Die Mauer

Die Mauer

The early days of the Berlin Wall.
By John Bainbridge


The wall that divides Berlin is hard to visualize, because it defies comparison. Other things in the city are easy enough to imagine, because they can be Iikened to something familiar—the Kurfürstendamm to Fifth Avenue, Potsdamer Platz (in an earlier period) to Times Square, the Spree River to the East River, and so on. But there has been never been anything quite like die Mauer—or, as Mayor Willy Brandt has called it, die Schandmauer (the wall of shame). Its purpose alone would make it unique. Countries have built walls to keep their enemies out; die Mauer is probably the only wall ever built to keep a people in.

Physically, too, it is in a class by itself. Unlike the Great Wall of China, Hadrian’s Wall, and other walls that have figured in history, it is an engineering and architectural laughingstock. It isn’t even very long, as famous Walls go. The Great Wall stretched for fifteen hundred miles, Hadrian’s for almost seventy-five. Die Mauer is only twenty-seven miles over all. It runs along the sector border—the line that was drawn approximately through the center of Greater Berlin in 1945 by the Four Powers to mark off the Soviet and Allied occupation areas—and since the sector border, which follows some of Berlin’s old borough borders, is even more eccentric than most territorial boundaries, the wall runs a highly irregular course, going for a certain distance in one direction, veering off in another, curving slightly here, making a ninety-degree turn there, cutting through parks, squares, cemeteries, factory lots, and waterways, and continuing thus on its ragged way. It is anything but uniform in construction. In outlying sections of the city, it consists mainly of two ten-foot-high barbed-wire fences spaced about six feet apart. Along several streets, it is a row of vacant apartment houses whose doors and windows have been bricked shut. For a few blocks, it incorporates a red brick wall bounding one side of a cemetery, and for more than a mile the Spree serves as the wall. For the most part, though, it is made of materials originally intended for housing construction—a circumstance that contributes to its generally implausible appearance. At the base of the wall, there is usually a row of upright prefabricated concrete slabs about four and a half feet square and a foot thick. These were not set into excavated foundations but merely laid on the ground. As a result, when the ground heaved during last spring’s thaws the wall fell down in a few places, and East German workers had to put it up again. On top of the slabs there may be a couple of rows of regulation-size concrete building blocks and, above them, a piece of smoothly finished concrete about thirty inches long and twelve inches square. All these blocks and slabs are held together with mortar that drips messily down the sides. Surmounting the structure at intervals of about three feet are Y-shaped pieces of metal, on which are strung strands of barbed wire that have become rusty. These are the usual components, but they are not always assembled in the same way. Sometimes, the master builders slapped a second piece of finished concrete on top of the first. Other times, they didn’t. Occasionally, they put up a stretch using building blocks exclusively. Not surprisingly, the wall varies a good deal in height. As a rule, it is about ten feet high, but in some places it is twice that, and it may vary by a couple of feet as many as three or four times in the course of a city block. There is, however, one consistent thing about the wall, and that is shoddy workmanship. It looks, as a Berlin sculptor has remarked, as if it had been thrown together by a band of backward apprentice stonemasons when drunk.

No matter how unprepossessing it is, the wall has largely realized its main immediate objective—the elimination of West Berlin as an escape hatch for residents of East Germany. From 1945 until August 13, 1961, when the wall went up, nearly four million citizens of East Germany—roughly, one out of every four—fled to the West. As a result, East Germany earned the distinction of being the only country in Europe, if not in the world, that had both an excess of births over deaths and a steadily declining population. The mass emigration was not only politically embarrassing but economically crippling. For the first few years following the Second World War, exact records were not kept of the numbers and occupations of the refugees. After the early nineteen-fifties, however, sixty-one per cent of those who fled had been gainfully employed. Among the émigrés were a hundred and fifty thousand farmers and farm workers; forty-seven hundred doctors and dentists; eight hundred judges, lawyers, notaries, and state attorneys; more than seventeen thousand teachers; and an almost equal number of engineers and technicians. About half of all the refugees were under the age of twenty-five; thirty thousand were students. Though East Germany could ill afford to lose any of its people (its population is now seventeen million, and that of West Germany fifty-three million), it was the exodus of young workers that was of most concern to the regime and its leader, Walter Ulbricht. As he complained in Pravda last year, “It cost us more than thirty billion marks [about $1,500,000,000] just to prepare a labor force, which was then recruited by West Germany.” Two weeks before the wall went up, he told a reporter from the London Evening Standard, “This is no political emigration but filthy man-trade, which is carried out with large sums of money invested by Bonn authorities, West Germany monopoly capital, and the United States spy centers in West Berlin.” Ulbricht and his colleagues also described the mass departure as “filthy head-hunting” and “filthy slave trading,” and they did what they could to stop it. One step was to pass a law in 1956 making Republikflucht (fleeing the republic) a crime punishable by three years’ imprisonment. (The Constitution of the German Democratic Republic guarantees the freedom to emigrate, which it calls “one of the truly basic freedoms.” However, like so many other Communist guarantees, this one contains a joker, for the Constitution also says that the right to emigrate can be restricted by law.) As another step, East Germany established elaborate security measures three miles in depth along its eight-hundred-and-sixty-mile border with West Germany. Yet as long as the escape route through Berlin remained open, the flow of refugees could not be staunched. It was not difficult for an East German to travel to East Berlin, and, once there, he needed only to buy a ticket on the U-Bahn (subway) or S-Bahn (elevated) and ride to West Berlin. Some refugees walked across the border; others took a taxi. All of them ran the risk of encountering spot customs checks by the East German border guards. From time to time, the Vopos—an abbreviation for the Volkspolizei, or People’s Police, and now, by extension, the usual term for all East German armed forces on border duty—arrested intended refugees who had given themselves away by nervous behavior or suspicious luggage, or had been denounced by informers. However, the great majority of refugees from East Germany used the Berlin route successfully. It was open to almost anyone who was ready to leave behind him, among other things, his job, his home, and his personal possessions.

The number of East Germans willing to accept these terms in order to get out of the country averaged about nineteen thousand a month from 1950 through the first half of 1961. In July of that year, 30,415 people crossed over. And in the first days of August, the stream of refugees reached flood proportions. The deluge was partly a response to the discouraging outcome of the Kennedy-Khrushchev meeting in Vienna in June, and partly a response to events within East Germany, such as a rise in the work quotas, a speedup of the collectivization of agriculture, and an intensified campaign of harassment of the “boundary walkers”—some sixty thousand people who lived in East Berlin and worked in West Berlin. Thanks to hindsight, it is not difficult now to see that some measure to stop the drain of manpower—perhaps the erection of a wall—was imminent. In fact, Ulbricht had suggested as much, though only in the customary reversible Communist terms. In mid-June, he had said flatly at a press conference, “Nobody has the intention of building a wall.” More clues turned up in July. The East German newspapers approached hysteria in their agitation against “slave trading.” More and more “boundary walkers” were stopped at the border or required to surrender their identity cards. By the beginning of August, the East German border police had been reinforced to six times their former strength. It was estimated that in the week between July 29th and August 4th every second Berlin-bound refugee was intercepted. Nevertheless, 10,419 refugees—a record number—got through. As the next week began, West Berlin newspapers reported that Ulbricht was in Moscow and that he had asked Khrushchev to permit the blocking of the border forthwith. A few days later, the newspapers announced that Khrushchev had sent his secret-police chief to East Berlin. At this time, too, the East German press was printing a great many letters from individual citizens and resolutions from groups demanding the immediate closing of the border; this was a telltale sign, for a similar spate of “spontaneous” communications had preceded every coercive measure undertaken in East Germany. All these portents contributed to the building up of a now-or-never mood among East Germans who had considered fleeing, and they left by the thousands. They swamped Marienfelde, the refugee reception center in West Berlin. The British Army set up tents around the center to shelter the multitudes waiting to be admitted; the American Army supplied as many as twenty-five hundred field rations a day to help feed them; and Pan American, Air France, and British European Airways—the three airlines that are permitted to provide service to West Berlin—flew about a thousand refugees a day to camps in West Germany. On August 11th, the West Berlin newspapers said quite specifically that the East German authorities had met that morning and had probably reached a decision to close the border. On that day and the next, thousands of refugees made their way to West Berlin, bringing the total for the first twelve days of August to more than forty-five thousand.

