Throughout the 1950s, millions of people left East for West Germany. The mass
escapes threatened the very existence of the East German state. Towards the end
of the decade, a period of economic recovery and a growing acceptance of East
German policy among the population brought signs of improvement, and the number of
escapees declined. This upturn proved, however, to be of short duration. In 1960,
about 200,000 fled, over 90% of them via Berlin. This was at a time when the
government’s policy of forcing the collectivization of agricultural production led
to renewed repression and – a more sensitive issue for the whole population – renewed
food shortages. In addition, the so-called „2nd Berlin crisis“ (see below and picture
32) created an atmosphere of uncertainty which also prompted many escapes.
During the following months, the so-called „second Berlin crisis“ became more intense.
In June 1961, the Soviet leader Krushchev repeated his memorandum demanding the
withdrawal of Allied troops from West Berlin. Otherwise, he claimed, the Soviet Union
would conclude a separate peace treaty with East Germany, giving the GDR sovereign
control over access routes to West Berlin. Whilst the Soviet Union was obliged to secure
the Western Powers free access to West Berlin, the GDR was not bound by Allied agreements.
Such a peace treaty would therefore have meant the danger of a new blockade of West Berlin.
At a press conference on 15th June 1961, Walter Ulbricht expressed his full support for
the Soviet memorandum. However, at the same press conference he uttered a sentence which
was to reveal in hindsight that he had another solution in mind. The sentence became
notorious: „Nobody has any intention of building a wall.“
At the beginning of August, the member states of the Warsaw Pact agreed on the
sealing-off of West Berlin by East German police forces. The plan was to put up a
barbed-wire fence first and only to go on with the building of the wall if there was no
serious danger of military action from the West. The man who was put in charge of this
operation later became the head of state: Erich Honecker.
Despite previous indications as to the GDR’s intention, the West was caught off guard. It was a couple of days before the Western Allies and the West German government responded with declarations of protest. The mayor of West Berlin, Willy Brandt, had the task of calming down the citizens of West Berlin. There was wide-spread outrage, not only in West Berlin but also in the East. At the same time, many people still believed that the sealing-off of West Berlin would only be a temporary measure. More than 6,000 protesters were detained in East Berlin and East Germany over the following three weeks, but there were no strikes or other mass actions. The fact that the population reacted relatively passively to such a profound restiction indicates, in most cases, resignation rather than approval.
East German media made great efforts to portray popular approval and even enthusiasm about the new reality. But in fact, some of the people who had refused to sign declarations of approval were punished as an example to others and sent to newly-created labour camps.
During the first weeks after 13th August, the chances of successful escape from the
East were still quite good, since border controls for Westerners were tightened only
gradually before West-East visits were completely forbidden on 23nd August. During
those first weeks, students from West Berlin went to the East carrying the passports
of fellow students with them so that Easterners could escape using the passports. In
other cases, Easterners successfully escaped via the sewage pipes.
From 1961 to 1989, at least 239 escapees died at the wall; at least 16 East German border guards were shot dead, in most cases by people helping escapees. (But see also the comment on picture 11). Altogether, the borders between East and West Germany and those around West Berlin cost about 1000 lives. At least 70,000 East Germans were sentenced to imprisonment on grounds of attempted escape or assistance to escape.
Not only have historians have always considered 13th August to be a turning point in East German history but the date also made a lasting psychological impression on those who experienced it.
Unlike the famous and dramatic images such as the well-known picture of a border guard jumping across the barbed wire, Helwig-Wilson’s pictures show typical „ordinary“ behaviour in the face of this historic event. Passers-by and residents are shown as onlookers, but at the same time victims, of the wall-building. Policemen and militia are shown carrying out their tasks in an almost off-hand way, as though they were doing nothing unusual.