Following World War II, the Soviet Union disseminated its control across the whole of Eastern Europe. In some portions of Berlin, the Iron Curtain of fierce communist reign took hold under the rule of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) as the Soviet’s capture of the city played an important part in defeating the Nazis once and for all.
Berlin has long stood as a juncture between East and West, so it’s not all that surprising that it was literally divided in half to be ruled under the jurisdictions of those on both sides of the political spectrum, even before the idea of building the Wall was conceived. Indeed, both Stalin and the Allied forces wanted this strategic city, and neither side was willing to give it up.
Under the oppressive regime of the GDR, which didn’t offer many opportunities for social advancement, there was a great diaspora of people—particularly members of the intelligentsia—from East to West who hoped to escape the tight grip of communism. To curb the outflow of the GDR’s best minds, it was decided that drastic measures had to be taken. Construction of the Wall began in 1961, and it thoroughly separated East Berlin from the western portion of the city. The GDR claimed the Wall was for the civilians’ protection from western fascism. Many historians believe that, in reality, a major reason for building the Wall was to stop the exodus of citizens from East to West. At this time, prominent neighborhoods like Friedrichshain, Prenzlauer Berg, and most of Mitte were fortified behind the Iron Curtain.
The most harrowing part of the Wall was not the 3.6 slabs of concrete that separated the city. Rather, it was the ‘death strip’ that existed in between the eastern and the western sides. There were armed guards, beds of nails and other obstacles to keep people from climbing over. The mechanisms used to enforce the divide are now displayed at the Berlin Wall Memorial and museum near Mauerpark.
In West Berlin, the Berlin Wall was often considered the ‘Wall of shame’, and it helped to spur feelings of rebelliousness and creative expression in many of the city’s youth—particularly in the district of Kreuzberg where vehement countercultural movements emerged. Not to mention, the western portion of the Wall was completely covered in graffiti.
The Free University of Berlin was created in order to fill the void left by Humboldt University, which was quarantined within East Berlin. Kürfurstendamm and Grunewald Forest remained important hubs for commerce and recreation as they had before WWII. Even events like the Berlin Marathon simply omitted the eastern portion of the city from the route. In general, life on the western side pretty much carried on as it did anywhere else in the western, capitalist oriented world; but the Wall always stood as a reminder of the fragility of such freedoms and the West’s dependence on other Allied nations.
Meanwhile, on the East side, things were certainly different. From styles of dress to the cars that they drove, East Berliners faced much of the same isolation as other members of the Soviet Bloc. Consumer products were often in inconsistent supply, particularly the things imported from foreign countries. Buildings were uniform, built in bland Soviet architectural techniques. Everything was grey, as homes and businesses were never painted. There weren’t even ads or commercials, which had begun to find their way into western culture by this time. While West Berliners were more interested in hippie culture, easterners idolized the bourgeois of previous generations as the antithesis to their proletarian identities within the GDR. In many ways, East Berlin was viewed as being behind the times.
When learning about the Berlin Wall, we often get the perspective of the West, probably because it is the side that ultimately won out when the Wall, and subsequently, the Soviet Union itself collapsed. Yet, there were actually some benefits to life in the East. For one, the all too pervasive anxieties surrounding money that most people feel in capitalist societies were essentially void in the East. Housing and schooling, for example, were subsidized or else extremely cheap and therefore made life more carefree. There was gender equality in the workplace and the increased police presence actually garnered feelings of safety for lots of people.
Still, citizens were subject to heavy surveillance that often resulted in severe punishments and depositions. Passage, from one side to the other, was severely restricted for both easterners and westerners. This meant that many family members and friends were separated from each other for as long as the Wall stood. Berlin’s interactive DDR Museum. Checkpoint Charlie and the Stasi Museum are excellent resources for understanding how the GDR was run.
Anti-Wall sentiments grew with each passing year as East Berliners became increasingly disgruntled with their lives of isolation. Famous speeches by John F. Kennedy and other public events attracted international attention to the cultural oppression people faced behind the Wall. Thousands of East Berliners stood in attendance on their side of the Wall as enormously popular musicians like David Bowie played concerts. These mass displays of the angst they felt to be excluded from such events ultimately spurred protests and riots in the East as well.
By the late 80s, people in the East had had enough. They demonstrated en masse and demanded reunification. As the Soviet Union itself was well on its way to collapse, the administration didn’t have the morale or the resources to resist the revolts. When the Wall finally came down on 9th November 1989, Berlin grew into its uniquely volatile culture in greater doses than ever. Creatives from all over the world found refuge in the many vacant buildings left behind in the East along with the astonishingly low rent prices. This, combined with the countercultural movements on the rise on both sides of Berlin, led to a creative cultural boom.
Reunification itself was heavily expensive. West Germany invested €2-trillion into catching the East up with the West in terms of infrastructure, economics, and social programs. Experts still say that there is an economic division between East and West, to the point where the East still has weaker international economic ties and higher unemployment.
Traces of the Wall remain throughout the city today, welcoming millions of tourists to reflect on and contemplate this stark symbol of division within the city. The East Side Gallery in Friedrichshain, for instance, is one of the best places to see the Wall, which is now covered in murals and graffiti. Berlin truly is a living museum with a remarkable history.