Shortly before two o’clock the next morning—a Sunday—East German armed forces began sealing off the sector border. The undertaking was handled as if it were a military operation of high risk. Under cover of darkness, some forty thousand heavily armed soldiers and police, supported by tanks, armored cars, personnel carriers, trucks equipped with water cannon, and other military vehicles, took up positions along the border. By dawn, the troops had strung up thousands of feet of barbed wire; felled trees across streets; cut streetcar tracks and turned the ends up to make crude bumpers; and torn up paving stones and dug trenches across avenues and squares. East Berlin took on the aspect of a besieged city. Until August 13th, it had been possible to cross the border at the Brandenburg Gate and at eighty other points, as well as on the subway and elevated. Now the Brandenburg Gate was closed, and so were all but twelve of the other crossing points. (These were later reduced to seven.) That same day, the East German authorities stopped direct subway and elevated travel between the two parts of the city and issued a decree forbidding any inhabitant of East Germany or East Berlin to set foot in West Berlin. A subsequent decree had the effect of barring West Berliners from crossing into East Berlin. West Germans and foreigners are still allowed to visit East Berlin, and so, of course, are Allied personnel.

At first, considerable portions of the wall consisted of nothing more than knee-high coils of barbed wire or shoulder-high fencing nailed to wooden poles. For a few days, dozens of East Germans found their way around or through these obstacles without great difficulty. Many others made it by swimming across the Spree or some other waterway. In those days, the East German border guards were neither as alert nor as ruthless as they have since become, and East Berliners could talk through the improvised barrier to relatives and friends, and even exchange parcels with them. Once the East German authorities realized that their coup had succeeded, however, they lost no time in stiffening the flimsy barricade with concrete. In addition, they not only ordered East Berliners not to go near the wall but insolently warned West Berliners against approaching within a hundred metres of it, “in the interests of their own safety.” To try to make this stick, the Vopos started firing warning shots whenever small groups of West Berliners congregated near the wall. The Western commandants thereupon dispatched troops in battle dress to the sector boundary, and kept them there until the East Germans stopped trying to enforce that injunction. By then—about a month after the border was sealed off—East Berliners had been forbidden to wave in the direction of the wall, even if they were blocks away from it. (As recently as this July, eight East Berliners were taken into custody during one day for waving.) At former crossing points, where large numbers of West Berliners hopefully continued to gather, the East Germans erected high wooden screens, completely blocking the view into the “workers’ paradise.”

On August 13th, the East Germans also began a systematic evacuation of dwellings situated on or near the border. Private houses were demolished to make way for a so-called “death strip,” or no man’s land. Searchlights were installed to illuminate the death strip at night. Hundreds of East Berliners owned small plots of land along the border, where they had cultivated gardens and, in many cases, had built small cottages of some kind for use on weekends. The garden areas, too, were levelled and bulldozed by Vopos, who were sometimes urged on by Communist fighting songs issuing from a sound truck. The apartment houses on the border presented a more difficult problem. In several places—on Bernauerstrasse, for example—the buildings on the east side of the street are in East Berlin, and the sidewalks and the street in West Berlin. Since this meant that a resident could walk out his front door to freedom, the East Germans started, on August 13th, to wall up the entrances to all those buildings. Residents immediately began leaving by way of first-floor windows, after throwing a few possessions into the street. The windows on the first and second floors were then bricked up, after which refugees departed from third-floor windows by lowering themselves on ropes or jumping into rescue nets held by members of the West Berlin Fire Brigade. ­As the bricking up of the windows proceeded, the attempts to escape by jumping continued, though they were fewer and some ended in death. The Vopos thwarted as many as they could by throwing tear-gas bombs at the firemen holding rescue nets. Frequently, too, they sent out false alarms. They would arrange for a decoy to appear at an apartment window and signal his wish to jump. A West Berlin policeman or someone else on the street would summon the fire brigade, and when the firemen had arrived and were holding the net, the Vopos would shower them with stones and red paint. Meanwhile, the authorities were evacuating the apartment houses—first floor by floor and then entire buildings at one time. A typical operation of this kind got under way shortly before dawn one day in mid-October of 1961, when detachments of Vopos and other military units, a fleet of moving vans, and about a hundred civilians wearing armbands to show that they were functionaries of the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, or S.E.D.—the Communist Party—descended on Harzerstrasse. The functionaries went through a row of apartment buildings and told the two hundred and fifty families living in them to start packing; van after van drove off to an undisclosed destination and returned to be filled again. The evacuation went on uninterruptedly for two days and three nights. Then the buildings were empty, and the evacuation team moved on.

On a recent visit to Berlin, I saw what a street that has been made part of the wall looks like; one afternoon I walked the length of Bernauerstrasse—a distance of about a mile—in the company of a Berlin newspaper editor. We stayed on the west side of the street, at the suggestion of a policeman, who said that Vopos patrolling the vacated buildings liked to drop things on people venturing along the east side. A walk down Bernauerstrasse is a sickening experience. While people go in and out of the shops and apartment houses on the west side of the street, the other side is empty and silent. From one end to the other, no living thing appears. My companion said that the buildings had been taken over by rats. The dead buildings, stretched out in a long line, show the signs of violence committed on them in every door and window, crudely sealed with bricks of various sizes, shapes, and colors (some red, some white, some yellow)—often mixed together. As a rule, the window frames were knocked out and the entire aperture bricked up. In a few places, both the frames and the windows were left, and the opening was sealed from the inside; one looks through dirty panes of glass at a sloppy blank wall of bricks—a sight all the more repugnant when, as occurs here and there, remnants of curtains are still hanging at the window. On the roofs, barbed wire is strung along the front edges and from chimney to chimney. The spaces between the buildings have been filled in with the familiar concrete slabs and blocks and topped with barbed wire. Looking closely at the upper stories, one can see places where a few bricks have been removed to provide lookouts for the Vopos. Otherwise, there is nothing but a solid façade of ugly, ashen masonry. As we neared the end of this spectral thoroughfare, my companion said, “We call this Berlin’s first completely socialized street.”

