August 13th 1961 should have been just another day for the people of Berlin. But shortly after midnight on August 12th, teams of soldiers and construction workers in East Berlin began to transform the city. By morning, Berliners awoke to find themselves in a divided city. Streets had been dug up, posts and barbed wire erected, and suddenly it was no longer possible to pass freely from East to West. Families, friends and work colleagues would not see one another again for nearly three decades.
At the end of the Second World War in 1945, two post-war conferences at Yalta and Potsdam defined the future map of Europe. Attended by Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, Yalta was an attempt to set certain ground rules. Roosevelt wanted Soviet help in the war in the Pacific, Churchill wanted democratic elections in Eastern Europe – Poland in particular, and Stalin wanted a Soviet sphere of influence in the Eastern and Central Europe. It was also decided that Germany would be divided into zones of occupation.
The combination of a centrally planned socialist economy and huge war reparations to the Soviet Union after World War Two led to an enormous disparity between the standards of living in the poor East Germany and prosperous West Germany. Germany’s eastern border was moved so that Lower Silesia became a part of Poland; this included coal mines and the port of Szczecin (formerly Stettin).
Those who sought to escape into West Berlin without the proper authorisation knew that they were risking their lives. Many tried to escape to achieve economic prosperity and a higher standard of living. Some were political dissidents. Thousands of families had been divided by the erection of the wall, and more than 60,000 East Berliners had previously worked in the West, where they earned far more than their East German neighbours.
The fall of the Berlin Wall came as suddenly and unexpectedly as its construction.
At the end of October 1989, the Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov was interviewed on US television about a recent speech made by his boss Eduard Shevardnadze, the Foreign Minister. What he said marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War, which had divided Europe and its allies for more than 40 years.
Because of his premature announcement that the Berlin Wall border crossings would be open to all East Berliners, Günter Schabowski’s colleagues in the Party blamed him for the events of November 9th 1989, and as a result he was expelled from the party. Some went as far as to accuse him of being an agent of the West. He was unrepentant, however, and maintained that his actions had prevented a violent overthrow of the regime, such as happened in Romania two months later.