In this photograph, the raked sand area of the “death-strip” can clearly be seen. This made it easy to trace the path of would-be escapees, and punish the guards who let them escape [always the presumption when such an event occurred]. The S-Bahn, the overhead railway, still crosses over the Wall, a source of revenue, though used only by Westerners. The Reichstag building, on the Western side, is in the background. The strip curves round towards the Brandenburg gate.
In its final form, the Wall was a formidable barrier with watchtowers, sentries and dogs. Anyone found within the death strip was entitled to one warning shot [in the earlier period], after which shoot-to-kill applied. After the end of the 1960s, no-one crossed over the Wall successfully. The piping along the top made it almost impossible to get a grip.
The Bernauerstrasse in the 1980s. The road has been torn up and replaced by the usual apparatus of the death strip, including the guard-tower in the photograph. Some of the buildings still form part of the Wall, their westward-facing windows bricked up. One of the big guard-towers in a wooded, wire-fenced section of the Wall. The wire was just as deadly to cross as the concrete Wall. From this tower the Grenzer could shoot at Wall-crossers.
Torn-up tram lines The Potsdamer Platz, once one of Berlin’s busiest squares, levelled after the Wall was built in 1961. It lies within no-man’s-land. This photograph is a perfect example of how arbitrarily the Wall divided the city; it cuts across one of the main arteries into the square. Potsdamer Platz was the focus of the 1953 uprising against the Soviets; perhaps that is why it was so totally destroyed. Inset: The rebuilt Potsdamer Platz as it is today.
Sentries patrol the later Wall, 1978. The “hinterland wall” is visible behind the alarmed, barbed-wire “border signal fence with its angled brackets. The sentries are walking on the patrol track. The raked sand of this “death strip” is to their left, beyond which is the “border marker” facing West Berlin.
Grenzer assemble for a patrol. Note that the Eastern side of the “western marker”, in no-man’s-land, is singularly free from graffiti.
Grenzer and a Stasi agent arrest two would-be escapees at a border-crossing point. This would effectively have destroyed their careers. The Wall was not built to keep hostile foreigners out; it was there to keep East Germans in.
Border control point for the Teltow Canal. This was one of the waterways that separated the Soviet sector of Berlin from the Western ones. On it lay the Humboldt Basin, Berlin’s docks [we saw guards on the docks a bit earlier]. The bridge at the right crossed over it. The Wall itself can be seen in the background, left, where the border moves away from the canal. It was while crossing the Teltow Canal that Günther Litfin was shot and killed by black-uniformed Trapos. Note the control tower with roof railings, from which they could easily fire upon any vehicle that tried to “make a break for it” [see inset, with the powerful search-light]. This border point also handled ships passing through the canal from East to West and vice-versa.
Looking over the Wall from the West at the Griebnitzsee. [“See” , pronounced “zay”, is the German word for “lake.”] In the foreground, the usual graffiti covers the Wall. The lakes and rivers of Berlin formed a more-or-less continuous series of waterways linking the various parts of the former capital. In the earlier days of the Wall, at least one senior Grenzer managed to smuggle himself and his family out one mor-ning, evading the high-speed patrol-boats in the mist [they were not equipped with radar]. The barrier-fence across the lake was subsequently placed to prevent any further such escapes.
Checkpoint Charlie, the most famous border crossing in the West, since it was the point at which non-German Westerners crossed into East Berlin. It is named because of the military alphabet: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, etc. In everyday language its name would be “Checkpoint C”. Note the small hut and lack of barriers on the western side, and the elaborate building, walls and gates on the east. The street blocked by this checkpoint is the famous Friedrichstrasse, which recedes into the distance. Note the sector border sign to the right of the road, in the three official languages of the Allied Control Commission. The hut has since been removed, and can be seen, in Berlin, in the Wall Museum.
The Glienicke bridge, over the Havel river at the south-west corner of West Berlin, near Potsdam. It was the traditional site of East-West spy exchanges. In this photograph, the USA and the USSR [as the flag shows] prepare for just such an exchange.