While the Communists were trying to make West Berlin’s front door impenetrable by strengthening the wall, they were also making it more difficult to get through the city’s back door by increasing the fortifications along the zonal border. This is West Berlin’s boundary on the west, north, and south—a zigzag line, sixty-nine miles long, separating the city from East Germany. Though the zonal border is more than twice the length of the sector border, it has been the scene of comparatively few escapes. It is not hard to understand why after seeing it, as I did one morning, accompanied by an American Army colonel, wearing a sports jacket and slacks, who picked me up at my hotel and drove me out in an Opel sedan. On the way, he told me that he had been stationed in Berlin for five years, and had become fond of both the city and the people. “Of course, since August 13th, you feel a little more hemmed in,” he added. “East Berlin has the most beautiful parks and forests and the largest lakes, and West Berliners by the thousands used to spend their Sundays there. Now, on a nice Sunday, In the Grunewald, which is the largest forest in West Berlin, you have a hard time walking ten feet without stepping on someone. But if you want to get an idea of the really important and rough effects of the wall, just imagine waking up one morning to find Manhattan divided by a wall down the middle of Fifth Avenue from the Battery to the Bronx. You live on West Tenth Street, and your office is on Park Avenue. Well, you’re not going to work there any more. Your parents live on East Eighty-second Street. You’re not going to see them, and you’re not going to the East Side to visit a hospital or see a movie or anything of the kind. And nobody over there is coming to see you.” The colonel said that probably seven out of ten West Berliners have relatives or close friends in East Berlin. Because of the suddenness with which the border was closed, husbands were separated from their wives and parents from their small children. Engaged couples who lived on opposite sides of the border had to give up their marriage plans. West Berliners could no longer attend their church if it was in East Berlin, or visit cemeteries there. The lives of East Berliners have been sorely diminished. Before the wall went up, a quarter of a million of them crossed into West Berlin every day to visit, shop, attend the theatre, concerts, and movies, and use libraries where they could read books and newspapers forbidden at home. “Thousands of East Berliners used to come over, maybe only for an hour or two, just to walk around and feel free in a free city,” the colonel said. “It’s hard to overestimate what that meant to them—and to West Berliners, to the Germans as a whole, and to the West. Certainly it was the most effective answer to the Communist propaganda.

As the colonel talked, we were driving on Heerstrasse to the western edge of the city. The landscape gradually became rural. We passed a sizable field of hay which was being harvested by a woman with a long wooden rake, drove through a checkpoint manned by West Berlin police, and parked about twenty feet from the East German border, which was marked by a white line painted across the street. Beyond the city limits, Heerstrasse leads to a highway that goes to Hamburg. Two Hamburg-bound trailer trucks were parked at the curb on the West Berlin side of the white line; their drivers were taking a rest before starting the hundred-and-ten-mile journey through East Germany, during which it is not advisable to stop. Three young men in shirtsleeves were standing nearby, trying to hitch a ride. The colonel and I got out of the car, but even before we had opened our doors, a Vopo standing about thirty feet inside the East German border had trained his binoculars on us. Just beyond the border was a brightly painted metal sign that featured Picasso’s white dove over representations of Berlin, Potsdam, Warsaw, Moscow, and Peking. “Achtung!” the sign commanded. “This is the beginning of the Zone of Peace. From here it reaches over 10,000 kilometres to the Pacific Ocean.” (The geographical non sequitur, the colonel said, stemmed from the fact that signs like this one were produced for use on the East German-West German border.) A few feet inside the Zone of Peace stood a ten-foot-high fence of barbed wire strung thickly on concrete posts. Six feet behind this fence was a similar one, and six feet behind the second was a third. Directly behind the third fence was a ditch about eight feet wide and three feet deep. Behind the ditch was a strip of land, about thirty yards wide, that had been cleared of trees and brush—the death strip. To the north and south, this formidable band of fortifications stretched as far as one could see, across fields that had once been used for farming and truck gardening. Nothing was growing on them now, nor was there any sign of life. “This border looks much the same over its entire length,” the colonel said. “They’ve mined the death strip in a great many places—we know, because we’ve watched them do it—and they’ve also put up watchtowers about every three thousand feet. Between the towers they’re building bunkers out of earth and logs. There are plenty of searchlights, and plenty of Vopos on patrol. Last December, about half a mile from here, they killed a young student who was trying to help a refugee escape. Three months after that, also not far from here, a thirteen-year-old boy cut the barbed-wire fences in the family meadow, and he and his parents and his sister got out safely. It’s a strong border, but it’s not perfect. There are still places where a person could get through if he studied the situation diligently enough.”

It was a pleasant morning, and the colonel suggested that we walk down a cobblestone road that leads off to the right, parallel to the border. The Vopo continued to watch us through his binoculars as we set off. When we had gone the equivalent of a couple of city blocks, a pair of patrolling Vopos (they never go on border duty singly) came into view behind the barbed-wire fence nearest the road. Each had a submachine gun, or machine pistol, as the Germans call it, slung over his shoulder. When we were nearly abreast of them, they stopped. One checked his wristwatch and wrote something in a notebook; the other raised his binoculars. The colonel and I also stopped. Like most Vopos, these two were young—probably nineteen or twenty—and neither cut a very smart figure. Their uniforms seemed a size too big, they were loaded down with gear, which included steel helmets hanging from their belts (they were wearing forage caps), and they presented a lumpy aspect, as if all their pockets were overstuffed. “They don’t look too sharp,” the colonel said, “but everything they’ve got is the best Ulbricht can give them—the best cloth, best leather, best of everything all the way down the line, including food. Those submachine guns were manufactured in Czechoslovakia. They’re first quality, too.” I decided to get a picture of the Vopos, and took a Minox camera from my pocket. The minute I raised the view finder to my eye, both turned their backs. A few feet away was a fruit tree with low branches (one of the very few trees that I saw left standing anywhere near the East German border); the Vopos camouflaged themselves behind the foliage, and as one again raised his binoculars, the other slid his submachine gun from his shoulder. “They’ll stand there as long as we stand here,” the colonel said. “They think it’s some kind of a game. We might as well go on.”

Combination photo showing (L-R) East German border soldiers standing at the borderline at Zimmerstrasse/Charlottenstrasse at the Berlin Wall near the Allied checkpoint Charlie in Berlin March 10, 1990, and a general view of the corner of Zimmerstrasse and Charlottenstrasse near the former Allied checkpoint Charlie in Berlin July 14, 2009. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch (GERMANY ANNIVERSARY POLITICS CITYSCAPE)

About a quarter of a mile farther down the road, we came to a wooden shack the size of three telephone booths put together, which provides shelter for the two West Berlin policemen on border duty in the area. They were sitting nearby on the grass, listening to a transistor radio; M-2 carbines, manufactured in the United States, lay across their knees. Opposite the police shelter, another garishly painted metal sign could be seen through the barbed-wire fence. This one showed Death in the uniform of a Nazi S.S. officer, standing amid a sea of skulls and skeletons labelled “Stalingrad.” To the right of this figure was a drawing that supposedly represented a West Berlin policeman. The message on the sign was addressed to him. It read, “Turn around! Your enemy is behind you. He lost the last war. Now you are supposed to march and die for him again. Turn around! “ “You see those everywhere up and down the border,” one of the policemen said. “The idea is to try to demoralize us and keep us from doing our duty. Ulbricht must think we haven’t got all our cups in the cuphoard. Nobody has to tell us who the enemy is.”

