Created: 21 July 2001
Updated: 4 October 2014
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German Inner Border 1961 - 1989 And Berlin Wall
I served in Western Germany in the British Army. All of my life in Germany we were faced with the "threat" of an invasion from the East; East Germany in particular, by Forces of the Red Army and of Communism. The plans of much of the NATO Forces would almost certainly have been of a defence against the "red tide". I worked in the War room of HQ 12 Mech Bde based in Osnabruck and one of my jobs was to type up the entire Brigade battleplan and prepare the maps. I had at my fingertips the entire dispositions of most of the West German based armour and infantry. Ranged against us I had the dispositions of Russian and East German Regiments which I now know were mainly "paper units". How accurate our own intelligence actually was is open to conjecture since the Wall came down in 1989 and the west discovered the truth of what exactly lay behind this wall of steel, wire and minefields. We had supposedly thousands of tanks etc lined up against us; but most of them were not only death-traps for the communist crews, and a lot did not even work! T72 tanks were found "swimming" in fuel inside the crew compartments - a lethal coffin for their crews. It was all a giant, political game of bluff - possibly fuelled by NATO chiefs in a justification for their very existence. Those who will have read their Soviet History will recall that Josef Stalin, after Operation Barbarossa (the invasion of Russia by Nazi Germany), decided to set up a defensive perimeter around Russia outside her own borders! The massive Red Army was mostly set up to defend "Rodina" the motherland; from any attempt at invasion and not as an offensive force. The rest of post war history was just a game of posturing by both the East and the West. As it was, British Tanks, Chieftain and Challenger, could probably outgun Russian tanks by a factor, if I remember correctly, of about 12 to 1 - our ranging equipment etc was far superior.
The political arena was the true battleground - not the opposing armies. The distrust of anything communist by the USA is well documented, especially in the 50s with the McCarthy witch hunts. The distrust of anything American was rampant within the Soviet Bloc, and is also well documented. Europe was the political chess board with which America and Russia moved their pieces - fuelled, as stated earlier, by propaganda and military chiefs desperate to justify their relative existences. The communism of Karl Marx was an excellent notion - on paper! In real life it was a regime of suppression, greed and wholesale murder of dissidents. Stalinism is a byword for cruelty and mass murder. Communist leaders, once in power, wanted this power so much, it became megalomaniac in proportions and the need to hang onto that power led to the evil suppressive governments of the east. Some, like Yugoslavia and Albania learnt early on that suppression did not necessarily work. In Yugoslavia, Marshal Tito, although a dictator, allowed a more democratic form of communism to flourish, earning masses of foreign currency in tourism etc. Albania, on the other hand, did not like outside interference but did however, manage to provide free housing, free power and work for all, as well as growing and producing all its needs - internally. National wages were approx £90 per month; low by western standards, but remember - no running costs! This £90 per month was purely for the wage earner to spend on food etc in a subsidised, albeit, communist state.
In Germany, a country split in half after WW2, the people who lived in the Eastern Sector looked to the Western Sector and saw the prosperity of post war WEST Germany, its flourishing industries and clean, well kept townships and apparent affluence and wanted this for themselves; their share. In 1953 they tried an unsuccessful uprising. Soon a trickle became, in the late 50s, a flood of people sneaking across to the west by whatever means possible. Many died in the attempt. The communist East German government had to do something to stop this exodus and the "wall" was dreamt up and, on 13 August 1961, Berliners awoke to find their city being sealed off as the wall began to go up. During 1961 and up to 1972, border installations were extended, minefields laid and automatic firing devices and dog runs were installed. This remained the status quo until 1983 when the automatic firing devices were removed as were much of the minefields. This was a direct result of enormous international pressure, the beginning of detente and a loan of several billion Deutschmarks from Bonn. The diagram below reflects the almost impossible barrier that separated the West from the East.
I was lucky enough, during my Army service, to have done a Border Patrol along a sector of the East German border. We were accompanied by a member of the West German Border Service; who was actually an Englishman. He had to be with us, in his white hat, to show those trigger happy East German border guards that, when we appeared, we were not invading! Also, to make sure that we behaved ourselves too! By not making rude gestures etc! Spoilsport! Indeed, whilst on patrol, we observed some East German workers repairing sections of the fencing and they themselves were in turn being observed by East German guards whose machine guns were pointed at the workers backs! We, by contrast, had our own weapons slung over our shoulders. I looked over the border at a particular vantage point at the East German village of Zwinge; which was completely cut in half by the fencing.
