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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.

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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.

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holidays
A Brief History of Black Friday
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iStock

The unofficial start of the holiday shopping season is often referred to as the busiest shopping day of the year. But where did this tradition start and just how big is it? Here are the answers to a few frequently asked questions about Black Friday. Hopefully they'll give you some good talking points tomorrow, when you line up outside Best Buy at 4 a.m.

HOW DID BLACK FRIDAY BECOME SUCH A BIG SHOPPING DAY?

It's hard to say when the day after Thanksgiving turned into a retail free-for-all, but it probably dates back to the late 19th century. At that time, store-sponsored Thanksgiving parades were common, and once Santa Claus showed up at the end of the parade, the holiday shopping season had officially commenced.

In those days, most retailers adhered to an unwritten rule that holiday shopping season didn't start until after Thanksgiving, so no stores would advertise holiday sales or aggressively court customers until the Friday immediately following the holiday. Thus, when the floodgates opened that Friday, it became a huge deal.

SO RETAILERS WERE ALWAYS HOPING FOR AN EARLY THANKSGIVING?

You bet. They weren't just hoping, though; they were being proactive about it. In 1939, the Retail Dry Goods Association warned Franklin Roosevelt that if the holiday season wouldn't begin until after Americans celebrated Thanksgiving on the traditional final Thursday in November, retail sales would go in the tank. Ever the iconoclast, Roosevelt saw an easy solution to this problem: he moved Thanksgiving up by a week. Instead of celebrating the holiday on its traditional day—November 30th that year—Roosevelt declared the next-to-last Thursday in November to be the new Thanksgiving, instantly tacking an extra week onto the shopping season.

BRILLIANT! HOW DID THAT WORK OUT?

Not so well. Roosevelt didn't make the announcement until late October, and by then most Americans had already made their holiday travel plans. Many rebelled and continued to celebrate Thanksgiving on its "real" date while derisively referring to the impostor holiday as "Franksgiving." State governments didn't know which Thanksgiving to observe, so some of them took both days off. In short, it was a bit of a mess.

By 1941, though, the furor had died down, and Congress passed a law that made Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November, regardless of how it affected the shopping day that would become known as Black Friday.

WHY CALL IT BLACK FRIDAY?

If you ask most people why the day after Thanksgiving is called Black Friday, they'll explain that the name stems from retailers using the day's huge receipts as their opportunity to "get in the black" and become profitable for the year. The first recorded uses of the term "Black Friday" are a bit less rosy, though.

According to researchers, the name "Black Friday" dates back to Philadelphia in the mid-1960s. The Friday in question is nestled snugly between Thanksgiving and the traditional Army-Navy football game that's played in Philadelphia on the following Saturday, so the City of Brotherly Love was always bustling with activity on that day. All of the people were great for retailers, but they were a huge pain for police officers, cab drivers, and anyone who had to negotiate the city's streets. They started referring to the annual day of commercial bedlam as "Black Friday" to reflect how irritating it was.

SO WHERE DID THE WHOLE "GET IN THE BLACK" STORY ORIGINATE?

Apparently store owners didn't love having their biggest shopping day saddled with such a negative moniker, so in the early 1980s someone began floating the accounting angle to put a more positive spin on the big day.

DO RETAILERS REALLY NEED BLACK FRIDAY TO TURN AN ANNUAL PROFIT?

Major retailers don't; they're generally profitable—or at least striving for profitability—throughout the entire year. (A company that turned losses for three quarters out of every fiscal year wouldn't be a big hit with investors.) Some smaller outlets may parlay big holiday season sales into annual profits, though.

IS BLACK FRIDAY REALLY THE BIGGEST SHOPPING DAY OF THE YEAR?

It's certainly the day of the year in which you're most likely to be punched while reaching for a Tickle Me Elmo doll, but it might not be the busiest day in terms of gross receipts. According to Snopes.com, Black Friday is generally one of the top days of the year for stores, but it's the days immediately before Christmas—when procrastinators finally get shopping—that stores make the serious loot. Black Friday may, however, be the busiest day of the year in terms of customer traffic.

