Tell me about the Berlin Wall - A Masterclass History Guide with Wikebe Brueggeman
Updated: Jun 20
The other day we were reading the most fantastic Young Adult historical-fiction books, 'The Boy Behind the Wall' and 'Breaking Down the Wall' by Maximillian Jones - a fictional name representing a team of talented writers, working together to tell a story. Both books are thrillingly addictive reads, but they also paint an illuminating picture of what life was like trapped behind the Berlin Wall.
In fact, we were so impressed that we set out to find out all about the Berlin Wall from a member of Maximillian Jones, Wikebe Brueggeman.
In this fascinatingly thorough chat, we discover: Why the Berlin Wall was built, what it looked like, why the Berlin Wall finally fell, and much more besides!
Imagining History - Could you tell our readers a little more about your book ‘Breaking down the Wall’?
Wikebe Brueggeman - Breaking down the Wall is a cold war thriller. It’s set in East Berlin in 1989, which is the year the wall came down. The hero is thirteen-year-old Greta who is a rebel at heart and because she doesn’t agree with the constrictions the GDR regime is putting on its people and wants change, she’s not afraid to push boundaries. Why shouldn’t Greta speak her mind and go on a protest march against censorship? What’s so wrong with wanting the freedom to travel to the West and see friends and family? And why does she have to join the Pioneers when she doesn’t want to? The problem is, exactly these thoughts and actions got her father Jakob into trouble. He even went to prison for it, and Greta has only been allowed to see him every other weekend for the last ten years.
Greta gets arrested and interviewed by the Stasi, the Ministry for State Security. The Stasi was created by the SED (Social Unity Party, the ruling party in the GDR) as an institution that was to keep the people in line. Any act of ‘anti-state propaganda’, which could be something as silly as wearing your hair in a ‘western’ punk fashion, had to be closely monitored and shut down. Over the course of the book Greta finds out about the methods the Stasi used to keep tabs on people, and she’s horrified to find out that she, too, has been spied on. And by someone she trusted…
How did you go about researching the Berlin Wall and its eventual fall?
Luckily, because I’m very old, I was alive when the Berlin Wall came down, so I actually remember a lot. I was about Greta’s age in 1989, but by the time the news broke that East Germany had opened its borders on the night of November 9th, I’d already gone to bed. However, I remember going to school the next day and everyone being mystified and not quite believing it was for real. All lessons were a write-off, and all we talked about that day was Berlin and the Wall, what life in the East must have been like, and the possibility of maybe one day having a united Germany again.
To research the actual timeline of it all, I watched a lot of news footage. That’s how I found out that the announcement Erich Mielke, who was the last minister for state security, made to say the borders are open, was made too early by mistake, which resulted in a lot of mayhem at the border crossing points, where the officers still thought their duty was to shoot at whoever was trying to get across without the correct paperwork. Luckily, no shots were fired that night as thousands of people walked across the border from East to West.
I also visited the Stasi Museum in Berlin as well as the DDR (GRD) Museum. I found out so many interesting details about the fall of the wall there, and if you’re ever in Berlin, I’d recommend visiting one or both museums.
Why was the Berlin Wall built in the first place?
After WWII the winning nations held peace conferences in Yalta and Potsdam, and it was decided that Germany should be split into four ‘allied occupation zones'. The eastern part of Germany went to the Soviet Union, and the western part was divided up between Great Britain, the United States, and (eventually) France. Berlin, the capital of Germany, was in the middle of the Soviet sector, and the allies decided it should be divided into similar sectors. Having western allies in the middle of soviet territory didn’t sit well with the Soviets, who wanted Berlin to themselves, and they tried to drive the British, the Americans, and the French out of Berlin in 1948. The plan failed, however, because the Americans weren’t willing to give up their presence in Berlin, and the Soviet Union eventually gave up on this plan in 1949. Everyone was kind of getting along for a good ten years after that, but in 1961 it became evident that East Germany had a problem: Tens of thousands of people were leaving the GDR through Berlin to get to West Germany because they were unhappy living in a communist Soviet satellite state.
The leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, gave the East German government permission to stop people from leaving by closing its border for good. Beforehand, the people in East and West Berlin could move around freely to live, work, and shop. In just two weeks, the East German army, the police, and a bunch of volunteers built a wall–the Berlin Wall–that divided one side of the city from the other.
What did the Berlin Wall look like?
It looked like nothing special, to be honest. Just a white wall. What’s interesting is that it was actually two walls that ran parallel to each other. They were separated by an area called the ‘death strip’, and you can probably imagine why. In it were landmines, it was patrolled by dogs, and watchtowers overlooked it. The guards who monitored the death strip had a ‘shoot to kill’ order for anyone who stepped into it.
Here’s a picture I found online (https://www.stadtbild-deutschland.org/forum/index.php?thread/8897-fotos-aus-ost-berlin-1949-1989/) of two girls looking at the Brandenburg Gate from what used to be East Berlin. You can see the Wall behind the Gate, but as you can see, you couldn’t even get to it. You couldn’t get to it from the other side, either:
And here is a picture I took, standing in almost the same spot in 2022:
Much better, right?
Did anyone manage to escape over the wall?
Yes, many people managed to escape. People dug tunnels trying to escape underneath the wall, others were smuggled out in secret compartments in the bodywork of cars. Many tried to swim across the Spree River but drowned, and some tried to just make a run for it, but these attempts mostly ended with them being shot. At least 140 people died trying to cross the Wall, and at least 1100 died altogether trying to get across the inner German border.
Why did the Berlin Wall fall?
A lot of factors led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. I suppose one of the major factors was that the people of the GDR wanted change, and the freedom to go and do as they pleased. Their protests were getting louder and louder, and since they were increasingly covered by Western media, this put enormous pressure on the GDR regime.
Another huge factor was that the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, had announced his policy of glasnost, which means openness, which allowed people in the Soviet Union enhanced freedom of speech and press. Economically, the Soviet Union wasn’t doing well at all, they were pretty much broke, and Gorbachev introduced perestroika, which means reconstruction, in order to decentralise the Soviet Union’s economic decision-making and therefore become more efficient. Unfortunately, the GDR’s leading SED party wasn’t too keen on any of these changes and believed that firmly holding on to the Soviet Union’s old ways was the only way out of their own economic troubles.
Eventually, they found themselves pretty much alone and broke, with a majority of their people wanting to leave the country. At that point, the SED regime decided the only way to save the country from collapse (and the existence of their party) was if they were to give their people what they most wanted: the right to travel freely. The opening of the borders then made everything else unravel. The workings of the Stasi were exposed, the true economic state of the country was revealed, and as the iron curtain between East and West was already down, no one believed in a German future that included a divided country.
Why is the fall of the Berlin Wall such an important historical event?
In my opinion, the fall of the Berlin Wall is such an important event because it showed that people can have the power to bring about a huge change. The protest slogan the people in the GDR so often used when they took to the streets was ‘Wir sind das Volk!’ ‘We are the people!’ The people should decide what they want for themselves and their families and friends and neighbours. Not a handful of politicians who only have their own interests at heart.
Walls are always erected to divide, to state very clearly that this is mine, and that is yours. Them and us. Walls are always selfish. They are never about cooperation and unity. They want to make you blind and ignorant to what’s going on the other side, they create an enemy.
The Berlin Wall achieved nothing but resentment, pain, and division. And it’s important to understand that. I get goosebumps every time I walk through the Brandenburg Gate. I will never take it for granted that that Wall came down. And I will never be in favour of erecting another one. Anywhere. Ever. I believe that as humans we can, and we must, always do better than that.
A huge thank you to Wikebe Brueggeman for their wonderfully intriguing answers!