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The wall that divided the world

The wall that divided the world
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Work began on the Berlin Wall on 13 August, 1961. Once completed, it would measure 155 kilometres and become one of the most rigorously fortified borders in the world.

At least 136 people died in the 28 years that the Wall split the German capital.

After the Second World War, two political ideologies confronted each other across Europe.

The sphere of the Soviet Union extended over Eastern Europe but the west controlled a small enclave inside Berlin.

Whilst the borders between capitalist western Europe and Communist eastern Europe were tightly controlled, all you had to do in Berlin was cross the street.

In the 12 years leading up to the construction of the Wall, an estimated three million people left East Germany. It was more than 16 percent of the city’s population at the time.

It was a time when Germany was still re-building its towns and cities after the war.

Many were first hosted in reception centres, leaving the East in search of a better life and looking to benefit from the western Federal Republic’s “economic miracle”.

As one West German television channel reported at the time: “Eastern Germany is collapsing. The lack of workers is only heightening the economic crisis there, but Khrushchev has already vowed to shut off access to the Western Berlin enclave.”

Nikita Khrushchev was the strongman leading the Soviet Union at the time. He was a bitter adversary of the young John F Kennedy, who had just become president of the United States.

Kennedy had suffered an embarrassing defeat in Cuba. He had failed in his attempt to oust Castro who had just come to power with his rebel forces.

That encouraged Khrushchev to put Kennedy under pressure in West Berlin. But the US leader did not give in. So Khrushchev gave the order to his East German comrades in June to “surround” West Berlin.

Western German politicians were shocked, but Kennedy’s initial response was rather pragmatic. On August 14 he said: “It’s not a very nice solution, but a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.”

It looked as if war was about to break out at the crossing of Friedrichstrasse and Zimmerstrasse, known to the world as ‘Checkpoint Charlie’.

This was the border checkpoint for military and diplomatic staff of the four Allied forces in command of Berlin: the USA, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union.

American and Soviet tanks were later involved in a standoff at the border.

West Berlin’s fire bridge was deployed on the city’s Bernauerstrasse in the first days after the Wall’s construction. People were already trying to escape by jumping from their windows and the firefighters caught them as they jumped.

Those buildings were soon demolished to give border guards a better vantage point. Their basements were often starting points for escape tunnels.

For Birgit Steinmann the Church of Reconciliation is a special place.

“I was baptised here in the spring of 1950. In 1985 the church was blown up.The wall stood right in front of the church, and to its right and left were the buildings from which people jumped out of windows,” she said.

On the western side of Bernauerstrasse, there is still one of the platforms that allowed people to peer over the wall into the East.

And a piece of the Wall has been left intact – as a memorial to the city’s turbulent history.

Euronews correspondent Rosemarie Gratz revisited the places of her youth: “Exactly 50 years ago I walked this way, on the evening of August 12 1961. The 14-year-old school-girl which I was then had no idea that the following night the border would be sealed and a wall would be built – a wall which became the symbol, for 28 years, of the division of Berlin, Germany and the entire world, a world with two superpowers locked in conflict.”