Germany marks 50th anniversary of Berlin Wall

BERLIN, August 13 (Itar-Tass) —— National flags flying at half-mast today are reminding Germans of a tragic page in German history – 50 years ago the Berlin Wall began to be built to separate the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and West Berlin for 28 years.

On the occasion of the anniversary the country will be holding a series of memorable events. During the night, from 01:00 to 08:00 local time at the Chapel of Reconciliation at the Berlin Wall memorial the biographies will be read out of the Germans who died while trying to cross to the West. At least 136 people attempting to escape to the West were shot by GDR border guards, or jumped out of high windows. About 200 Germans then were injured, and more than three thousand were arrested.

The central events will be attended by President Christian Wolf, Chancellor Angela Merkel, Berlin’s Governing Mayor Klaus Wowereit and other prominent politicians of the country, as well as foreign guests. On the occasion of the anniversary in Berlin’s Bernauer Strasse, the site of the Archive Center of the Berlin Wall, there will open a second section of the exhibition of the history of the wall. Then, Berlin observe a moment of silence to remember the compatriots who died on the German-German border. The Catholic and Protestant churches of Berlin and Brandenburg will hold commemorative ecumenical services, wreaths will be laid at the Berlin Wall memorials. At night the film called Divided City – Divided World will be shown on a giant screen in Bernauer Strasse.

The Berlin Wall, which became a fortified line of the state border between East and West Berlin, was erected by the authorities at the proposal of the GDR leader Walter Ulbricht in August 1961 in connection with the ever-increasing flow of defectors from the GDR to the West. Because of the lack of a clear physical boundary between the zones of occupation generally well-educated young professionals fled to the West. After receiving free education in the GDR, they preferred to seek jobs in western Germany, where they could expect a much higher salary. In the year when the Wall was put up more than 207 thousand East Germans fled to the West. The East German authorities said that because of West Berlin’s policy of brain drain East Berlin’s economy was annually losing 2.5 billion marks.

The decision on the construction of border fences along the perimeter border around West Berlin was adopted by the GDR Council of Ministers on August 12, 1961 at the recommendation of a meeting of the leaders of Communist and workers’ parties of the Warsaw Pact countries. The first barbed wire fence between the GDR and West Berlin emerged almost overnight on August 13. It was put up by the National People’s Army of the GDR with the support of working class vigilantes. On August 18, 1961 the temporary fencing began to be replaced with a concrete wall, and on August 22, the work was basically completed. The wall became more and more unassailable – the border strip was equipped with machine guns and automatic crossbows, the border area was mined and along the wall there were built 302 watchtowers. Alarm systems, electric fences and anti-tank fortifications were used as well. The length of the “the GDR border fortifications,” which official propagandists called “antifascist defense”, totaled 155 kilometers – 43.1 kilometers in the city, and 111.9 kilometers between West Berlin and the GDR. As a result, all free communication between the two parts of one city, divided since 1948, was interrupted.

In 1987, President Ronald Reagan in a speech at the Brandenburg Gate on the occasion of the 750th anniversary of Berlin called on the General Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee, Mikhail Gorbachev, to tear down the Berlin Wall. During the celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the GDR in Berlin on October 7, 1989, Gorbachev (by that time elected Soviet president) uttered a historic thought that would become a catchphrase for the Germans: “The one who is late is punished by life.” On October 7-8, the residents of East Berlin during mass demonstrations at last demanded civil rights and liberties. The protesters were violently dispersed by police. More rallies across the GDR followed to gather hundreds of thousands, who demanded, in particular, freedom of movement. On August 19, 1989 several hundred East Germans, who were in Hungary, fled to the West across the border with Austria, which the Hungarian authorities had opened in May 1989 under the influence of perestroika in the Soviet Union. A few days later, hundreds of residents of the GDR were granted asylum at the West German embassy in the capital of Czechoslovakia, and in September of the same year Germany granted asylum to East Germans at its embassy in Poland.

Against this background, there was a change in the leadership of the GDR, which began to quickly lose control of the rapidly evolving situation. The East German leader, Erich Honecker and part of his entourage had to resign. Under the pressure of circumstances the new leadership started working on new exit rules.

On November 9, 1989 at a telecast news conference, a member of the Politburo of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany – the leading party in the GDR – Guenter Schabowski – announced new rules that provided for the freedom of movement. Hundreds of thousands of East Germans that night headed for the western border. At 22:30 local time the border guards opened the first gate.

The Berlin Wall fell. After that, it lasted for a while as a symbol of the recent past, but soon it began to be disassembled and its pieces taken away as souvenirs. Fragments of the wall were given as gifts to foreign politicians, and now they can be seen in many Western capitals. On the eve of the anniversary Helmut Kohl, Germany’s chancellor from 1982 to 1998, was presented with a piece of the Berlin Wall, weighing 2.7 tonnes and 3.6 meters tall. The massive concrete slab will be planted in the former chancellor’s garden in Ludwigshafen-am-Rhein. In Berlin, trading is going on in concrete fragments of different sizes of a wall that divided the German people for half a century. Each piece has an authenticity certificate.

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