Snopes's data shows the 10-year span from 1993 to 2002, and in that interval Black Friday was never higher than fourth on the list of the year's busiest shopping days by sales volume. In 2003 and 2005 Black Friday did climb to the top of the pile for sales revenue days, but it still gets stiff competition from the week leading up to Christmas, particularly the Saturday right before the big day.

DO PEOPLE REALLY GET INJURED ON BLACK FRIDAY?

Sadly, yes. One of the most tragic Black Friday incidents happened in 2008, when 34-year-old seasonal employee Jdimytai Damour was killed after a crowd of hundreds of people from the approximately 2000 people waiting outside knocked him own and stampeded over his back after the doors opened at 5 a.m. at the Wal-Mart on Long Island, New York.

In 2010 in Buffalo, New York, several shoppers were trampled trying to get into a Target. One of the victims, Keith Krantz—who was pinned against a metal door support and then shoved to the ground—told a CNN affiliate he thought he would be killed. “At that moment, I was thinking I don't want to die here on the ground,” Krantz said.

In Murray, Utah, 15,000 shoppers swamped a mall with such force, the local police had to respond to break up skirmishes and fistfights, and keep shoppers from ransacking stores.

In 2008, a fight broke out between a young girl and a man at another Wal-Mart store in Columbus, Ohio, over a 40-inch Samsung flat-screen television. It was $798, marked down from $1000. The New York Times reported that the not-so-aptly-named Nikki Nicely, 19, leaped onto a fellow shopper’s back and began pounding his shoulders violently when he attempted to purchase the television. “That’s my TV!” shouted Ms. Nicely, who then took an elbow to the face. “That’s my TV!” The fight was broken up by a police officer and security guard. “That’s right,” Nicely cried as her adversary walked away. “This here is my TV!”

HOW CAN THIS KIND OF THING BE AVOIDED?

In an effort to keep a few would-be clients from personal injury law firms, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) created a special checklist for retailers expecting large crowds.

So what’s OSHA’s advice? Consider using bullhorns. Hire a team of police officers. Be prepared for “crowd crushing” and “violent acts.” Set up barricades. And, above all else, if charging shoppers come running, stay out of the way.

Haley Sweetland Edwards contributed to this story, portions of which originally appeared in 2009.

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Pop Culture
A Speedy History of the Hess Truck
Hess Corporation
Hess Corporation

Unless you know someone crazy about air fresheners or caffeine pills, holiday gifts purchased at gas stations don’t usually provoke much excitement. But if you were one of the millions who grew up in the northeast, the annual release of the Hess toy truck at Hess gas stations—usually green, always labeled with a Hess logo, always boxed with batteries—was and is as much a part of the holiday as Santa Claus and his sleigh.

The idea for an affordable, quality children’s toy sold at service stations at thousands of Hess locations in 16 states was courtesy of Leon Hess, the college dropout-turned-fuel magnate who began selling oil door-to-door in 1933 and graduated to gas stops by 1960. Hess decided he would trump the cheap merchandise given away by gas stations—mugs, glassware—by commissioning a durable, feature-heavy toy truck modeled after the first oil tanker he ever bought for his company. Unlike most toys of the era, it would have headlights that really worked and a tank that kids could either fill up or drain with water.

Most importantly, Hess insisted it come with batteries—he knew the frustration suffered by kids who tore into a holiday present, only to discover they’d have to wait until it had a power source before it could be operated.

The Hess Tanker Truck went on sale in 1964 for $1.29 and sold out almost instantly. Hess released the toy again in 1965, and then introduced the Voyager Tanker Ship in 1966. For the next 50 years, hardly a year went by without Hess issuing a new vehicle that stood up to heavy play and offered quality and features comparable to the “real” toys on store shelves. Incredibly, fathers would wait in line for hours for an opportunity to buy one for their child.

The toy truck became so important to the Hess brand and developed such a strong following that when the company was bought out in 2014 and locations converted to the Speedway umbrella, new owners Marathon Petroleum promised they would keep making the Hess trucks. They’re now sold online, with the newest—the Dump Truck and Loader, complete with working hydraulics and STEM lesson plans—retailing for $33.99. Bigger, better toy trucks may be out there, but a half-century of tradition is hard to replicate.

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