After we had walked on another quarter of a mile or so, the colonel stopped and told me that it was here that the student had been killed last December. His name was Dieter Wohlfahrt, he was twenty, and he was enrolled in the West Berlin Technical University. He had managed to get his fiancée, a girl named Elke, who was also a university student, out of East Berlin with a faked passport. A few weeks later, Elke’s mother sent word that she, too, wanted to flee. Since it was no longer feasible to arrange escapes with the use of false documents, Dieter impetuously decided to rescue her in a Commando-type operation. He got word to Elke’s mother that she should make her way to a farmhouse, owned by a family with whom Dieter had connections, that then stood just beyond the third barbed-wire fence. According to the plan, she was to be at the side of the house nearest the fence at seven o’clock on the night of Saturday, December 9th. The operation began on schedule. Dieter cut a passage through the first fence and was crawling toward the second when he was sighted and shot by a Vopo. The colonel said that evidently somebody had informed, because several other Vopos were at the scene. They arrested Elke’s mother. A West Berlin police patrol arrived a few minutes after the shooting and turned searchlights on the area, but the policemen were held back by the Vopos, brandishing their submachine guns. Since this part of Berlin is in the British Sector, the British Military Police were summoned; they were also prevented by the Vopos from giving assistance. As a result, Dieter, like later casualties at the wall, died while West Berlin police and Allied soldiers looked on. It was nearly two hours before a truck arrived to remove the body. The farmhouse was levelled the next day. The colonel and I turned around and walked back to the main road, where we were again taken under surveillance by the Vopo at the checkpoint. “I see Junior still has the glasses on us,” the colonel said. He thumbed his nose at the Vopo, and with that we got into the car and headed away from the Zone of Peace.

The colonel’s annoyance interested me, because it indicated that he had still not become accustomed to being watched. The tactic irritated me, too, but I had been in Berlin only a few days, and had thought that in time one would get used to it. My German friends and acquaintances apparently had, and seemed somewhat amused when I showed my displeasure, as I did for the first time a couple of days after arriving in Berlin. I was talking to a West Berlin Polizeimeister, or police captain, in a wooden shack overlooking the wall, and was being watched through binoculars by a Vopo standing on a raised platform about ten feet on the other side. After a while, I borrowed the policeman’s binoculars, and trained them on the Vopo. He put his glasses down, turned his back, lighted a cigarette with studied nonchalance, and didn’t train the binoculars on me again until I started to leave. (I played this childish game a few more times, usually with much the same result, though not if the Vopos were officers; the officers glowered but didn’t turn away.) “It shouldn’t bother you,” the Polizeimeister said with a smile. “You must remember that everything the Vopos do is calculated to intimidate us, or to try to. They want to give us the feeling that we’re being watched and that we’re helpless to do anything about it.” Later that day, he took me out to a suburban neighborhood on the sector border, where the wall consisted mainly of barbed-wire fencing. On the West Berlin side, workmen were noisily constructing a new housing development. The East Berlin side was seemingly deserted. “We’re being watched, of course,” the Polizeimeister said, and pointed to places on the roofs of four houses across the border where several pieces of slate had been removed. “The Vopos made those observation slits, and they’re probably up there in one of those attics now, looking out. For them, it’s like in war. They’re always taking cover, spying from concealed positions. They like to stay out of sight, and then appear suddenly with binoculars fixed on you. If they’re not up in an attic, they may be over there on the ground, behind the hedges. Some of them are pretty clever at hiding themselves. It takes a while to pick them out. Our men on border duty work a shift of two hours on and one hour off. If you’re on too long at a stretch, you don’t see the Vopos.”

Though the flow of refugees into West Berlin was long ago reduced to a trickle, the East Germans are still strengthening the barriers relentlessly. This past summer, squads of between three hundred and five hundred Vopos could be seen at work along the wall and the zonal border nearly every day. In a great many places, barbed wire was replaced by a concrete wall, rows of tank traps made of old streetcar rails were set up, and more dwellings were sealed or demolished. Seventy concrete pillboxes with observation slits and gun ports were constructed at intervals a short distance behind “the anti-Fascist rampart,” as the East German press sometimes calls the wall. Frogmen of the East German Army strung wire fences in the Spree and other waterways, and squads of Vopos cut down the tall grass and the bushes on the East Berlin shores of rivers and lakes The border guards assigned to the waterways were equipped with new and faster patrol boats. Concurrently, some forty construction workers, guarded by two hundred Vopos, began to build, first in one place and then in another, a second wall about half a block behind the first; this was designed to help Vopos cut down refugees before they could reach the original wall, where West Berlin policemen, photographers, and journalists could witness and record the shooting. Early in August, a machine gun was installed on top of the Brandenburg Gate. According to Richard Crossman, chairman of the British Labour Party, who returned from a visit to East Germany in late August, Ulbricht plans to extend the wall along the entire zonal border, and thus turn West Berlin into “an island completely surrounded by a full-fledged national frontier.” The projected extension will cost well over twice as much as die Mauer, which already represents a considerable investment for a country whose economic situation is as precarious as East Germany’s. On the first anniversary of the erection of the wall, the West Berlin newspaper Berliner Morgenpost reported that a consensus of estimates by engineers and construction contractors placed the cost of the wall and the zonal barrier at about a hundred million West marks, or approximately twenty-five million dollars. That includes the cost of some thirty-eight hundred miles of barbed wire, which is enough, the paper noted, to fence in half of Europe.

The continuing expansion of the East German border fortifications has been accompanied by a steady strengthening of the police and Army units assigned to them. At present, the Communist barricades enclosing West Berlin are guarded by three brigades, totalling eighteen thousand men. (The West Berlin side of the border is in the hands of fifteen hundred police.) The Vopos on border duty, according to the Polizeimeister with whom I became acquainted, have changed in character, and not for the better. “Before the wall, we used to have quite a bit of contact with the Vopos,” he said. “I remember one night, on an inspection tour, I stopped at the Moritzplatz station of the U-Bahn—the border cuts right through that station—and there were two of our men and two of their men playing cards across the border. We didn’t usually get that clubby, but in those days a great many of the Vopos were people from Berlin, and we could usually find something to exchange a few words about—sports, personal matters, and such. Of course, they were all youngsters— eighteen or nineteen—and still are, so there’s never been any point in talking politics with them. What do they know about politics? How old were they when the war ended? One? Two? Three? You might mention, for instance, that some friend of yours had just made a trip to the Tyrol on his vacation. They’d say, ‘Sure, capitalists can take vacations.’ And you’d say, ‘He isn’t a capitalist. He’s a locksmith.’ But you couldn’t make them believe you. They might ask about the potato ration, and you’d tell them there wasn’t any ration—you could buy all you wanted. They’d say, ‘Oh, yes, in West Berlin, but in West Germany your people are starving.’ They just wouldn’t believe anything. It was useless.”

All the same, fraternization led many Vopos to defect, and in order to eliminate it the East Germans began, around the first of this year, to transfer the Berliners on duty at the wall and the zonal border—some two thousand, all told—to other units, and to replace them with young Vopos from rural areas, mainly Saxony. The changeover has been completed, and the boundary is now guarded solely by outlanders, who are referred to by some East Berliners as “the fifth occupying power.” The political indoctrination of these generally rough country boys has been stepped up, and the various units are kept isolated from one another to discourage the exchange of subversive ideas. Each company is assigned to Berlin for only six months, on the average, and a company that loses as many as ten men is replaced immediately. For the most part, the Vopos now on the borders of West Berlin are reliable, sternly disciplined, and tough. At least, they try to look and act tough. One day a while ago, Ernst Lemmer, the Bonn Minister for All-German Affairs, paid a visit to the wall with a small group of West German journalists and made a gesture of greeting to two Vopos standing sentry. He got no response. “You don’t have to look at us so angrily,” he called to them. “Remember, all of us are Germans. And I hope we will all get out of this dilemma by peaceful means.” One of the Vopos laughed; the other spat.

