13 Things You Might Not Know About the Berlin Wall

Around the end of World War II and German surrender in 1945, a pair of peace conferences in Potsdam and Yalta split the defeated land into four territories controlled by the Allied powers. The Soviets took the East (known as the German Democratic Republic, or GDR), and the United States, Britain, and France each got a piece of the West. Berlin, the longtime capital, was also divided into East and West, even though it was located entirely within Soviet borders.

The barrier that was eventually erected on the city's East/West border stood for nearly three decades. On November 9, 1989, East and West Germans converged on the Berlin Wall, successfully breaking through die Mauer. Below, a few things you might not know about the structure.

1. THE WALL WAS BUILT TO KEEP PEOPLE IN.

Between 1949 and 1961, almost 3 million people defected from East Germany to the West, and almost all went through Berlin. Each day thousands of Berliners on both sides crossed the border in order to work and shop, and though the city sat some 100 miles from the actual West/East border, defectors from the East were able to escape into the West due to this “loophole.” In the two and a half months prior to the wall going up, more than 67,000 people defected to the West, many of them doctors, teachers, students, and engineers. Roughly half were younger than 25.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev lamented this “brain drain,” and on August 13, 1961, the GDR closed the border between the two sides. Thus, unlike ancient walls built in China and northern England, die Mauer was not constructed to repel invaders; it was thrown together and manned to stop the incessant flow of Germans escaping to live and work in the West.

2. THE EAST GERMANS TORE UP CITY STREETS TO CONSTRUCT THE WALL.

GDR chairman Walter Ulbricht gathered government officials at a lake house on August 12, and by midnight, operational head Erich Honecker was given orders to seal the borders. He amassed more than 3000 troops, along with armored vehicles, in the city center. Another 4000 formed a security perimeter to prevent people from breaking through.

The next morning, GDR troops ripped apart the surface of Friedrich-Ebert Strasse and piled the loose chunks into a makeshift barrier, while armed guards stood in front ready to shoot any East Germans who tried to defect. Barbed-wire and posts were hastily added to lengthen and secure the makeshift structure, which eventually wound irregularly though the city and surrounding countryside and measured approximately 96 miles long.

3. THE WALL GREW OVER TIME.

Although initially built with wayward parts, concrete slabs, and housing materials, over time—as people found a way to escape—the wall became more elaborate. In 1963, a border area was added behind the wall, which was reinforcedwith individual barriers and additional fencing. The wall topped out at 12 feet in places, with a pipe placed on top that made climbing over nearly impossible. Apartment buildings that straddled the border were either abandoned or torn down, and in the '70s, an inner wall was built to eliminate access to the main fence.

4. THE WALL WAS LOADED WITH SECURITY MEASURES.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In addition to the concrete and barbed wire, the 96.3-mile wall came with 302 observation towers, 259 dog runs, 20 bunkers manned by more than 11,000 soldiers, and more than 79 miles of electrified fencing.

5. THE "DEATH STRIP" WAS AS SCARY AS IT SOUNDS.

For any East German attempting to escape, a 30-150 meter stretch called the “Death Strip” was put in place to halt defectors and stop any potential attacks. Along with the floodlights was a line of antitank barricades, a signal fence that activated an alarm, beds of nails called “Stalin’s lawn,” buried mines, and electrified fencing. A row of freshly raked sand was added to show footprints, and armed guards in towers had orders to shoot any would-be defector if the other measures were ineffective.

6. "CHECKPOINT CHARLIE" WAS THE MOST WELL-KNOWN CROSSING.

A handful of border crossings allowed those with official documentation to move between the West and the East, and the Checkpoint C crossing at Friedrichstrasse was the only one used by foreigners and Allied forces. In October 1961, it was the site of a tank standoff between Soviet and U.S. forces. U.S. diplomat Edwin Allan Lightner was traveling to East Germany and was stopped at the border. But he refused to show his papers to the East German border guards, insisting that U.S. policy stated he was to only show them to the Soviets. After several days of escalating arguments about border access, the Allies sent 10 tanks to Checkpoint Charlie, and the Soviets followed suit. For 16 hours the tanks squared off before cooler heads prevailed and both sides backed down.