Our side of the fence was bustling and busy on a sunny afternoon and the other side of the fence, on the same street, in stark contrast, was deserted and deathly quiet. Drab houses were everywhere in marked contrast to the colour and variety on our side of the fence. If I ever find the photo's I took I will post them below for all to see. Whole families were separated by that fence. Brother and sister could be living next door to each other but cut off by that fence! Later on, visiting the Harz Mountains (Torfhaus) from my home in Hildesheim, I went to a point where we looked upon the border, from literally only a few feet away. Across the great divide I could see the massive structures of a military state, the watchtowers, the listening posts, the array of antennae and aerials looking and listening to the West. The Brocken was plastered with these devices.
In the summer of 1989, Hungary opened up its border to West Germany and there soon followed, as word went round, a mass exodus of East German citizens into West Germany. These passed through Budapest and through Warsaw (Poland) and Czechoslovakia. In November 1989, through massive people pressure and civil unrest, the East German border with the West collapsed with the media blasted destruction of the Berlin Wall and the two countries effectively became one. It took another 6 months for this massive upheaval to develop into economic, monetary and social union and after 11 months, in October 1990, East Germany and West Germany became simply the Federal Republic of Germany. A mere 8 years after the fencing, minefields and fortifications had been cleared, mother nature took over and now there is hardly a trace to be seen of the open strips that once was a fortified zone. Along the length of the order were no less than 850 watchtowers. In 2001 only 36 remain.
The tower at Shifflersgrund and a border museum are actually under preservation orders as reminders of the bad times. In this museum are models of the fragmentation mines, whose existence East Germany always denied. These were placed upon fencing, to blow up should anyone attempt to climb the fences, dismembering and killing the unlucky souls. These were actually invented by a member of the Waffen SS, their original purpose to deter people from getting out of concentration camps in WW2.
How did all this come about? It began with the division of post war Germany into 3 occupied zones. This being decided back in September 1944 by the Allies. "Germany within her borders as they were on the 31st December 1937, will, for the purposes of occupation, be divided into 3 zones. One of which will be allocated to each of the 3 powers and a special Berlin area, which will be under joint occupation by the 3 powers. (Britain, Russia and the USA). Later on it was decided to create a French zone, mainly in the western sector of Germany, taken from other zones. In July 1945, US soldiers withdrew from parts of Thuringia, Saxony and Saxony-Anholt which they occupied, the Red Army moving in. Berlin was divided into 4 zones; administered jointly. The division of Germany was large based on the borders of the states and provinces of the former Third Reich. The existence of an infrastructure which had grown over centuries was completely ignored. Rivers, roads, bridges and buildings, even whole towns and villages were split right down the middle by the demarcation line. Mutual interest between the former allies, after the fall of Germany, soon dissolved and friction occurred on the demarcation line. The "Iron Curtain" began to descend and the beginnings of the "Cold War" could be felt. On 27 May 1952, the East German puppet government of Moscow issued a propaganda "decree" that West Germany and her allies posed a threat to East Germany and a "Police Ordnance for the Introduction of a Special Regime along the Demarcation Line" was issued. A control strip was established just in front of the demarcation line.
This was 500m wide and was known as the "protection strip". Alongside this a 5km deep no go zone. These zones remained until November 1989. Villages such as Asbach-Sickenberg, Wahlhausen and Lindwerra lay within the strip and became barely accessible to outsiders. Inhabitants became uprooted and compulsorily resettled. Thousands being forced to hurriedly pack a few possessions and leave their homes. The East Germans referred to this phase as "Operation Vermin".
An East German Border Guard oversees a bricklayer building the Berlin Wall
A similar thing happened again in 1961 once the building of the Wall had begun. The effects being the same, compulsory trans shipment of whole families, which continued into the 1970s. During the East Germany's existence, over 2 million people left the country. Until August 1961 the route, via West Berlin, into West Germany was relatively safe. Even after the wall went up thousands escaped, passing through the minefields and fencing. But many people died also attempting escape. Drowning in rivers, getting blown up in the minefields or getting shot by the border guards.