8-1-1963, DEC 6 1969, DEC 10 1969
A sentry fixes his binoculars on activity across the Berlin Wall
The wall of iron, wire and stone went up in that heated summer of 1961.
Credit: Flip Schulke

According to a knowledgeable member of the United States Mission in Berlin, there used to be a number of places on the border where one could arrange an escape by bribing the Vopos, but pay-as-you-leave exits now seem to be a thing of the past. Today, a person who tries to buy his way across the border runs a grave risk, as the East German press likes to point out every so often in stories about Vopos who have covered themselves with glory by spurning bribes. Not long ago, for example, Neues Deutschland, the principal East German newspaper, reported that one night four Vopos on guard duty at an outlying section of the wall were approached by two young women, who offered them four thousand marks to let them and their families through to West Berlin. The Vopos agreed, took the money, and set the time and place for the planned escape. Then they reported the details to the Staats Sicherheitsdienst, or S.S.D—the State Security Service—and when the young women and eight of their relatives turned up as planned, before dawn the following day, agents of the S.S.D. put them under arrest. Each of the Vopos was decorated with a medal and given a reward of a hundred marks. Rewards are also given to children for informing against East Germans who they fancy are trying to escape. Recently, the East German newspaper Das Volk published a long article praising members of the Young Pioneers (the Communist organization for children between ten and fourteen) who had “assisted the police in their task of defending the rampart against aggression.” Heidi Mallowitz was congratulated because “as soon as she noticed a stranger walking near the border, she reported to her father, and he alerted the police, who arrested the criminal border violator.” As a reward, Heidi received a track suit. Another Young Pioneer, Horst Bratke, detected a stranger in the fog and immediately called the border guards, who arrested the man. Horst received a sports shirt and a soccer ball.

In the course of “defending the rampart,” the Vopos have so far killed at least fifty of their countrymen—some of them children. That is the number of killings at the border that have been witnessed by the West Berlin police; the actual number, in the opinion of Ernst Lemmer, exceeds a hundred. The fiftieth known victim was an eighteen-year-old East German named Peter Fechter. Shortly after noon on August 16, 1962, he was shot in the stomach and the back as he attempted to scale the wall two blocks from the celebrated Checkpoint Charlie, on Friedrichstrasse; he was left unattended for more than an hour, and bled to death. As he lay dying, hundreds of West Berliners assembled close enough to their side of the wall to hear the youth’s screams for help; newspaper reporters and photographers appeared; American military police arrived on the scene but withdrew to Checkpoint Charlie when Vopos threw tear-gas bombs into the crowds; and an American Army helicopter circled over the area. The killing of Peter Fechter set off five days of riotous demonstrations by West Berliners, many of whom were bitterly resentful because no Americans went to the aid of the wounded refugee. Barbarous as the murder of Peter Fechter was, it was no more so than the other killings that the Vopos have been responsible for since August 24, 1961—eleven days after the wall came into existence—when they shot their first refugee, a twenty-five-year-old East Berliner who was trying to reach West Germany by swimming the Humboldt Harbor Canal. Not a week has since passed that they have not killed or wounded another man, woman, or child.

“In Berlin and at the zonal border, Germans shoot at Germans,” the Hamburg newspaper Bild-Zeitung observed after one of the recent killings at the wall. “What are we doing? We take notice and are shocked for a moment. Then we put the newspaper aside—that’s it. What is the matter with Germany in 1962? It is a sick Germany. A Germany which is not indignant about injustice and which is not visibly shocked is a shaking Germany.” One expression of indignation, less fleeting than a newspaper story, is the modest memorial erected by anonymous West Berliners to an unknown refugee, who was killed while attempting to swim the Spree. At about five-thirty one evening, I paid a visit to the memorial, which overlooks the river at the place where the slaying occurred. It had begun to drizzle. Only three people were walking along the riverbank, and there was no activity on the river, which was glassy and looked leaden. On the East Berlin side—some hundred and fifty yards away—the warehouses and other buildings lining the bank had apparently been closed for the day, though there was no way of telling, since all of the doors and windows facing the river had been bricked up. The gaps between the structures had been closed to form the familiar, desolate wall. Somewhere along that bank late one afternoon, a man in his early twenties stripped to the waist, tied a small leather pouch around his neck, slipped into the water, and struck out for the western shore He had reached the middle of the river when the Vopos spotted him and opened fire, first with rifles and then with submachine guns. While West Berliners looked on in horror, the swimmer was struck in the head, and sank. His body was recovered by the West Berlin police. His memorial, set in a small flower bed, consists of a cross made of rough wood painted black; attached to the crosspiece is a festoon of barbed wire. Beneath this is a framed photograph of the unknown refugee lying in a coffin and, at the bottom of the photograph, the hand-lettered words “Du könntest unser Bruder sein” (“You might have been our brother”).

In spite of East Germany’s unremitting and increasingly brutal efforts to keep its citizens locked up, some of the more daring—and more desperate—among them have continued to find a way out. There have been relatively few of them, but the wonder is that there have been any. In the twelve months following the erection of the wall, 12,316 East Germans escaped to West Berlin or West Germany. This figure was released on the first anniversary of die Mauer by the West German Refugee Ministry, which, in common with other government departments, in both Bonn and West Berlin, has been extremely reluctant to provide information about refugees—particularly any details concerning the time, place, or means of their escape. Through voluntary censorship, the same policy has been followed by the West Berlin and West German press. The reason for the secrecy is, of course, to avoid jeopardizing the escape of other refugees. While the ban is not applied severely to dramatic escapes that occur in public view or are accomplished in ways that have little chance of being used successfully a second time, the majority of the escapes have been reported in the West Berlin newspapers, if at all, with the utmost brevity. “Within the last twenty-four hours,” a typical item that appeared in October, 1961, read, in full, “some twenty inhabitants of East Berlin succeeded in escaping to West Berlin.”

At least a third of the successful escapes made during the first year of the wall’s existence took place in the first two months or so, when the border situation was confused and relatively fluid. On one day in September, 1961, fifty-three refugees reached West Berlin, six of them by swimming the Havel River. A few nights later, an East Berlin couple also swam the river, pushing in front of them a child’s bathtub containing their three-year-old daughter. For several weeks after the wall went up, quite a few refugees reported that they had been able to cross the border because the Vopos had looked the other way, or had merely fired a warning shot or two in the air, in an effort to avoid drawing suspicion on themselves. In some instances, the Vopos went even further. At a stretch of barbed-wire fence where two Vopos, aged nineteen and eighteen, were on duty, an East German mechanic appealed to the older one for permission to cross the border with his wife and daughter so that the three of them could live near their relatives. The Vopo agreed, and, while his comrade stood aside, helped the family make their way through the barrier. Then the older Vopo said to the younger one, “Let’s follow them,” and they did. To outwit border guards who were not so obliging, some East Berliners devised ingenious stratagems. A photographer named Horst Beyer convinced the East German authorities that a good stunt to help publicize the twelfth anniversary of Ulbricht’s regime, on October 10, 1961, would be to publish pictures of a few shapely members of a Communist women’s sports club in the act of presenting the guardians of the wall with bouquets. He accordingly took a few athletic beauties to Checkpoint Charlie, and, as the girls presented their flowers to the Vopos, snapped one photograph after another. In posing his group, Beyer moved closer and closer to the white line on the pavement marking the border, and when one of the Vopos helpfully called out, “Be careful that you don’t step across the line!” Beyer turned and ran Into West Berlin. Late one evening, a couple of weeks later, a young East German artist named Fritz Berger put on khaki work pants, a G.I. shirt, tie, and forage cap, and a khaki tunic that had originally been part of a Czech uniform; on the buttons of the tunic he had engraved the letters “U.S.” with a pocketknife, and on the sleeve he had sewn a Second World War shoulder patch of the 15th United States Air Force. He then proceeded to Checkpoint Charlie, gave the Vopos a friendly wave, and strolled on across the border.

