Originally created 11/09/99

Wall divided Berlin for 28 years



BERLIN -- The unnatural dawn of floodlights at 2 a.m. on Aug. 13, 1961, announced the beginning of Berlin's 28 years as a city divided.

The city woke that Sunday to a 25-mile tangle of barbed wire thrown up in haste along the line of the Russian zone of occupation. All day Berlin residents stared from balconies only feet from the border as soldiers uncoiled more wire across vegetable gardens and along streets.

Trains and subways were halted at the East Berlin border. Phone calls did not go through. As East German workers began laying more permanent cinder block, a 19-year-old East German soldier named Hans Konrad Schumann threw away his rifle and leaped over the wire at Bernauer Street. A photo of his desertion was published around the world.

Within weeks, the entire inner city was divided by walls of brick and wood. In the suburbs, soldiers trampled through fields and gardens erecting 10-foot-high fences. Even century-old cemeteries couldn't escape division as coffins were ripped from the ground and reburied in still unknown locations.

Officially, the Wall was erected as an "anti-Fascist barrier," separating the eastern sector of the city controlled by the Soviet Allies from the French, British and American sectors in the West, a division established by the four Allies after World War II.

What communist officials couldn't admit publicly was the crisis that confronted them as hundreds of thousands of their citizens left East Germany for the West. More than 200,000 East German citizens left in 1960 alone.

For most of three decades East Germany bolstered the barbed wire and cinder blocks with watchtowers, electrified fences, machine guns, tank traps, a floodlighted mine field and German shepherd guard dogs.

The last major overhaul of the Wall, completed in 1975, was 103 miles long, consisting of 45,000 prefabricated concrete segments, each about 12 feet tall, 4 feet wide and 6 inches thick.

In the center of the city, a wide swath of land illuminated by floodlights and patrolled by dogs separated two parallel lengths of concrete wall, infamously known in the West as the Death Strip. Armed German guards with shoot-to-kill orders kept watch from towers.

On Aug. 17, 1962, Peter Fechter, an 18-year-old apprentice mason, broke for freedom across the Death Strip. East German bullets stopped his flight at the base of the wall. For 50 minutes he lay unaided, moaning, "Help me."

West Berliners shouted "Murderers!" at the guards, threw first-aid supplies to Fechter and demanded that U.S. troops patrolling at Checkpoint Charlie retrieve the injured teenager.

He bled to death just two feet from freedom before East German police finally carried his body away.

In all, some 5,000 people escaped through or over the Wall. At least 255 died trying to cross into West Berlin.

Twenty-eight years later, the Berlin Wall was brought down by a few halting words.

The end began with an offhand remark from a communist official, Guenter Schabowski, at the end of a plodding evening news conference Nov. 9, 1989: East Germany was lifting restrictions on travel across its heavily fortified border with West Germany after 28 years of isolation.

Couched in bureaucratic language, the impact of the announcement was not immediately apparent. But then Schabowski was asked when the new regulation would take effect. The spokesman for the ruling Politburo looked down at his notes and stammered: "As far as I know, this enters into force ... this is immediately, without delay."

Schabowski did not realize the resonance of the announcement and went home.

But spread by word of mouth and the evening news, that word -- "immediately" -- had thousands of East Berliners jamming the first crossing to West Berlin by about 9 p.m.

The border guards had no official orders from bureaucrats to let anyone cross. But, at a chaotic turning point of the Cold War, the men who had been drilled to defend the Wall left their weapons holstered and decided on their own to open the barriers. Other crossings opened, too, and the Wall was on its way into history.

East Germany's last communist leader, Egon Krenz, insists the plan was to allow free travel only the next morning so all border posts would get orders and citizens could line up properly to get their exit visas.

"It was one of many foulups in those days," Schabowski said recently. "We were acting under the pressure of events. I'm just happy that it went off without bloodshed."

Even now, Krenz and Schabowski dispute who was to blame for confusion the night the Wall fell.

Krenz insists he told Schabowski to tell reporters to withhold the news of the new travel regulation until 4 a.m. the next morning.

Schabowski, who had once edited the main communist party newspaper, says he never heard Krenz say that and asking the media to hold off would have been unrealistic anyway.