Construction for Berlin Wall began Aug. 13, 1961


If you were of age in 1987, you will likely always remember the immortal words spoken by then United States President Ronald Reagan on June 12 when he challenged Mikhail Gorbachev, who was then the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

“…Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

The wall went down 29 months later as an emblem of Gorbachev’s desire to increase freedom in the Eastern Bloc through glasnost (“transparency”) and perestroika (“restructuring”).

By the end 1989, official operations to dismantle the wall began. With the collapse of the Communist governments of Eastern Europe and, eventually, the Soviet Union itself, the tearing down of the wall epitomized the collapse for history.

In September 1990, Reagan, no longer President, returned to Berlin, where he personally took a few symbolic hammer swings at a remnant of the Berlin Wall.

Reagan, perhaps the greatest American president of all-time behind George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, uttered those words as the world cried out for the end of a very long Cold War.

Started on Aug. 13 1961, the Berlin Wall became known as a symbol of communist oppression. In the 1963 “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, President John F. Kennedy stated the support of the United States for democratic West Germany shortly after the Soviet-supported Communist state of East Germany erected the Berlin Wall as a barrier to prevent movement from East to West.

President Reagan’s 1987 visit was his second within five years. It came at a time of heightened East-West tensions, caused in particular by the debate over the stationing of short range American missiles in Europe and the United States’ record peacetime defense buildup.

Reagan was scheduled to attend the 1987 G-7 summit meeting in Venice, Italy, and later made a brief stop in Berlin.

I was born in 1963. The end of the “Baby Boomer” generation. All I knew growing up was that the Soviets were scary dudes and that they could nuke us at any moment. If you attended grade school in the 1960s and 1970s you remember nuclear drills in which we got under our desks or went into shelters that were supposed to protect us in the event of a nuclear war.

We would have all been vaporized, of course, if an actual nuclear bomb went off in our area, but at least our schools wanted us to be prepared for such an attack.

The Berlin Wall came into existence after the East German government closed the border between east and west sectors of Berlin with barbed wire to discourage emigration to the West.

The barbed wire was replaced by a 12 foot-high concrete wall eventually extending 103 miles around the perimeter of West Berlin. The wall included electrified fences, fortifications, and guard posts. It became a notorious symbol of the Cold War.

Kennedy and Reagan made notable appearances at the wall accompanied by speeches denouncing Communism. The wall was finally opened by an East German governmental decree in November 1989 and torn down by the end of 1990.

I never had the opportunity to visit the wall, but I did have friends who went there. They described walking from West Berlin to East Berlin as walking into death. It was dark and dreary and a place you did not want to be for any longer than your curious mind would allow.

West Germans and citizens of other Western countries could generally visit East Germany, often after applying for a visa at an East German embassy several weeks in advance. Visas for day trips restricted to East Berlin were issued without previous application in a simplified procedure at the border crossing. However, East German authorities could refuse entry permits without stating a reason.

In the 1980s, visitors from the western part of the city who wanted to visit the eastern part had to exchange at least DM 25 into East German currency at the poor exchange rate of 1:1. It was forbidden to export East German currency from the East, but money not spent could be left at the border for possible future visits. Tourists crossing from the west had to also pay for a visa, which cost DM 5; West Berliners did not have to pay this.

West Berliners initially could not visit East Berlin or East Germany at all. All crossing points were closed to them between 26 August 1961 and 17 December 1963. In 1963, negotiations between East and West resulted in a limited possibility for visits during the Christmas season that year.

Today, there is a Berlin Wall Memorial in Berlin. It is located in the middle of the capital. Situated at the historic site on Bernauer Strasse, it extends along one mile of the former border strip. The memorial contains the last piece of Berlin Wall with the preserved grounds behind it and is thus able to convey an impression of how the border fortifications developed until the end of the 1980s.


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