Meanwhile, a few East Berliners managed to force their way across the border. At two-forty-five one morning in September, 1961, a young man driving a delivery van approached the Brandenburg Gate at seventy miles an hour and crashed through the barrier before the Vopos had a chance to fire a shot. Within the next three days, two heavy trucks carrying five more refugees rammed through other crossing points. Not long afterward, three East Berlin men and two women roared through the Chausseestrasse checkpoint in an Opel sedan. Several bullets hit the car, but none of the passengers were injured; the refugees had lined the sides and the rear of the car with steel plates and had put a sievelike piece of armor over the windshield. Since then, some two dozen other East Germans who have attempted to break through the checkpoints in vehicles of various kinds have been either arrested or killed. The checkpoints have now been made virtually impregnable; they consist of a series of three or four concrete barriers, five feet high and a yard thick, arranged in a slalom pattern; each barrier has two opening—a narrow one, to accommodate pedestrian traffic, and one that is just wide enough to permit the passage of conventional civilian and commercial vehicles. Each opening is barred by a lift gate and is guarded by four sentries equipped with submachine guns. The checkpoints can, however, still be negotiated by wile, as has been demonstrated by, among others­ a young East Berlin couple who escaped on November 7, 1961—the forty-fourth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. That morning, five Soviet buses filled with Russian soldiers and officials crossed into West Berlin at Checkpoint Charlie and proceeded to the Soviet Memorial in the Tiergarten for the traditional wreath-laying ceremony. Shortly after the Russian delegation had passed out of sight, the young couple pulled into the checkpoint in their Volkswagen, on the roof of which they had tied a tremendous homemade wreath. The Vopos waved them on.

Since the wall went up, approximately one out of every twelve refugees—or more than a thousand in all—has been a member of the East German police or armed forces. The great majority of this group consists of Vopos, and, to judge by typically concise items (“Four members of the border police fled into West Berlin on Friday while engaged in clearing the terrain at the zone border in Spandau”) that continue to appear quite regularly in the West Berlin newspapers, the flight of the guards has not been stopped. As a rule, those who defect are of no more than average intelligence, and their defection is less ideological than personal. They complain of having been shunned by the civilian population and of having found it very difficult to get dates with respectable girls. Furthermore, they say, they felt cut off from their own comrades, unable to find a companion whom they believed they could trust. “I had not a single friend in the whole company” is the way they often put it. The border guards’ suspicion of one another, which is deliberately cultivated by their officers, leads would-be escapers among them to think more than twice before making the attempt. When two Vopos who went over the wall together recall the occasion, each of them almost always speaks of his fear of being betrayed by his comrade at the moment of departure. Another deterrent to defection, former Vopos say, is the constant repetition by their officers of warnings about the treatment that “Socialist soldiers” receive in the West. First, the Vopos are told, such soldiers are arrested, put in the cellar of a rat-infested jail, and given the third degree; then they are impressed into the French Foreign Legion (which, as the Vopos know, is made up largely of Germans) or are forced to return to East Germany as secret agents of the Central Intelligence Agency. The official horror stories also have East German girls being lured across the border by Western spies and sent to brothels. “We thought some of those things might be lies,” a former Vopo has said. “But when you hear them all so many times, you can’t be sure. You begin wondering if they might not be true after all.” With scarcely an exception, the Vopos who have come to the West have given as one of the primary reasons for their action the order requiring them to shoot at would-be refugees. Last June, one defecting Vopo described the feeling succinctly when he said that he had fled “because if someone had violated the border in my sector, I would have had to use my weapon, and I did not want to become a murderer.”

While in Berlin, I had a chance to talk at some length with a former border guard named (for present purposes) Rudi Hermann, who defected last March and now drives a delivery truck for a West Berlin department store. Rudi came to my hotel room one evening and, over coffee and cognac, told me how he had happened to flee to the West. A sturdily built young man who stands about five feet seven, he has blond hair, light-blue, half-hooded eyes, noticeably white and regular teeth, and a manner that is assured. He was wearing slacks, a short-sleeved sweater, loafers, a gold signet ring, and a handsome wristwatch that tells many things besides the time of day. The watch, he said, was the only thing of value that he had been able to bring across the border with him. After he had sat down and lighted a cigarette, he told me that he was twenty-three and was born in a rural district of East Germany. His father was killed on the Eastern Front in 1943, and his mother was killed two years later by the invading Russians. “They tried to rape her,” Rudi said. “She resisted, and they shot her. I had an uncle, and he took us in—my three sisters and me.” The uncle, Rudi went on, was then in the S.S. and is now a fairly important functionary in the S.E.D. Rudi said that his mother had been a religious woman but that the uncle had forbidden the children to go to church and had also made them join the Young Pioneers and, later, the F.D.J.—the Freie Deutsche Jugend, or Free German Youth. At sixteen, Rudi went to work in a factory; eight month­ later the young employees there were canvassed for “volunteers” for the Vopos, and he joined. “It was not what you might call voluntary duty,” Rudi said. “You are expected to join. You are told that it is your duty to join, to protect the country from the imperialist warmongers, and, of course, to save the Frieden [peace]. Everything is for the ­_Frieden_. Besides, you know if you don’t join you will get no promotions where you work. Or, say, you like to study and want to go to the university. You are told that if you serve your two years, you can go to the university later. If not, you do not go.” Rudi was unusually well qualified. Besides having received training in the Communist youth organizations, he had the advantage of being an orphan. “Orphans are very popular with the regime,” he said. “The authorities think you are reliable if you are an orphan, because you never had parents to give you any ideas.”

Like other recruits, Rudi received three months’ basic training. Many of his senior officers had been in Hitler’s Army, and the discipline was strict. The recruits put in a ten-hour day, of which four hours were devoted to studying the fundamentals of Marxist-Leninist doctrine. “At the end of each week is the examination,” Rudi said. “You repeat what you learned, and if you succeed you get a certificate. If not, you have to devote your spare time to studying and take the examination again. If you miss the second time, you are made to appear before the F.D.J. You have to stand up before the youngsters while your political instructor tells them what a Dummkopf you are. You are stupid, he says, you are lazy, and so forth. The system is to make you look silly and want to do better. You have to promise before the Jugend that you will try to improve.” Though questions from students are not encouraged in the political-education sessions, an unenlightened recruit occasionally asks one; if he asks very many, he is watched. The political instructors themselves have several key questions, prepared by the Central Committee, that are designed to uncover any recruits who are not, as Rudi put it, a hundred and fifty per cent for the regime. One of the probing questions asks why it is necessary for soldiers to fire on people trying to cross the border. The answer expected by the instructor is, briefly, that such persons are criminals. A recruit may then ask, “Must I also shoot at children trying to escape?” A recruit who asks that question, Rudi said, will not be put on border duty with another soldier who is considered in any way doubtful. “The instructor has the answer ready,” he added. “He says that anybody who is trying to cross the border is a criminal, or else he is working for the C.I.A. The capitalist countries are all warmongers, and they are so bloodthirsty they make spies out of children, six, eight, ten years old. And, of course, they give them arms. So if you see one of them trying to escape, you have to know that he is armed. He may shoot you—therefore you have to shoot first.”

