse, for a subject of the GDR, was rare: travel permits were given in dribs and drabs and were reserved for individuals of proven loyalty to the regime, such as members of the Party or Army officers. The East Berliner was tied to his city as the serfs in the feudal lordships were tied to the latifundium of a marquis.

Many managed to escape the RDA, that terrifying prison, because the evil of the executioners was only overcome by their incompetence. They went out in every conceivable way: in the trunk of cars, in secret tunnels, crossing the river by swimming…until, once, on board an ultralight plane. About 5,000 succeeded. Others died in the attempt: although the exact number is unknown, it is estimated that about 200. Crosses along the front wall commemorate the crime and serve as a reminder to the Berliners: the wound, although healed, should never be forgotten.

Historia Criminal del Comunismo (2013). Fernando Diaz Villanueva

Capítulo “La fortaleza inexpugnable”. 


The impregnable fortress by Manuel Fraga is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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