Hope M. Harrison, an associate professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University, is the author of the forthcoming “After the Berlin Wall: Memory and the Making of the New Germany, 1989 to the Present.”
This month marks 25 years since the world changed with the fall of the Berlin Wall. The event is now weighted down, not just by its historical significance but by interpretation, memory and legend. Many recall the coverage of jubilant Berliners dancing on top of the wall at the Brandenburg Gate on that evening, but what really happened — and what it really meant — are less clear. Let’s tear down some misconceptions about this relic of the Cold War.
1. The Berlin Wall was one wall.
In fact it was two walls, separated by up to 160 yards, and between them was a “death strip” with dogs, guard towers, floodlights, tripwires, anti-vehicle obstacles and armed guards with shoot-to-kill orders. This 96-mile border encircled democratic, capitalist West Berlin, separating it from communist East Berlin and the surrounding East German countryside. Another barrier, with more than 1 million mines, was erected along the 850-mile border between East and West Germany. All of this was to keep East Germans in, not to keep others out.
More than 5, 000 people managed to escape: by hiding in secret compartments of cars driven by people from the West, by flying over the wall in hot air balloons, by traveling through a tunnel West Berliners dug under the wall, by swimming across canals or rivers in Berlin, or by just making a run for it and being lucky. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people were killed trying to escape; others were caught and imprisoned. German researchers are still investigating exactly how many people died at the border.
2. Building the Berlin Wall was a key Soviet move in the Cold War.
In 1952, the Soviets closed the East-West German border, but since all of Berlin was still under the control of the Four Powers — the United States, the U.S.S.R., Britain and France — they left the city alone. When West Berlin became an escape hatch for disgruntled East Germans, the East German leader Walter Ulbricht wanted to close it down. The Soviets argued that sealing the border in Berlin would make them look brutal and was technically impossible.
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