7. THE WALL IS RESPONSIBLE FOR MORE THAN 130 DEATHS.


After being cut off from her sister, who lived just blocks away on the western side of the wall, Ida Siekmann, 58, jumped from the third-story window of her apartment building and died on August 22, 1961. The first shooting victim was Günter Litfin, who lived and worked in the West, but had returned to the East side prior to the wall going up. He tried to run across the railroad tracks, but was shot in the head by police on August 24.

Some estimates put the number of people who died attempting to cross to the West at more than 200, but a German research group confirmed 138 deaths [PDF].

8. ABOUT HALF OF ALL EAST GERMAN DEFECTORS MADE IT.

Stories abound of East Germans flying balloons, ramming cars through the Wall, jumping out of windows, and shimmying down a wire to escape. About 5,000 people were able to make it of an estimated 10,000 who tried. Most, however, used bribes and forged documents to leave.

9. THE EAST GERMANS DYNAMITED AN ADJACENT CHURCH.

A chapel called the Church of Reconciliation, which was mainly used by West German worshippers, unfortunately sat in the Death Strip and was abandoned after the wall went up. On January 22, 1985, the East Germans blew up the crumbling, 19th century Protestant church.

10. TWO U.S. PRESIDENTS GAVE ICONIC SPEECHES THERE.

John F. Kennedy supposedly told White House aides that “a Wall is a hell of a lot better than a war,” and deflected suggestions that he deal with the Wall aggressively. But on June 26, 1963, just a few months before he was killed, he spoke in front of nearly half a million Germans on the steps of Berlin’s city hall, Rathaus Schöneberg, declaring “Ich bin ein Berliner (I am a Berliner)” in order to offer support to West Germany and offer a contrast between the two sides.

In June 1987, Ronald Reagan visited on Berlin’s 750th Anniversary, stood at the Brandenburg Gate, and demanded of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

11. THE BOSS ROCKED IT.

Springsteen and the E-Street band performed a concert for over 300,000 in East Berlin in July 1988, and the show was also broadcast across the world. Speaking in German, Springsteen told the crowd, “I want to tell you that I’m not here for or against any government, I have come to play rock 'n roll for the East Berliners, in the hope that one day all barriers will be torn down.”

12. WHEN IT FELL, IT FELL "IMMEDIATELY."

Hungary loosened its physical borders in the summer of 1989 and more than 13,000 East German tourists streamed into Austria. Some restrictions were placed on citizens to prevent such a massive exodus, but the writing was on the wall. By the fall, longtime GDR leader Hoenecker was forced out of office, 500,000 people demonstrated in Berlin, and GDR spokesman Günter Schabowski declared in a press conference that citizens would be able to freely travel to the West “immediately.” The government tried to call for a slower, more orderly migration, but the order was taken literally and thousands of people stormed the wall, tearing it apart on both the East and West sides.

13. THE WALL CAN BE YOURS!

It took nearly a year for East and West Germany to become officially reunified. Meanwhile “mauerspechtes,” or wall peckers, chipped away at the concrete fortification and took pieces away for souvenirs and memorials. You can even buy a piece on eBay.

A Letter Written by Albert Einstein in 1922 Predicted the Rise of the Nazis

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As a Jew living in Germany in the 1920s, Albert Einstein had an up-close view of the Nazis’ rise to power. As early as 1922, he could see turbulent political times ahead, as a letter to his sister reveals. The handwritten, signed letter recently sold at auction for $39,360, Live Science reports.

