On 13th August 1961, citizens of Berlin woke up distressed and confused to a wired barrier circulating around West Berlin, preventing East Berliners from leaving for the West. Crossing points were immediately closed, with army troops and a barbed wire barricade separating loved ones and dividing neighbourhoods overnight. The Berlin Wall changed the lives of the German public almost instantly, and the freedom of the East German people would be restricted right up until the wall’s eventual fall in 1989.
In the press the following days, the words “tommy-gun,” “barbed wire” and “refugee” were frequent within descriptions of the rise of the Berlin Wall. In this post, we look at genuine newspaper content from August 1961, reporting on the rise of the wall through eye-witness accounts just one or two days after it was erected.
Daily Sketch front page, Thursday, August 17, 1961
Turn the page to:
- Post-War Berlin and the Cold War
- Life in East Germany
- The Rise of the Wall
- “Sealed at Gunpoint” – Protests, Weapons and Violence
- No One Leaves
- “I See The Anguish Behind Red Blockade”
- A Ghost City
- Refugees and Escapes
- Refugee Camps
After the Second World War and the defeat of Hitler, Germany became divided into four zones of occupation under the control of the Allied forces – the United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union. As well as this, the capital also became divided between the four nations, despite Berlin being situated within the Soviet zone. The split meant the British, French and American zones formed West Berlin, and the Soviet Union occupied East Berlin.
Map of divided Berlin featured in the Daily Sketch, Monday, August 14, 1961
With different ideas of what post-war Europe would look like, and after their common enemy had been defeated in the war, tensions began to rise between the East and West as they struggled with opposing ideologies. Germany became the centre of this conflict, representing the battle between capitalism and communism. As tensions grew, the split between Berlin and Germany became more apparent.
In 1949, Germany officially became two separate independent nations – the Federal Republic of Germany (known as FDR or West Germany) which was allied to the Western nations, and the German Democratic Republic (known as GDR or East Germany), which was allied to the Soviet Union. Then, in 1952, the government of East Germany closed their border with West Germany.
Life in the communist-controlled East Germany was hard. People living in the East often remember experiencing shortages, constantly being spied on and being trapped with limited freedom of movement during the Cold War years prior to 1989. The Communists controlled every part of everyday life and kept records of ordinary people, often tapping into telephones and taking photographs of mundane activities to keep records on citizens. East Germany was struggling with poverty and experienced many labour strikes as a response to the nation’s new economic and political systems.
Many East German citizens began to flee the zone to escape these conditions and live a more affluent and free life in the West. The fleeing of many people looking for better work became known as the “Brain Drain,” with some of the East’s most talented people leaving for the West through Berlin, where the borders were still open. The East German government realised it needed to act to stop its people leaving, prompting the erection of the Berlin Wall.
Throughout 1961, there were rumours that the East German government would be strengthening their border with West Germany, but it was declared by Walter Ulbricht, the East German leader, that building a wall was not an intention. In terms of who built the Berlin Wall, the initial structure was assembled by troops and police of East Berlin in order to keep the citizens of the East from escaping to the West.
However, in the early hours of 13th August 1961, Berliners would wake up to find their city divided by a barbed wire barricade, immediately separating the East and West with no warning. The building of the barrier incarcerated East Berliners instantly, disrupting their everyday lives, their families, their work and their homes. If they happened to wake up in East Berlin that morning, even if they lived in West Berlin, they were trapped in that sector of the city for good.
The wall developed over time to become a solid, concrete structure, heavily guarded and constantly surveilled by designated border guards. In reality, the Berlin Wall was actually two walls, separated by a land corridor known as the ‘death strip’. The wall was 4 metres (12 feet) tall and 155 kilometres (96 miles) long. If anyone attempted to get over the wall and cross it, guards had permission to shoot anyone who tried to escape. Rather than keep people out, the Berlin Wall had the intention of keeping East German people firmly in their sector.
The Berlin Wall on a dreary day in 1983, 6 years before it was deconstructed.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
The Daily Express headline, Monday, August 14, 1961
On the morning of 14th August 1961, the day after the wall was assembled, Berliners responded in shock and despair after seeing barbed wire surround their area of the city. That morning, a staff reporter for the Daily Express reports from Berlin, opening their article with:
“Early this morning floodlights blazed on barbed wire barricades strung across Berlin by the East German police – and their machine-gunners were ordered to shoot anybody trying to escape from East Berlin into the Western sectors of the city.”