Off duty, Rudi went on, the recruits spent most of their time playing soccer and other games. Their pay was the equivalent of thirty dollars a month, at least a third of which they “volunteered” to put into so-called Reconstruction Savings, a government savings plan that pays interest of two per cent. “What was left went for cigarettes and drink, and those things are expensive,” Rudi said. “Some things are cheaper there—movies, sports events, books—but not food and drink.” Still, the life, taken as a whole, did not seem too bad, Rudi continued. He had never before been away from the region around his birthplace, and he enjoyed seeing new sights. As a recruit, he didn’t have to worry about food or clothing or a place to live, and he found it easy to meet the various requirements. In the final examinations, he scored high on both military and political questions. If a recruit fails the political examination, he has to repeat the entire three months’ program; if he fails a second time, he is given a routine job, like guarding a shoe factory somewhere in the interior.

After basic training, Rudi was transferred to a unit in a suburb of East Berlin, where he was assigned to border duty. Starting about four months before his enlistment was due to end, he was called almost daily by his company commander, who urged him to reënlist. After he had been promised a chance to take a course in passport control, he decided to stay on. On completing this training, which took three months and included the usual large proportion of political education, he began checking passports at a railroad control point in Berlin. “At that time, it was still a pleasure to be a soldier,” he said. “The border was marked only with signs. There was a friendly spirit between the East and West border guards. They gave us cigarettes, and we all talked about the latest football matches. We had a good comradeship. I could go anywhere I wanted to in the Zone during my time off, except on Sunday, when we usually worked on a farm. That was voluntary, of course. If you didn’t do it, you got extra heavy duty from your sergeant.” He withdrew enough money from his savings account to buy a good Czech motorcycle, and on his leaves he made trips to visit his sisters, all of whom had married.

During these exposures to civilian life, Rudi said, he began to see and hear things that, for the first time, created some doubt in his mind about the regime. He found that his relatives were generally short of food and that their lives were coming under increasingly close control. The husband of one of his sisters was a hairdresser, who owned his own shop. “One day, he was asked to call at the police station,” Rudi said. “The S.S.D. has a section in every police station. In every post office, too, for that matter. Well, my brother-in-law was called in by the S.S.D., and they asked the usual questions: ‘Are you in favor of the peace? ‘ ‘Would you like to have another war?’ Naturally, my brother-in-law said he was in favor of the peace and against another war. ‘You know,’ they said, ‘that the Fascist-capitalist countries are planning a war against the freedom-loving countries. And you are convinced that our workers’ and peasants’ state is first in the interests of peace?’ And so on. My brother-in-law gave the right answers, and then they said, ‘Well, if you are for all these things, you can help us. In your shop, you have lots of people coming and going—you are in touch with the public all day long. We don’t always know exactly how they feel about many things, so you can help the fight for peace if you work certain questions into your conversation, and make a note of the answers, and tell us.’ My brother-in-law said, ‘I don’t like to be a spy.’ They said, ‘Oh, no, not spying. We only want you to help protect our country. You don’t have to make a decision now. Think it over. We can meet next week.’ They called him in again the next week, and said, ‘Have you decided to help your country?’ He explained that he wasn’t any good at getting information out of people. ‘You have a son who is doing well in school, haven’t you?’ they said. ‘You want him to go to the university, don’t you?’ Naturally, he answered yes to these questions. They also asked him if he wanted to keep his shop or have the state take it over. They made it harder and harder. Then they said that one of the workers in his shop was already helping them protect the country and was keeping an eye on him. My brother-in-law has a family. What was he to do?­ It was difficult. Finally, he had to give in. My sister told me it made him sick. They wanted to leave, but they had waited too long.”

Whatever misgivings Rudi may have been developing at the time were not apparent to his superiors in the Vopos, who, in 1960, sent him to a school to be trained as a noncommissioned officer. He emerged a corporal and returned to his old post, but now as a supervisor, in charge of ten soldiers. Not long afterward, he met a girl from West Berlin, named Monika, and began to see her frequently. The political officers in his unit disapproved strongly. They said it was “not decent” for a Socialist soldier to have a capitalist girl friend. Rudi listened, but refused to promise to give up Monika; he continued to see her—though they avoided public places—until the wall went up. After that, he often wrote to her, signing his letters with fictitious names. He told her not to reply, and hinted that he might see her before long. “Everything changed after the wall,” Rudi said. “It was no longer a pleasure to be a soldier. I began thinking more and more about leaving.” From time to time, he withdrew money from his savings account and bought cameras and binoculars, which he planned to sell once he had reached the West, in order to get established there. In October, 1961, his unit was transferred to the border near a suburb of East Berlin, where, on a day off, he met two young friends of his, who said they were having a hard time getting jobs in East Germany, because they had worked in West Berlin before August 13th. They indicated that they planned to go back. Rudi saw the two friends several more times, on his days off, and the three presently began working out plans for a joint escape. After devising three schemes that had to he discarded because of changing conditions on the border, the group, which had been enlarged to include the fiancée of one of the friends, settled on a plan that they considered feasible.

According to this plan, the escape attempt would start at exactly 8 P.M. At that hour, Rudi’s friends were to drive up to the border-patrol office in an automobile. The girl, wearing a man’s hat and coast, was to be sitting in the back seat with her fiancé. The other man, at the wheel, was to ask for Unteroffizier Hermann, who would be on office duty that night. Rudi was to get in next to the driver, and the car would then proceed swiftly to the control post at the first barrier, a barbed-wire fence. Rudi was to announce to the sentries there in a loud voice that the other occupants of the car were from the S.S.D. (a term that, he told me, inspires about the same reaction that “Gestapo” did in the past) and that he had to accompany them to the border. “I thought this would work,” Rudi explained, “because one of the soldiers on duty that night would be brand-new, and wouldn’t know what my authority was, and the other fellow was lazy and stupid.” Rudi and his friends planned to be armed, and they had reason for not expecting trouble at the second barrier, which was also a barbed-wire fence. “If something went wrong there,” Rudi said, “we weren’t figuring on th­e guards’ firing at us or raising an alarm with shooting. Before issuing machine pistols to those two guards that night, I planned to remove a small but necessary part of the firing mechanism. They normally wouldn’t notice this until after they had returned to the barracks and were taking their guns apart to clean them before turning them in.” With the sentries neutralized, Rudi and his companions planned to use wire snippers to cut through the fence. They had decided that each could take a few possessions in a small bag. Rudi filled his bag with his capital in the form of cameras and binoculars.

