Scaling the Berlin Wall

As the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall approaches, journalist Michael Meyer looks back at the years he spent astride it. An exclusive excerpt from The Year the World Changed.

Tom Stoddart / Getty Images

Arriving in Berlin, I would do what I always did: Drop my luggage at the hotel and hail a taxi toward the East. I went to touch the Wall, to lay hands upon it. It didn’t matter how many times I had done it before, or how many times I would do so again. It was my lodestone, my centering point, my story as a journalist covering Germany and the East Bloc.

Nothing has ever been so freighted with symbolism, ideology, and history. The Wall was World War II, the Cold War, the Iron Curtain, the high tide of totalitarianism and communist dictatorship, the frontier of democracy. You could feel it, smell it, run your hands over it, look across it. On the one side, us. On the other, them.

The Wall’s scar has been replanted. Dig in the sandy soil, and you find broken pieces of its distinctive concrete. The Wall abides like a phantom limb, a void that cannot be forgotten.

It didn’t matter what direction you took. Berlin was an island; all paths led to the Wall. Usually I went down Bismarck Strasse, past the Siegessäule, the winged column celebrating Prussia’s victory in the 1871 war against France, to the Reichstag. The Wall cut a few feet behind the old parliament, still blackened and pockmarked from flying debris from the war. A dozen crosses memorialized a few who died there trying to escape. An East German patrol boat, with spotlights and heavy machine guns, idled on the far shore of the River Spree. Only a few weeks before my first visit, a young man was gunned down near the spot and left to bleed to death where he lay.

Usually I would walk south, along the Wall past the Brandenburg Gate, across the muddy and eerily empty lots around Potsdamer Platz, the heart of old Berlin, once crowded with hotels and department stores and so busy in the 1920s that it received Europe’s first traffic light. Hitler’s bunker lay there in the death strip, a swelling breast of earth easily glimpsed from a spectator platform, illuminated by harsh security lights at night and girded with antitank traps. Farther along was Wilhelm Strasse and the weed-grown rubble of the Nazi SS headquarters, then after a series of sharp zigs and zags down abandoned and often broken streets came Checkpoint Charlie. YOU ARE LEAVING THE AMERICAN SECTOR a large sign warned in English, French and Russian, beyond which the green-uniformed Vopos—Volkspolizei— of the German Democratic Republic waited behind their barriers and barbed wire. The view stretched all the way to Moscow.

Ronald Reagan spoke for many, but it was hard to imagine the world without the Wall. Perhaps it was the touching. The Wall was so obdurate and outwardly solid. Its blunt, crude force, so hostile to movement, heart, and spirit, had become a fact of life—regrettable and tragic, to be sure, but there, like cancer or the reality of evil in the world.

More Daily Beast takes on the Berlin Wall anniversaryIn Berlin, the Wall was felt everywhere, even when not in sight. It haunts the city to this day, 20 years later. Eerie remnants remain, catching one unaware: a stretch of Wall here, a watchtower there, vacant lots where the death strip passed, a thin line of paving stones inlaid in the streets of the city’s center, marked with bronze plates: BERLIN MAUER: 1961–1989. In the forested parts of Berlin, away from the now trendy Mitte, or city center, you may notice a steady march of pines through stands of birch and elder. The Wall’s scar has been replanted. Dig in the sandy soil, and you find broken pieces of its distinctive concrete. The Wall abides like a phantom limb, a void that cannot be forgotten.

There is a misplaced sentimentality to these memories, a sort of Cold War romance, a thrill for a certain kind of tourist. Berliners for the most part simply lived with it, incongruous and sinister as it was. To live with something is to become oblivious. Mothers pushed their prams along it. In the western half of the city, artists painted it, at least for a time. But generally people turned their backs on it, except when seeking empty spaces to park their cars.

The Wall went up on August 13, 1961. The communist party leader of the time, Walter Ulbricht, saw it as the solution to his single most embarrassing problem: the flight of East Germans to the West, who were at the time leaving at the rate of some one thousand people a day. Historians know that the Allies could have prevented its construction and perhaps, thereby, changed history. Soldiers erecting the barrier—at first no more than a few strands of barbed wire—were not supplied with ammunition; Russian tank crews were ordered to withdraw if confronted. But the pugnacious Soviet premier Nikita S. Khrushchev, the man who threatened to “bury” the West and banged his shoe on the podium at the United Nations, knew what he was doing. At a small and jovial dinner party the night before, he tipped a small gathering of top Russian military leaders to his plans, clearly savoring the moment. “We’re going to close Berlin,” he crowed with his trademark gap-toothed grin. “We’ll just put up serpentine barbed wire and the West will stand there, like dumb sheep.” And it did, fearing a fight that might have gone nuclear.

Over the years, stone slabs and masonry replaced the barbed wire. A second parallel wall went up, one hundred yards farther in. Houses in between were demolished, creating a no-man’s-land that became known as the death strip. Much of it was covered with raked gravel or turned earth, making it easy to track would-be escapees; it was mined and booby-trapped. Border guards patrolled along an inner track, often accompanied by attack dogs; others watched from any of 302 towers. Almost until the end, their orders were to shoot to kill, on sight. Reports vary, but as many as 192 people died trying to escape over the Wall; roughly a thousand were killed trying to flee over the far longer East German border.

It worked as Ulbricht hoped: between 1949 and 1962, 2.5 million East Germans fled. Between 1962 and 1989, that number fell to about five thousand. Overnight, the forty-two thousand square miles of the German Democratic Republic became a prison. Transportation and communication links were cut. Bustling streets and lively sidewalks in the heart of metropolitan Berlin suddenly became abandoned dead ends. Sewers, tramlines and power grids were blocked or cut. Families were broken, friendships severed. Children lost parents or grandparents. On official maps, the western half of the city was blotted out—figuratively erased from the world of the living. The city, particularly in the East, settled into a grim sadness, a long sleep from which its troubled citizens scarcely dared dream they would ever awake.

Only Berliners called it the Wall. Elsewhere, it was the “fence,” or the “border,” a three-hundred-mile swath through the heart of Germany. By 1989, the East Germans had removed their mines and remote-control machine guns. Even so, it was a formidable barrier: a twelve-foot-high mesh fence that could not be climbed without grappling hooks; an antivehicle trench to keep people from crashing through in cars; armed patrols with dogs; concrete watch-towers and machine-gun bunkers every few hundred yards; a three-mile security zone inside the border, where East Germans could live and travel only with special permits. Here and there it opened—guardedly—to admit a railway or highway. But for the most part it marched ahead unchanging and featureless, cutting through forests, zigzagging up sheer mountainsides, slicing through fields, streams and towns.

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Early in my assignment, as late autumn turned into winter, I traveled along the divide at odd intervals over a few weeks, from the Baltic Sea in the north, where gray East German gunboats floated off a sandy beach, ready to shoot anyone who might try to swim to freedom, to the Czech border near Bavaria in the south. The idea was to search out the cracks that I supposed must be there, to intuit a coming revolution. But I found little evidence. Wherever I went, the Wall was simply there.

Excerpted from The Year That Changed the World: The Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall by Michael Meyer. Copyright © 2009 by Michael Meyer. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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Michael Meyer was Newsweek's bureau chief for Germany, Central Europe, and the Balkans between 1988 and 1992. He is the winner of two Overseas Press Club Awards. He is the author of The Alexander Complex and a member of the New York Council on Foreign Relations.