The reporter describes the response from West Berliners, who protested by the border in front of East Berlin police. The reporter states that the waving of torches was a climatic moment in the past 24 hours and states the Berlin Wall was erected by “Russia and her allies”:
“The guns pointed at a mass of West Berliners who stood waving torches and shouting challenges at the Red police: “Get out! Sack your boss Urbricht! We defy you in freedom!”
Naturally, there were also protests on the Eastern side of the wall, attended by thousands. The reporter sets the violent scene, referencing the use of weapons:
“With tear-gas, smoke bombs and levelled guns the jack-booted police drive them back from the barricades.”
The crowds grew to 30,000 by the time the evening came and the East German police continued to throw tear gas at the crowds. The police even bayoneted a West Berlin citizen in the leg after they came too close to the barbed wire. However, one schoolboy made a lucky escape:
“But despite the Red’s guns, in defiance of their armoured cars and tanks, an East German schoolboy broke through and made the 100-yard dash to freedom cheered by West Berlin crowds.”
By 14th August, it was very clear that surveillance was a priority and the wall was going to be extremely heavily guarded. The reporter claims:
“East Berlin now is held by two East German armoured divisions, 10,000 armed police, and an estimated 2,000 tommy-gun-carrying militia.”
Images on the Daily Express front page, Monday, 14 August, 1961
As soon as the wall had been erected, no one was allowed to leave East Berlin and travel to West Berlin. The public were given no warning, naturally to prevent East German citizens fleeing in a hurry. The reporter writes that:
“No East German man, woman, or child would be allowed to cross into West Berlin.”
This even impacted people who lived in East Berlin, but had to travel to the West of the city for their work. The wall separated a complete divide of economies, attempting to ensure that all citizens who lived in East Berlin also worked there too, and preventing them from travelling back and forth:
“And all residents of the East with jobs in the West (about 50,000) will be barred from going to work and would have to find work elsewhere.”
The only time people could travel from East to West was if they were given special permits from the police and government, and these were not easily obtained. The public would also be stopped and searched before they tried to enter West Berlin via the underground or elevator trains:
“The Soviet News Agency reported from Berlin that East Germany had introduced “the kind of control which is usually exercised on the frontiers of every sovereign state.”
East Berlin in 1987
On 15th August 1961, two days after the Berlin Wall construction, Hugh Saker reports for the Daily Mirror from East Berlin and details the chaos and panic he had seen among citizens. While he was in the “fear-ridden, tank-surrounded Friedrichstrasse Station, in East Berlin,” he states that:
“A screaming, grey-haired woman refugee was torn away from my side by armed and truncheon-swinging People’s Police today.”
Saker goes on to describe the circumstances of the screaming woman, stating that she tried to get on a train from East to West Berlin, but the police had stopped her because she wasn’t carrying a special permit. Eventually dragged away from the police, the woman’s experience showed just how strict the East German police were being in terms of travel. Saker goes on to explain just how guarded the station was:
“On the Friedrichstrasse Station there were today more police than passengers. A half a mile inside the East Berlin zone from the Brandenburg Gate, it was watched by 300 police and soldiers.”
According to Saker, police and soldiers were guarding the station in such huge numbers because the government feared that the 50,000 citizens who work in West Berlin would attempt to travel to their jobs that morning. Only a few citizens were brave enough to challenge the police, but it’s assumed these people were not successful in their attempts to escape. Saker continues:
“Only a trickle of people with special permits were allowed through. Nothing was left to chance in the East German Government’s new bid to stop the ever-increasing trek West.”
Just overnight, 50,000 people would essentially lose their jobs and be forced to remain under a communist economic system, with lower-skilled jobs that did not allow for much progression. As Saker states, “most of the workers who commute to West Berlin jobs decided not to try the impossible.”
With 50,000 West Berlin workers trapped in East Berlin, Hugh Saker describes the desolate sector as many workers decided to stay at home. Instead of “reporting to labour exchanges in their sector,” the workers rebelled by not leaving their houses and finding new work. Saker reports:
“I drove through East Berlin streets of fear looking for these “missing” workers. It was like seeing a ghost city.”
Saker also quotes his driver who drove him around the streets of East Berlin:
“What can they do when they have guns at their heads? Under Hitler we had many concentration camps, but now there is only one – East Berlin.”
The driver’s comparison of East Berlin to a concentration camp shows his belief that the city is now in a new era of repression, and bleakly symbolises the lack of freedom East Berliners would experience under communist occupation. Saker reinforces this by describing what he saw on his drive:
“I counted thirty Russian tanks in side streets and among the bomb ruins which still remain in East Berlin. Hundreds of tommy-gun troops and police were to be seen.”