The Western face of the Berlin Wall – the world’s longest open-air art gallery? A young West-Berliner contributes to the layers of spray-paint. He is actually standing on DDR territory, which began five metres before the “border marker”. We have so far looked at the building of the Wall, and at its structure and operation. We now stand back and take a look at East Berlin centre as a whole, viewed over the Wall from the western side.
East Berlin in 1969 The Fernsehturm [TV tower] was completed in 1969. In contravention of the Tripartite agreement, the DDR Council of Ministers [government] made East Berlin the capital city [West Germany chose Bonn]. The tower was the East’s was of asserting its pres-ence by dominating the skyline. The Berliner Dom [Lutheran Cathedral] is still under recon-struction – the dome has not yet been replaced. The destroyed Alexanderplatz, rebuilt as the showpiece centre of East Berlin. 25 years after World War II, the city centre has hardly been rebuilt. The few new buildings are in an inexpensive modern style, not unlike some in the West. Here they reflect the relative poverty of East Germany.
East Berlin in 1986 The city has finally been reconstructed. The wide avenue, centre, is the famous Unter den Linden, around which lies the historic centre of Berlin. West Berlin redeveloped around the Kurfürstendamm, while the East reconstructed its centre around the Alexanderplatz [at the base of the Fernsehturm]. This famous photograph was taken from the Goodyear blimp. The Berliner Dom with its reconstructed dome. DDR Parliament, the “People’s Palace.” It no longer exists. Pergamon Museum The reconstructed St Hedwig’s [Catholic] Cathedral. Humboldt University Soviet Embassy Unter den Linden Bricked-up building forming part of the Wall. Reichstag building Pariserplatz with the Brandenburg gate, in no-man’s land. Painted Western side of the “border marker”.
The Kurfürstendamm in West Berlin, reflecting the prosperity and industry of the free-enterprise Federal Republic. Inset: The Alexanderplatz in East Berlin, reflect-ing the poorer and greyer concrete world of the socialist DDR. The structure in the foreground is the famous World Clock, giving times in cities worldwide that East Germans had no hope of ever seeing. East Berlin Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial church
“Mr Gorbachev, tear down this Wall!” Helmut Kohl, the Chancellor [Prime Minister] of the Federal Republic, and a bare three years later, protagonist and first Chancellor of a united Germany, was present at Mr Reagan’s visit to West Berlin. He hardly looks unhappy at the sentiments expressed by President Reagan. The beginning of the end – President Ronald Reagan visits the Wall, June, 1987. With the DDR economy in tatters, and the USSR near to panic after his supreme “Star Wars” bluff, Reagan, who had no qualms whatever about calling the Soviet bloc an “Evil Empire”, thundered before the Brandenburg Gate: “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace – if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe – if you seek liberalisation, come here to this gate, Mr Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr Gorbachev, TEAR DOWN THIS WALL!” Henry Kissinger’s era of “détente” had passed. So, within four years, would the Cold War, the Wall, the DDR, the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union itself.
At a press conference on the evening of 9th November, Günter Schabowski, media spokesman for the Central Committee of the SED, mistakenly announces the relaxation of border restrictions. The announcement was scheduled to be made the next morning. It was taken up by Western TV stations under the banner headline “The DDR is opening its borders”. The broadcasts unleashed a flood of DDR citizens, who headed for the Wall checkpoints, demanding to be let through. Grenzer at the Bornholmer Strasse crossing were heavily outnumbered. Their commander was not prepared to fire upon a crowd of over a thousand. He eventually just opened the gates and let the people do as they pleased. And what pleased the East Berliners, was to cross over into West Berlin. By 2am, most of the other checkpoints were also open. So it was that the Berlin Wall simply “came tumbling down”.
The Wall, indeed, comes tumbling down, as East Germans stream joyfully across the Bornholmer Strasse bridge at 11.30pm on the night of 9-10 November 1989. The opening of the border was “the biggest, wildest street party the world has ever seen,” wrote Frederick Taylor in The Berlin Wall – “And perhaps followed by one of the biggest hangovers.”
