Behind the Wall


Amy Davidson is the executive editor of She is a regular Comment contributor for the magazine and writes a column for its Web site, covering war, sports, and everything in between.

The Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, twenty-five years ago this month, but the first attempts to breach it came immediately after it went up, just past midnight on August 13, 1961. The East German regime had been secretly stockpiling barbed wire and wooden sawhorses, which the police, who learned of their mission only that night, hastily assembled into a barrier. For many Berliners, the first sign that a historic turn had been taken was when the U-Bahn, the city’s subway, stopped running on certain routes, leaving late-night passengers to walk home through streets that were suddenly filled with soldiers. As realization set in, so did a sense of panic. By noon the next day, as Ann Tusa recounts in “The Last Division,” people were trying to pull down the barbed wire with their hands. Some succeeded, in scattered places, and a car drove through a section of the Wall to the other side. In the following weeks, the authorities began reinforcing it.

Within a year, the Wall was nearly eight feet high, with patrols and the beginnings of a no man’s land. But it still wasn’t too tall for a person to scale, and on August 17, 1962, Peter Fechter, who was eighteen years old, and his friend Helmut Kulbeik decided to try. They picked a spot on Zimmerstrasse, near the American Checkpoint Charlie, and just after two o’clock in the afternoon they made a run for it. Kulbeik got over, but Fechter was shot by a guard, and fell to the ground. He was easily visible from the West; there are photographs of him, taken as he lay calling for help. Hundreds of people gathered on the Western side, shouting for someone to save him. The East German police didn’t want to, and the Americans had been told that if they crossed the border they might start a war. Someone tossed a first-aid kit over the Wall, but Fechter was too weak to pick it up. After an hour, he bled to death.

Riots broke out in West Berlin, and many asked angrily why the Americans had let Fechter die. He was hardly more than a child, and he wanted to be a free man. It’s a fair question, though one can imagine actions taken that day which could have led to a broader confrontation. It was not a moment to risk grand gestures; Fechter died two months before the Cuban missile crisis. (When the Wall went up, John F. Kennedy told his aides that it was “not a very nice solution, but a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.”) And there was something off key about Germans, so soon after the end of the Second World War, railing about others being craven bystanders. Some observers came to see the Wall as the necessary scaffolding on which to secure a postwar peace. That’s easy to say, though, when one is on the side with the department stores, and without the secret police.

Technically, West Berlin was the city being walled in, a quasi-metropolis detached from the rest of West Germany. The Allied victors—America, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union—had divided Germany into four parts, and, since Berlin was in the Soviet sector, they divided the city into four parts, too. In 1948, the Soviets cut off most road and rail access to the city’s three western sectors, in an effort to assert their authority. The Americans responded with the Berlin Airlift, sending in planes carrying food and coal, and so much salt that their engines began to corrode. By the time the Wall went up, it wasn’t the West Berliners who were hungry. West Germany’s Wirtschaftswunder, or economic miracle, was under way, while life in the East involved interminable shortages. West Berliners were surrounded by Soviet military encampments, but they were free and they could leave—and so could anyone who could get to their part of the city...

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