The Berlin Wall, twenty-five years on…

On Sunday, churchgoers remembered the dead of two world wars and other conflicts, but Sunday also marked the 25th anniversary of the ‘fall’ of the Berlin Wall (although it wouldn’t actually be demolished for months). According to the German Democratic Republic, an “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart”, the Wall became an emblem of the Cold War; a physical manifestation of Winston Churchill’s “iron curtain” and an ultimately doomed reaction to the flood of people emigrating westwards, choosing not to live under communism.

Perhaps the first lesson in logistics that Berlin and the Cold War can teach us comes from a study of the Berlin Airlift, which had begun in June 1948, and went on until May 1949. Soviet forces halted rail, autobahn and water traffic into the western-occupied zones of the city, and also cut off electricity supplies and the like. Although very difficult to justify in commercial terms, holding the city became an important early test of the western Allies’ resolve, and it was decided to resupply the city by air. This really was doing the impossible, typically airlifting in five thousand or more tonnes of supplies, day after day, often in vile weather. In total, 278,228 flights into Berlin were undertaken. In the French sector a new airport was constructed in less than three months – largely by the Germans themselves and with little in the way of equipment. All this activity sent a clear message to the Soviet Union, and eventually a negotiated settlement was reached, such that the airlift could end – after 101 lives had been lost.

With West Berlin set to remain in the hands of the Western allies for the foreseeable future, another problem had to be addressed. By 1961, 3.5 million East Germans had left the country – which is to say, 20% of the population. Emigration was typically chosen by the young and the well-educated, and this represented not only a “brain drain” for the communist bloc, but also a considerable loss of face. By 1958 up to 90% of those fleeing East Germany were doing so via Berlin, where the border remained highly porous. The response was to construct the wall, beginning on August 13th 1961, to completely enclose the part of the city occupied by the Western powers.

The wall is built

Initially, the ‘wall’ was a wire fence, and in fact most of it would not become a wall until 1965. Its final form – the one we saw protesters climbing on and hammering at with sledgehammers in 1989 – was constructed from 1975 to 1980 and required some 45,000 sections of reinforced concrete (plus watchtowers, guard dogs, and the like). Additional complications came from cordoning off a city that was crossed by railway lines: many key East German railway lines passed through West Berlin, so a new railway line, the Außenring or ‘outer ring’ had to be constructed before the city could be quarantined. Below ground, the subway network presented additional complications. Some lines fell entirely within the West, and were simple enough to operate. Others entirely within the East, likewise (although East Berlin subway maps did not acknowledge the existence of other lines). Three Western lines crossed into the East, and these caused difficulties. Some stations fell into disuse: West Berliners could gaze out of the windows of their trains as they rolled slowly through dimly lit and heavily guarded stations where they never stopped; small wonder that these came to be known as Geisterbahnhöfe – ghost stations. In all, sixteen stations were wholly or partially closed as a result of the Cold War. Track maintenance was difficult to arrange, and a train breakdown required that stranded passengers were escorted out by the border police.

Barbed wire at Potsdamer Platz, 1963

Potsdamer Platz, 1963

We could also talk about the division of the sewer network. The amount of effort invested in dividing a city was simply staggering – as was the ingenuity shown by escapees.


Another lesson in logistics comes from Ralph Kabisch, Joachim Neumann and their fellows. The pair were studying civil engineering in West Berlin, but like a lot of people they had friends and relatives stranded in the east. In 1964 the team dug a tunnel into East Berlin, ultimately allowing 57 people to flee to the West. Working from a disused bakery, the entrance of which could be seen from guard towers on the eastern side, the students had to be careful that they weren’t seen coming and going too often, so as to arouse suspicion. This meant that they had to live at the dig site for weeks on end – and find a means to store or dispose of some two hundred cubic metres of soil, all dug out with hand tools, in silence.

During the years that the wall was in place, some 5,000 people succeeded in escaping to West Berlin, although fewer than 300 of them used tunnels. Others used fake passports, secret compartments in cars, a zip wire… In 1979 the Strelczyk and Wetzel families used a home-made hot air balloon, their exploit later being made into a Disney film, ‘Night Crossing’. In 1961 a train driver smashed his train through the wall to make good his escape. Some of his passengers chose to return to East Germany; most didn’t.

Conrad Schumann, Berlin

Hans Conrad Schumann famously fled to the West while the Wall was still under construction.

In the 28 years that the Wall stood, at least 136 people lost their lives in escape attempts – children among them. Ultimately, like a modern-day Maginot Line, the Berlin Wall was rendered useless because it was outflanked: in the summer of 1989 Hungary became the new route for escape when the border with Austria ceased to be policed. 13,000 East German tourists in Hungary chose escape to Austria, and still more sought refuge in the West German embassy in Budapest. The East German government stopped any more citizens visiting Hungary… and Czechoslovakia became the new route for exodus, followed by Romania.

The Last Days of the Wall

With East Germany all but bankrupt and citizens hungry for freedom, General Secretary Erich Honecker was forced to resign, and his successor Egon Krenz failed to assert any real control over a deteriorating situation that saw tens of thousands of people gathering at checkpoints, demanding the right to cross into West Berlin. Sensing the new political reality, those in authority had become reluctant to use deadly force, and the only alternative was to open the way, allowing the East Berliners to visit the other half of their city for the first time in decades.

Berlin Wall, Brandenburg Gate, and protesters

November 10th, 1989: citizens of Berlin stand together atop the wall, near the Brandenburg Gate.

If the events surrounding West Berlin’s segregation and its survival as an independent enclave required Herculean efforts, the greatest was still to come, with German reunification. How do you fuse together an economic powerhouse and the remnants of an uncompetitive command economy where businesses close, where trained staff abandon their jobs in favour of more lucrative employment in the west, and where markets and sources of supply in neighbouring eastern bloc countries are also in transition? In fact, change came very quickly. The Coca-Cola Company was investing in East Germany by April 1990, and the other brands we associate with the west weren’t far behind. (The 2003 film ‘Good Bye Lenin!’ conveys some of the powerlessness that many ‘Ossis’ must have felt, as everything changed.) On the positive side, with the Wall and the “death strip” on its Eastern side no longer required, it gave the city an unusual bounty of prime real estate, right through the middle.

It’s so easy to perform a PEST or PESTLE analysis, and make pronouncements about the political environment and the likely consequences for businesses and transport networks, but Germany post-1945 shows that shifts in the political landscape – even those resisted by powerful governments – can change things with astonishing rapidity.


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