Adding to the quietness of the streets were the numerous closed shops, whose owners had fled to the West upon hearing rumours of a big “clamp-down” on Sunday. Saker then mentions his own encounters with the police and being searched:
“I was checked a dozen times – always politely, but always with a People’s Police or factory guard keeping me covered with a tommy-gun or rifle.”
While the guards were polite, the presence of tommy-guns and rifles still intend to invoke fear in those who may try to push through the barriers to freedom in the West.
Image from the Daily Mirror, Monday, August 15, 1961
Even though Saker frequently refers to the huge number of guards, soldiers, and weapons in his report, he makes awareness of the fact that many people were still able to sneak through the barricade to West Berlin. He writes:
“Despite the stringent blockade, refugees are still getting out – about 1,500 in fact, since the barriers went up.”
The word “refugee” stands out throughout the article, since people were fleeing their homes in refuge but remaining in the same country and city. They were simply crossing to the other side of the city, but they still had to leave their homes and their belongings behind instantly if they were hoping for a chance of a better life in the Western sector.
Saker listened to some “amazing stories” of those who took the risk to flee East Berlin in a panic. He writes:
“There was the story of twenty-year-old Horst and his two friends, who outwitted police in a grim game of hide-and-seek in a War cemetery, lying between the East and West sectors. Horse, blond and tall, told me: “We went to the cemetery and began to creep across. There were police in the cemetery armed with machine-guns, but we did not know.”
Horst tells Saker that he and his friends were saved by people in a block of flats, who gave them a signal when the police were getting close. They ducked and hid away from the police, moving slowly towards the Western border. Eventually, creeping across a war cemetery in this way gave them their freedom and they successfully made it across. Horst’s story also shows us the solidarity felt between West and East Berliners, similarly to the protests the previous day.
In the Daily Sketch, the newspaper writes of other refugees who made it to freedom:
“Among the fleeing East Berliners were a young couple with a three-year-old child, and two men.”
“They swam a canal with the baby tied to father’s back.”
Image of protestors at the border from the Daily Sketch, Monday, August 15, 1961
Refugee camps began to spring up in West Berlin, taking an interesting form. Saker describes the vast array of people he saw at the camp he visited:
“At the camp I watched the most bizarre collection of people I have ever seen. It was almost like a garden party.”
Unlike other refugees, these people were not necessarily poor or struggling, they instead fled wearing their “best suits and dresses,” their day-to-day clothes which they were wearing before the barricade went up. Saker talks more about the camp:
“The camp – mainly composed of blocks of flats – was overcrowded, and gay, marquee-like tents and big multi-coloured umbrellas had been put up to shelter refugees from the rain.”
Despite these uncomfortable conditions, he states:
“But everywhere people say: “We would not go back!”
The people in the camps were said to be wary and afraid of the East Berlin troops and guards, because many of the refugees did not want to speak to Saker about how they escaped in case they learned of different escape routes. Many were worried that East Berlin police had come over in disguise to find out information from those who had successfully made it across.
Image from the Daily Sketch, Monday, 14 August 1961
Sadly, not everyone was successful in crossing the border. The above photo shows an elderly couple who tried to cross to the West, but were escorted back to the East by a soldier. The photo shows the weapon-carrying soldiers and barbed wire, creating a grim picture of life in Berlin in 1961.
The photo of an 18-year-old East German soldier, Conrad Schumann, who leaped over the barbed wire to freedom while manning the border, has become one of the most recognisable images from the Cold War era. Schumann was supposed to be guarding the border to stop East Germans fleeing their sector, but instead made a last-minute decision to run across himself, leaving his duty behind.
The Daily Sketch included an image of the soldier jumping across the wire in their issue printed on Thursday, August 17, 1961. The report states:
“He was on duty, barring refugees from leaving East Berlin. As Western photographers pointed their cameras at his unit, his comrades turned away to avoid being photographed – and he jumped the border barrier.”
“Safe on the Western side, he tossed his helmet in the air and threw down his gun. “Now I am a free man,” he said.
The photograph was taken in a split-second, capturing the moment he decided to change his life. He acted suddenly, taking a rare opportunity to escape without the eyes of his fellow comrades upon him.
The famous deserter soldier, Conrad Schumann, leaping across the barbed wire barrier to freedom in the West. This photograph is one of the most famous photographs from the Cold War era.
Daily Sketch, Thursday, August 17, 1961