Escapee in Lorry by Berlin Wall
Escapee in Lorry by Berlin Wall
Date: September 20, 1965
Source: Photo by Express Newspapers/Getty Images.
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The year 1945 brought a welcome end to World War II, the bloodiest conflict in human history. The war cost fifty million lives and more than $2 trillion. As the armistice was signed, soldiers and civilians around the world made plans to return to their former lives. But even as the wartime powers began drawing down their armies, a new conflict was already brewing.
War produces unlikely, and at times unstable, alliances. As World War II wound to a close, it became increasingly obvious that the major Allied powers had very different expectations for post-war Europe and for Germany in particular. Under a 1945 agreement, post-war Germany was divided into four regions governed by the United States, France, Britain, and the Soviet Union. The capital city of Berlin, located within the Soviet sector, was partitioned along similar lines. But rising tensions between the East and West, coupled with deteriorating economic conditions in Germany, led to the Soviet withdrawal from the governing agreement. In 1948, the Soviets blockaded the western half of Berlin, cutting it off from outside supplies.
Facing the potential fall of West Berlin and unable to provide supplies by road or rail, the allies undertook an ambitious airlift to feed the city's citizens. Flying virtually non-stop for ten months, the effort brought a peaceful end to the blockade ten months later. In 1949, the three Allied sections of Germany united to form the Federal Republic of Germany and the Soviet sector became the German Democratic Republic. In 1952, the city of West Berlin was officially sealed off from the remainder of East Germany, though residents could still move between East and West Berlin. As living conditions deteriorated and Soviet rule became more oppressive, East Germans became increasingly likely to cross into West Germany through Berlin. More than two million are estimated to have fled the country between 1949 and 1961. Faced with a massive exodus to the West, the East German government made plans to close the border.
Early on Sunday, August 13, 1961, the East German government began constructing a barrier wall dividing Berlin. The initial barrier was temporary, created by stringing barbed-wire, blocking rail and subway lines, and stationing troops at strategic locations. The barricade ended travel between East and West Berlin, including daily commutes by60,000 East Berlin residents who worked in the West. With the border secured, construction began on a more permanent partition.
The Berlin Wall stood as a symbol of Cold War hostilities and Soviet-bloc oppression, and was gradually upgraded through the years of its existence. Much more complex than its name implied, the wall was actually a complex series of obstacles designed to prevent East Germans from escaping. The actual concrete wall was twelve feet high, but before reaching it a fleeing East German would face two chain-link fences, barbed wire, guard towers manned with armed soldiers, patrol dogs, and a well-lit open expanse in which potential escapees were shot without warning. The wall stretched for ninety-six miles.
In the years following the wall's construction, conditions on the two sides of the border quickly diverged. The West German economy recovered, and the nation soon became a world economic power, while the East German economy languished under Soviet control. Seeking a better life in the West, East Germans devised a series of ingenious escape methods. Tunnels were frequently dug beneath the border, often from inside buildings and at least once from a cemetery. Some refugees hid inside cars that were allowed to cross for official business. Two East German families collaborated to execute perhaps the most creative known escape. For months they purchased small pieces of lightweight cloth, painstakingly sewing them together in their basement to create a rudimentary hot air balloon. One night in 1979 they launched the balloon and drifted to freedom in West Germany.
Before the Berlin Wall evolved into the complex barrier it eventually became, it was far less secure. In a few places, East Germans simply cut the wires and walked through. The earliest days of the wall witnessed a spate of escapes using ropes and ladders, prompting East German authorities to outlaw the sale of rope and twine.
ESCAPEE IN LORRY BY BERLIN WALL
See primary source image.
The Berlin Wall gradually became a focal point of Cold War rhetoric, a stark visual reminder of the ongoing conflict between East and West. As the Soviet economy began to weaken in the 1980s, its client states began to exercise more self-direction. In 1989, faced with growing domestic unrest, the East German Communist Party leader resigned. Hungary soon opened its border with Austria, and East Germans began following a circuitous route to West Germany, making the Berlin Wall less relevant. Following an announcement that travel restrictions between East and West would be loosened, massive crowds gathered at the wall and began chipping away small sections. By November, the wall's fall appeared inevitable, and over the course of several weeks East and West Germans demolished massive sections. In 1990, East and West Germany were formally reunited. Today, only memorial sections of the wall remain in Berlin.
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