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A woman places a rose in the Berlin Wall
Berlin remembers those who died trying to breach the WallImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Berlin Wall anniversary

August 13, 2009

The city of Berlin commemorated on Thursday the 48th anniversary of construction of the wall which divided it for 28 years and those who died trying to breach it.


On August 13, 1961, East German soldiers began to separate their sector of Berlin from the Western enemy. Streets, neighborhoods, and families were separated by a barrier that was to last 28 years.

To mark the anniversary of those first steps towards almost three decades of division, a service took place at the Chapel of Reconciliation, part of the Berlin Wall Memorial center on Berlin's Bernauer Street.

"Every single death was a death too many," said the city's mayor, Klaus Wowereit, at the ceremony.

Pastor Manfred Fischer told the congregation in the packed little chapel that the Wall had "divided our city right through its heart. It divided Germany, it divided Europe."

"Bernauer Street became the scene of dramatic escape attempts - both successful and failed. This day and this place are dedicated to their memory," he said.

Between 1961 and 1989, 136 people died trying to flee Communist East Berlin, according to new research released earlier this week. The exact number of victims had until now always been in doubt, as East German authorities frequently obscured what had really happened along their fortified border.

Fischer related the story of one of those victims. Dorit Schmiel was 20 years old when, on February 19, 1962, she tried to flee East Berlin with her fiance Detlef. Deep in the night they tried to cross the line, but were discovered by guards. Schmiel received a gunshot to the stomach and died in a police hospital shortly afterwards. Detlef survived and went to jail.

Communists built wall to keep "fascists" out

A boy touches the concrete plates of the east side of the former Berlin Wall at the wall memorial at Bernauer Street in Berlin
The Communists said the Westerners wanted inImage: AP

The Berlin Wall in East German official parlance was referred to as the "Anti-Fascist Protection Barrier," an ugly semantic construction that at once tried to evade the reality that the citizens of their state wanted to get out, and suggested instead that the capitalists ("fascists") on the other side wanted to get in.

The German Democratic Republic (GDR) was supposed to be a people's paradise, striving toward becoming a Socialist utopia. By this logic, the authorities could order soldiers to shoot would-be escapees on sight, because, as the ruling SED Communist party said in 1955, "leaving the GDR [was] an act of political and moral backwardness and depravity."

In today's Germany, however, that version of history has no credence at all.

Wounds yet to fully heal

The assembled dignitaries at the Berlin Wall memorial center laid wreaths in the sunshine at an adjacent reconstructed section of the Wall, under an inscription reading "to the victims of Communist tyranny."

Mayor Klaus Wowereit at the Berlin Wall memorial
Wowereit (right) said the Wall's legacy would never be forgottenImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

As representatives of the modern-day Left Party, whose personnel are partly made up of former members of the east German SED, laid their wreath, an elderly man in the crowd began to heckle.

"Shame on you Communists for showing up here!" he yelled, before being quieted by bystanders.

The wounds, evidently, are still raw. And the memory of the Berlin Wall, of the ideological slugging-match that occupied Europe for much of the 20th century, of the human beings that fell victim to it, will continue in Berlin, through living memory and beyond.

The Berlin Wall Memorial center is being refurbished and extended, and a new visitor center will be ready in time for the celebrations of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall in November.

Speaking to journalists after the ceremony, Mayor Wowereit said that the memory of what happened in the city wouldn't be allowed to slip away.

"We cannot forget. We want to remember, we want to keep the victims in our minds. But we also, of course, want to raise a warning for the future," he said.

Editor: Nancy Isenson

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