The Berlin Wall, which existed from August 13, 1961 through November 9, 1989, was a powerful symbol of the Cold War. The border between West and East Berlin was literally shut down overnight when East German troops moved in during the night of August 12. Before day break, they had torn up streets entering West Berlin, put up concrete posts and strung barbed wire to prevent anyone from crossing what had been an open border.
When residents of West Berlin awoke on the morning of August 13, they discovered they were cut off from jobs, family, and loved ones in East Berlin – permanently. Whichever side of the border a person woke up on that morning in August, they were stuck there for what turned out to be decades. Some 255 people died trying to cross the border from East to West Berlin and another 371 lost their lives trying to cross the border between West Berlin and East Germany.
I arrived in West Berlin in July, 1967, almost six years after the border was shut down. What was barbed wire in the city itself had long before been replaced by a cement-block wall with tons of broken glass cemented all along the top. I wasn’t prepared for how the Wall dominated daily life. One would have thought that after six years the shock would have worn off, but of course it hadn’t; it couldn’t, since regardless of which direction one might drive, the fortified, and in places terrifying border appeared. In the beginning, westerners would gather at the wall hoping to see a loved one waving from one of the buildings, which eventually had all their windows blocked up.
As I describe in my novel, McCurry’s War, many residents on both sides of the Wall lived in a kind of suspended animation. Each year, Berliners felt that the structure would surely come down the next year and they waited for the day that they would be reunited with loved ones. No one would believe 28 years – nearly a full generation – would pass before the hated structure would be dismantled.
This was especially true in East Germany. During an illegal trek into the East, McCurry meets a laborer on a bench while waiting for a bus:
“Schmidt, Gunther,” the man said, extending his hand. Shaking it, McCurry said, “It’s nice to meet a friendly person who speaks English. So far, it seems as if everyone moves to the other side of the walk when they see me coming.”
“Don’t blame them,” Schmidt said. “East Berlin not a friendly place. Always, the Stasi, they be someplace around. Better, be quiet. Keep to yourself.”
The Stasi were the secret police in charge of state security. McCurry knew from his indoctrination that it was common practice for them to imprison people just for telling a political joke. It was also rumored that many dissidents were executed in Stasi prisons.
McCurry learned that Schmidt worked in a textile factory in Weissensee, a sector in northeast East Berlin. Although his place of work was less than 20 minutes away, he left each day at least an hour early because of the unpredictability of the buses. Which is why he brought along his satchel with an ample supply of beer, cheese and bread. Schmidt said that getting paid was about as unpredictable as the buses he used to get to work.
“But I make enough to keep bread on table for my wife and me,” he said. He leaned in close to McCurry and said, “Truth, we just get by, wait for that wall to come down. It not long, no?”
I wonder how many Americans today could even conceive of what it was like in Berlin when the wall went up. If, on August 12, you had gone from your home in West Berlin to visit a relative in East Berlin, you wouldn’t be able to return home for 28 years. If you had gone over to drink with friends in the East on the 12th and passed out on a park bench – which wasn’t that unusual at the time – when you awoke on the 13th you would have discovered that your home was no longer accessible.
Is it any wonder that the Wall dominated so much of the lives of Berliners for almost three decades?