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Berlin Wall anniversary

August 12, 2010

Construction of the Berlin Wall began on August 13, 1961. As Berlin remembers the event, new figures suggest more people than previously thought were killed on the inner German border from 1961-1989.

West Berliners gazing at East German border guards across the newly built Wall
Berliners were amazed to see their city dividedImage: ullstein bild - Jung

Berlin commemorated on Friday the 49th anniversary of the day the East German government began building the Berlin Wall.

A memorial service was held at the Chapel of Reconciliation in the former death strip. Mayor Klaus Wowereit laid a wreath at the Bernauer Strasse memorial, in remembrance of those who were killed by GDR border guards.

"It teaches us a lesson," Wowereit said. "Time and again, it is important to stand decisively against authoritarian regimes and dictatorships."

He urged that the memory of the Berlin Wall must sharpen appreciation of contemporary freedom and democracy.

Among a number of services held in Berlin on Friday, a street is to be renamed in memory of Chris Gueffroy, recognized as the last person killed trying to cross the border.

Greater number killed

According to the official site that commemorates the Berlin Wall in the district of Mitte, at least 136 people were killed by the East German border patrol while trying to escape from East to West Berlin between 1961 and 1989.

But that's not the whole story. New figures from the privately-run Wall Museum, located at the former Checkpoint Charlie border crossing in Berlin, say the total number of people who died trying to escape from East to West Germany during those 28 years is 1,393.

"The number has risen by 46 compared with our research last year," Alexandra Hildebrandt, chairwoman of the Wall Museum told Deutsche Welle.

"The list includes those who died at the Berlin Wall, the Baltic Sea, the inner German border and neighboring countries like Poland, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. It also includes East German soldiers, for example those who committed suicide because they couldn't deal with the regime," she said.

the Berlin Wall with graffiti saying There's only one Berlin
The wall became the symbol of the Cold WarImage: picture-alliance / akg-images

Tragic deaths

One of those soldiers, whose suicide has only just come to light, took his own life just hours after construction on the wall had started.

"I cried all night when I read this," Hildebrandt said. "He shot himself and left his wife a note saying: 'I can't do this anymore, I'm too weak, forgive me, it's better that way'."

In the early hours of August 13, 1961, the East German government took the West by surprise and ordered its army and police to stop all travel between East and West Berlin and start work on the wall that would divide Berlin until 1989.

Even the US secret service did not know of the project. Two months earlier, the East German leader Walter Ulbricht, head of the East German communist party (SED), openly denied rumors that such a project was underway.

Poster with Ulbricht quote, saying there was no intention to build a wall
East Germany had denied it was planning to build a wallImage: ullstein bild - Schäfer(L)

On August 24 that year, just 11 days after the work on the wall had started, the first person was shot dead trying to escape. Guenter Liftin's murder shocked the world, but Erich Honecker, who was head of security then and would later become East Germany's leader and head of the SED, remained defiant.

"The building of the anti-fascist protective barrier stabilized the situation in Europe and secured peace," he said

A desperate act

In reality, the East German regime was in crisis. By 1961, 2.7 million people had decided to leave the country and live in the West. Communist ideology was starting to lose its luster, damaging the economy in the process.

In his famous 'Ich bin ein Berliner' speech in 1963 in West Berlin, then US President John F. Kennedy described the Berlin Wall as "the most vivid and obvious demonstration of the failures of the Communist system."

Today, 21 years after the wall came down, many are still afraid to talk about their own or their relatives' experiences.

"They are still afraid, they are dominated by fear, possibly their whole lives, because the GDR was a dictatorship. It was like a big prison, where people were afraid to talk, afraid to live, essentially," Hildebrandt told Deutsche Welle.

Honecker firmly believed the wall would stand for 50 or even 100 years. But the East German regime was powerless against the will of its people and a reform-oriented Soviet Union, which eventually, led to the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989.

Author: Nicole Goebel, Thomas Sheldrick (dpa)
Editor: Martin Kuebler

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