The letter, offered by the Jerusalem-based Kedem Auction House, is addressed to Einstein’s younger sister Maja. Einstein wrote it from an undisclosed location—probably Kiel, Germany, according to the auction house—after he fled Berlin in 1922 in the wake of the assassination of Germany’s Jewish foreign minister, Walther Rathenau, by a right-wing terrorist group. Police had warned Einstein that as a prominent Jew his life could be in danger, too. “Nobody knows where I am, and I'm believed to be missing,” he writes in the letter.

He remained upbeat while at the same time acknowledging the seriousness of the political situation that he and other German Jews were facing. “I am doing quite well, in spite of all the anti-Semites among my German colleagues,” he assured Maja. "Here are brewing economically and politically dark times, so I'm happy to be able to get away from everything for half a year,” he wrote, alluding to his upcoming six-month trip to Asia, during which he would learn that he had won the Nobel Prize. He was right—Adolf Hitler's failed coup in Bavaria would take place the next year, in November 1923.

Einstein goes on to say “Don't worry about me, I myself don't worry either, even if it's not quite kosher; people are very upset. In Italy, it seems to be at least as bad, by the way."

After his Asian tour, he returned to Germany before setting out on new travels, including a tour of the United States. He was in the U.S. when Adolf Hitler became Germany’s chancellor, and decided to renounce his German citizenship. He eventually settled in Princeton, New Jersey.

See the full details of the letter at the Kedem Auction House’s website.

[h/t Live Science]

No Joe: The Time Coffee Was Banned in Prussia

iStock.com/NickS
iStock.com/NickS

In the late 18th century, Prussia's King Frederick the Great (officially Frederick II) blacklisted coffee and encouraged his royal subjects to drink something far more wholesome—beer. According to William Harrison Ukers's classic 1922 book All About Coffee, Frederick issued this decree on September 13, 1777:

"It is disgusting to notice the increase in the quantity of coffee used by my subjects, and the amount of money that goes out of the country in consequence. Everybody is using coffee. If possible, this must be prevented. My people must drink beer. His Majesty was brought up on beer, and so were his ancestors, and his officers. Many battles have been fought and won by soldiers nourished on beer; and the King does not believe that coffee-drinking soldiers can be depended upon to endure hardship or to beat his enemies in case of the occurrence of another war."

Though the authenticity of the above quotation cannot be confirmed, it certainly jibes with King Freddie's other opinions on the matter, according to Robert Liberles, a scholar of German-Jewish history. In a 1779 letter, Frederick wrote, "It is despicable to see how extensive the consumption of coffee is … if this is limited a bit, people will have to get used to beer again … His Royal Majesty was raised eating beer-soup, so these people can also be brought up nurtured with beer-soup. This is much healthier than coffee."

So Old Fritz, as he was called, loved beer. But why was he so opposed to coffee?

For one, Frederick was terrified that excessive imports could ruin his kingdom's economy, and he much preferred to restrict commerce than engage in trade. Since coffee, unlike beer, was brought in from across the border, Frederick regularly griped that "at least 700,000 thaler leave the country annually just for coffee"—money, he believed, that could be funneled into well-taxed Prussian businesses instead.

In other words, into Fritz's own pockets.

To redirect the people's spending patterns, Frederick ordered a number of steep restrictions, demanding that coffee roasters obtain a license from the government. This sounds like a reasonable regulation until you learn that Frederick summarily rejected nearly all of the applications, granting exceptions only to people who were already cozy with his court.

If that sounds elitist, it was. Frederick was adamant about keeping coffee out of the hands and mouths of poor people, writing, "this foreign product [has] extended into the lowest classes of human society and caused great contraband activities." To stop them, he hired approximately 400 disabled soldiers to work as coffee spies, or "sniffers," to roam city streets "following the smell of roasting coffee whenever detected, in order to seek out those who might be found without roasting permits," Ukers writes.

But none of these tactics worked. Rather, they just increased coffee smuggling and exacerbated the "contraband activities" that Frederick claimed he was trying to prevent in the first place. So shortly after the king died in 1786, many of these restrictions were lifted, proving yet again that it's always a mistake to get between someone and their java.

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