No need for any explanations about this now famous photograph. Young West Berliners clamber up on to the Wall on 10th November. The Grenzer were powerless to prevent this from happening. Western police did not even bother to try, despite complaints from the East, and requests for them to “keep [their] people under control” [!!!]
On 10th November, the DDR government briefly attempted to reclaim control of the Wall by lining its length with uniformed guards. As can be seen, it was a futile gesture. The guards do not look particularly convinced, either.
1 2 3 “The fall of the Berlin Wall, like its construction, took place in a single night,” wrote Frederick Taylor. “Just as on 13th August, 1961, a city and a people woke up to find themselves divided, so on the morning of 10th November, 1989 that division was no more. Although how many people actually woke up to this revelation is debatable, since during that night in Berlin many had not slept a wink.” Scenes from “The Fall of the Wall”:  DDR citizens line up to cross the border at Bornholmer Strasse after the opening of the border crossing, with their new travel documents.  As a segment of the Wall is prised away, East German border guards gain their first unrestricted view of the West – and its citizens. Uncertainty and curiosity is written on their faces. East Germans are welcomed as they drive into West Berlin in their Trabants – the gas-guzzling, carbon monoxide-gener-ating “people’s car” of the DDR. For a while after, it was fashion-able for West Germans to own one.
A family strolls along the inspection track, through the Wall’s decaying death strip. In the foreground lie the dismantled remains of one of the last model of watchtower. Once, anyone caught in this area would have been cut down by machine-gun fire.
One of the last Grenzer, looking decidedly unsure of himself, patrols the now derelict Wall on a military motor-bike. He is still wearing the soon-to-be-defunct border guards’ uniform. Within a year, with the re-unification of Germany, the familiar jackbooted figures that patrolled the Wall would simply disappear – for ever.
A dramatic resolution, as the two Germanys are formally reunited on 3rd October, 1990, left. Before the Reichstag building, the flag of the united German Federal Republic is raised. Reunification was the work of West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who carried all before him in convincing the Western Allies to allow it to happen. Only Britain had misgivings. With reunification, in 1990 the Tripartite agreement was finally abrogated, and Berlin returned to German sovereignty. Berlin has since become once more the capital of Germany, and the Reichstag building is again its parliament. It is today a massive construction site. Very few traces of the Wall remain. The dramatic new dome over the Berlin Reichstag building, designed by the British architect Sir Norman Foster
The sad and shoddy end of the DDR – its once proud uniforms now militaria in a car-boot sale. The Western world is today awash with DDR surplus uniforms, boots and insignia, which were sold off to film-companies and re-enactors in order to earn hard cash. The items themselves are, of course, of no more use in Germany, where they are the despised relics of a hated era. The state that Walter Ulbricht founded, and struggled so hard to maintain, together with all its official symbols and institutions, has just disappeared into history.
“For anyone who knew the city when the Wall cast its pall across Berlin, nothing can beat the pleasure of being able to stroll through the Brandenburg gate and across the Pariser Platz, maybe heading for an espresso in one of the boulevard cafés on Unter den Linden. And nothing is sweeter than the awareness that, compared with twenty years ago, the greatest danger you run when taking these few unhurried paces is of being knocked into by an over-enthusiastic bicycle courier, not cut in half by a burst of automatic fire. “When we’re doing this, and the sun is shining, sometimes we can believe that Hitler never happened, that Auschwitz was just the German name for an obscure village in Poland, and that the Berlin Wall was just a figment of somebody’s mad imagination.” Frederick Taylor, The Berlin Wall
I acknowledge a major debt of thanks to my friends Georg Breuer [ex-Bundeswehr] Peter Tannhoff [ex-NVA 1985-7] Thomas Wittig [ex-NVA 1987-9] for their contribution to my knowledge and understanding of the DDR and NVA and for helping me to reflect upon and understand better my own military experience in the SADF 1973-1975. “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” [John 8]
See what the SADF could do for you! July 1975 October 1973 6 Weeks after call-up. First week-end pass at the end of Basic Training. With my mother in Kerkplein, Pretoria. What a skinny little wimp! 39 days before clearing out. After 40 days’ party the night before, and OC’s parade. Can you see the massive babbelaas? And the muscular development?