In these two images, an 18 year old, Peter Fechter, was shot trying to scale the wall. He lay dying, bleeding to death for ages. People threw food and bandages over the wall. The second image shows him being carried away by East German guards, to die in hospital later. A friend of mine, who served in Berlin at the time, tells me that Peter hung on the barbed wire for a while before falling to the ground. I do not know if the first image shows him by the actual wall, or the photographer was East German.
One such tale refers to an agricultural worker in East Germany, Heinze-Josef Grosse. March 1982 saw this 34 year old working, as he had done for years, just over the border in East Germany. On 29 March, he was performing earth moving work. The guards who had been keeping an eye on him drove off in their jeep for some reason. Grosse drove up to the fence and placed the digger extension of his tractor over the fence, here protected by SM 70 fragmentation mines. He climbed onto the digger, jumped over and tried to climb a steep embarkment to the actual border line. The 2 guards had rushed back and spotted Grosse escaping. A couple of well aimed shots from their Kalashnikovs and Grosse was fatally wounded. His funeral was held in his home town of Thalwenden. Records would show he died of natural causes. The two guards who fired the fatal shots were not forgotten however. In 1996 they had to appear before a court to answer for their actions. Their fate is unknown.
An East German border guard becomes a West German border guard, escaping to West Berlin!
It was early afternoon on Thanksgiving Day, 1977, in the Duppel housing area of West Berlin when we finished a delicious Thanksgiving dinner. My close friend, Army Specialist 4th Class Harry Knights, decided to experiment with his new camera. He wanted to take some pictures of the Berlin Wall, so he went to an area not far from our apartment where a tall platform stood for visitors to see into East Berlin. After focusing his camera and scanning the area through his lens, he noticed a young boy on the East Berlin side of the wall. The boy was acting strange. Several times he had crossed the street by the barricade and he kept glancing over his shoulder. Suddenly, the boy ran to the corner, picked up a homemade ladder that he had hidden and ran to the wall.
It all happened so fast that the next thing anyone knew, he was up on top of the wall. He threw over his ladder and jumped the twelve feet down into the security zone. Everyone held their breath and prayed he was not hurt as he lay there motionless in the dirt. Suddenly, the East German border guards began to shoot at him from their tower. He sprang to his feet and ran as fast as he could, but he had to slow down when he came to the area of the security zone that was mined.
From the West Berlin side, you could see the path the soldiers used at night to go through the mine field, and the boy followed it exactly. By now the Americans who had gathered on the platform and on their balconies started screaming at the guards. After making it through the mined section, the boy then had to climb two walls to get to freedom. Undaunted despite the bullets landing all around him, the young boy scrambled to safety. When he finally came to the top of the American side of the wall, he was greeted with shouts and hugs and tears. Never before had an East German received such a welcome. Just as suddenly as he had started his journey, two men appeared at his side. They showed us their credentials. They worked for the West Berlin authorities and they took him into custody and would take care of him. For the next three days, the Americans who had watched this miraculous escape were beside themselves. Never before had any of them witnessed such a heroic and dangerous dash to freedom. Harry developed his pictures, and several were printed in newspapers and magazines.
Then it happened. We were all stunned. The morning newspaper's headlines read, "East German Escapee Returned to East Berlin." We could not believe our eyes. It couldn't be true. "You can't send him back," we cried. "He risked his life for freedom." Several phone calls later, we learned the truth. The West Berlin government had an administrative treaty that stipulated that any escapee under the age of 16, must be returned because they were considered to be minors, and they legally belonged to their parents. This young man was only 14.
I can not tell you how we felt that day. Words cannot express what was going through our minds. Although the Americans did nothing more than scream and shout at the border guards and throw rocks at the East German reinforcements, they felt a bond with this brave young boy. His dash for freedom was somehow tied up with our commitment to serve our country in areas like West Berlin. That day the "Cold War" became more than a political phrase. It was no longer the U.S. government against Communism-- we were personally involved. It was us against a cruel government that took back a 14-year-old boy who had risked his life for freedom. For the next several weeks, rumours about what happened to the boy when he returned were everywhere. I honestly do not know what happened to him, but I can tell you that 12 years later, when the Berlin Wall came crashing down, the spirit of a courageous 14-year-old boy, and every other human who ever risked his or her life for freedom, was forever set free.
Next Is From a Web Article of Border Defections
The fences, minefields, attack dogs, and armed guards were effective deterrents, but they were not escape proof; especially for members of the Grenztruppen. Their intimate knowledge of patrol patterns, border fortifications, and their close proximity to the border gave the guards the best possible chance for a successful escape. Because of this, their political reliability to guard the border was always questioned, but this screening by Grenztruppen commanders was not always successful. Among the over 2,500 East German military members who escaped to the West, about 90% were border guards. Included in this number were officers up to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. In order to prevent escapes from within its ranks the Grenztruppen used a variety of systems. The most visible tactic was the "buddy system" where all patrols were conducted in at least pairs. Each guard knew his patrol partner would be forced to shoot him if he tried to escape. Commanders also attempted to keep friends and roommates from patrolling together in order to limit possible escape collaboration. To further discourage escapes, Grenztruppen were allowed to shoot fleeing border guards without giving a warning shot or order to halt.
Still, they escaped. Some guards slipped over the border while their partner was taking a nap in the guard tower, while others shot their patrol partners in order to ensure their safe flight over the fence. For the most part the Grenztruppen command was quite successful in their efforts to keep their soldiers from escaping. Between 1980 - 1986 only about 15 guards a year fled to the West. However, when the political situation in East Germany began to deteriorate and military desertions rates soared during 1988 -1989, the Grenztruppen leadership was forced to reassign 422 guards to duties away from the border areas in order to further reduce the possibility of Grenztruppen escapes. With the majority of civilian escapes the people expressed dissatisfaction with the East German political system as the motivation for their flight to West Germany. For the border guards there was an additional reason. One survey of 546 former border guards revealed that over 80% defected because the prospect of shooting escapees proved intolerable. In fact, some border guards deliberately scored low during marksmanship training so they would have an excuse for not hitting their target as the escapee fled over the border. Yet, if a guard failed to prevent an escape, charges of complicity could result; especially in the case of a fellow soldier. This dilemma prompted either excellent marksmanship, or as the survey above indicates, a good reason to escape to the West.
An email from Richard Stone. Hi Mike, I was very interested in reading your pages as I also spent some time (3.5years) in Germany. I was in the RAF based at Rheindahlen but often travelled to Berlin on the train or on Hercules planes. I was a member of the RAF Germany Band and we often visited the East to go to concerts as well as simply gawping at what was a very different world. I have always tried to describe to friends that the difference was like looking at an old Black & white television as nothing in the east had any colour. One of my most vivid impressions was a parade we did at the Embassy building at Potsdam across the Gleineicke bridge where I still recall the sign (in German) Any person passing this point will be shot (schiessen). We did the parade with a Russian army band (a tank regiment I recall).
The name of the young boy shot in 1962 was Peter Fechter. Sadly my brother was in the army (3rd RE Anglian Regt) stationed at Wavell barracks at the time and he sent home a newpaper which I read many times. He still maintains that the boy could have been saved had the East (not West) guards let him receive medical help. The fact is they (East) let him bleed to death. Apart from RMP all other soldiers were kept in barracks for a few days afterwards as many who were near the wall when it happened wanted to fire at the East border guards. Just imagine if we had started shooting??? Well thanks once again for your pages. Richard Stone
In December 2010 I received an email telling me of a memory of travelling to cold war Berlin. 'Just before Christmas 1966 I was going into Berlin on a train, East German guards came on at Potsdam. to check our IDs, as the officers and guards were leaving our cabin, the last young man motioned with his machine gun, that he would like to through it out the window and go with us, I have never forgot that moment. and wish there would have been some way I could have got his name, I have always wondered if he ever made it out of East Germany alive... that was one of my most memorable Christmas' ever. I will never forget that as long as I live. I am now 64 Years old and wish I could have met him after the fall of the Berlin wall if He is still alive? Gary Andrews. Illinois.
Gary has sent me some images taken at this time, including some of President Kennedy's trip to Berlin. These images have, up till now, never seen the light of the public day and belong solely to Gary Andrews.
President Kennedy's visit to Berlin (3 images)
More images of a border patrol involving my old Regiment, the 1st Royal Tank Regiment (Images from Dave McLaren)
http://www.justlikebeingthere.com/spider/1403.html Image of Inner German Border
http://www.fas.org/irp/agency/aia/cyberspokesman/97may/flight.htm - Berlin Boy & Images
The Black and White images are courtesy of Associated Press