On the night set for the escape, Rudi was in the office, seemingly absorbed in studying a report, when, at five minutes before eight, an urgent call came from one of the sentries at the second barrier, who asked to be put through immediately to the area commander. “The call went through, and I listened in,” Rudi said. “The soldier reported that their guns—his and the other sentry’s—had been tampered with and would not fire. The soldiers aren’t supposed to clean their guns until after they have come off duty and are back in the barracks, but sometimes, to save time, they do this during the last hour or so before they’re relieved. The commander said to ring the alarm bell and seal the border. Here was trouble. Fortunately, no one suspected me. I was the leader of a unit, and had always set a good example.” Punctually at eight o’clock, Rudi’s companions stopped their car at the door of the border-patrol office. Rudi was there to meet them. “Are you Unteroffizier Hermann? We are from the S.S.D.,” the driver confidently announced. Rudi whispered that the plan had fouled. “I told him to turn around and drive to a place about four kilometres down the border and wait for me until about nine o’clock,” Rudi recalled. “As soon as I could, I got my gun and ran to my friends. I told them what had happened. We couldn’t waste a minute. I said to leave the car and everything, and follow me. I got ten metres ahead of them. I had a machine pistol and a hundred and twenty bullets. Each of the two men had a revolver. We got close to the first fence. The guard was at the end of the road, and couldn’t see us. We climbed over, and moved slowly toward the post at the second barrier. I told the others to lie down on the earth, and I went forward. The guard at the post asked the password. I repeated it—’Gotha-Gorki’—and approached. I told him that some border violators had been spotted in the area, and ordered him to go make a check on a railroad bridge about sixty metres away. When he was out of sight, I went back to my friends and told them to come with me in a hurry. At this time, a train passed over the bridge, and we profited from the steam and noise to get to the barbed wire. Then I covered my two friends and the girl as they started to climb the fence. A couple of minutes later, I heard footsteps, and two guards came in sight from the direction opposite the bridge. I called out, ‘Stay where you are or I shoot!’ I wasn’t sure what they’d do, so I fired about thirty shots over their heads, and they had to take cover. By then, the girl had climbed over the fence, and so had one of my friends. The other one had got his leg caught in the wire and couldn’t move. I went over, and we all got to work and tore off one of the legs of my friend’s trousers. That set him free. Then we were all safe on West Berlin territory. It hadn’t taken twenty minutes from the time we left the car. My friends were so excited they didn’t realize we were already in West Berlin. I was backing away from the fence, to make sure the guards didn’t get any ideas, and my friends started running. I started running after them. We passed some people, who took one look and screamed. I guess they saw my uniform and gun, and thought I was trying to catch the others and chase them back to East Berlin. I threw away my gun and caught up with the three others. Then we met two policemen, and they called a car, which took us to Marienfelde. That’s all there was to it.”

I asked Rudi about Monika.

“Oh, yes,” he said. “I called her the day I got here. She was very surprised. She said she was engaged and was going to be married, so I haven’t seen her.”

As for his relatives, Rudi said that he had not heard from them and did not expect to, but that he had learned in letters from friends that his sisters and their husbands had all been called in and questioned by the S.S.D. Three weeks before he escaped, he said, he had written a letter to each of his sisters in which he expressed a loathing of the capitalist countries and their criminal warmongers and everything else about the West. “This is standard practice,” he explained. “It is to provide some protection for the relatives. With this, they can say, ‘How could I know? This is the last letter I got from him.’ The authorities probably don’t believe the letter. They know why it was written, but at least it keeps them from proving anything. The letter gives the relatives something in black-and-white. The S.S.D. made my sisters and their husbands sign statements swearing they would never communicate with me again. Of course, my uncle denounced me—said I was a traitor and had been recruited by the C.I.A., and all the other usual things—so he has kept his job. I can do without him. Naturally, I hope to see my sisters again. It’s hard to tell when.”

Except for the bloc of defecting Vopos, the East Germans who have escaped since the wall went up are such a varied group that few generalizations about them are valid, though it is safe to say that they are even younger, on the average, than the pre-wall refugees, are much more apt to be artisans than intellectuals, and are, temperamentally, out of the same mold. “Before August 13th, it cost a refugee twenty pfennigs to get to West Berlin. Now it may well cost him his life,” a member of the West Berlin Senate remarked not long ago, and added, “The recent refugees are the kind of people who never stop looking for the chance, and when they see it, they jump.” The necessary post-wall qualifications were exhibited late last January by a twenty-seven-year-old East Berlin chauffeur named Erwin Becker, his two younger brothers, and two friends of the family—an engineer and a mechanic—who collaborated in digging the first successful tunnel under the wall. The shaft started in the basement of Becker’s home, a two-story stucco house situated on the border in the East Berlin suburb of Glienicke; ran for eighty-seven feet; and came out in the West Berlin suburb of Frohnau. For most of its length, the tunnel was barely three feet below a street patrolled around the clock by Vopos. Because of the greater danger of being heard at night, Becker and his colleagues took turns reporting sick for work at their places of employment, so that they could dig by day. As a further precaution, Becker’s sister maintained a constant lookout from a second-floor window; at the approach of a Vopo patrol, she warned the diggers to stop work by flipping a switch, which turned off a string of electric lights that had been installed in the tunnel. The burrowing, through sandy soil and clay, progressed rapidly; the earth taken from the tunnel was packed into the basement, and filled it practically from floor to ceiling. Becker and his fellow-diggers completed the tunnel in nine days. Shortly after one o’clock on the morning of January 24th, they and a number of other relatives and friends—twenty-eight people in all, ranging in age from eight to seventy-one—began crawling through the narrow shaft. Within three hours, all were safe in West Berlin. They had staged what was up to then the largest group escape since the erection of the wall.

The success of the Becker tunnel, which was discovered and sealed by Vopos the next day, started a trend. In May, an eighty-one-year-old neighbor of the Beckers led eleven relatives and friends, all but two of whom were over fifty, to West Berlin through a tunnel that the elderly gentlemen had dug in sixteen days. Over the three-day Whitsun holiday, in June, fourteen more East Berliners escaped by tunnel. (In general, the number of escapes rises on weekends and holidays, during good weather, and directly after paydays.) The first tunnel from West Berlin to East Berlin was also dug in June. It was the handiwork of a stonemason named Siegfried Noffke, who received help from two friends. Before the wall went up, Noffke, who was married and had one child, had been a “boundary walker.” Caught behind the wall on August 13th, he had succeeded in crossing the border two days later, and had then put in repeated requests for an exit permit for his wife and child. These were perfunctorily turned down by the East German authorities, and, at length, he decided to build a tunnel to rescue his family. Exactly four weeks after starting it, he and his friends broke through into the cellar of an East Berlin photographer’s shop. As they emerged, waiting Vopos shot and killed Noffke and wounded his two friends.

It has been said that some tunnels have been built and run for profit. There seems to be no doubt that one was. This enterprise, which came into existence a few months ago, was directed by a twenty-six-year-old West Berlin truck driver, who will here be called Jacob Mueller. With three other risk-takers, who had previously been engaged in various occupations that included some gray-market activity, he dug a shaft from a basement apartment in West Berlin to a basement apartment in East Berlin; the occupant of the former was given a small cut of the tunnel profits, and the occupant of the latter was paid off with free passage for himself and his wife. One of the four tunnel-for-hire operators was a West German and was therefore able to travel legally into East Berlin. He was put in charge of recruiting customers, and he did well. Twelve days after opening for business, the entrepreneurs had sent twenty-seven refugees through the tunnel for a fee equivalent to two hundred and fifty dollars per person. Payment was made in advance to Mueller, who crawled through the shaft on nights when it was to be used, in order to oversee the operation. On the thirteenth night, an East Berlin family of three was scheduled for passage at nine o’clock. After paying Mueller, the father said that two friends of his, a young couple, also wanted to make the trip and had the money for the fare. He had told the couple, he said, to be at the rendezvous point—the spot where Mueller and his recruiting agent met prospective clients—at nine-thirty that evening. The family then departed for West Berlin, and a while later Mueller and his agent left for the rendezvous point, which was a rubble-strewn empty lot about three-quarters of a block from the East Berlin basement apartment. When they arrived at the lot, seven or eight pistol shots were fired—apparently by S.S.D. operatives—wounding both Mueller and the agent. They managed to get back to the basement apartment, lock the door and block it with a wheelbarrow load of rocks, and drag themselves to West Berlin. They were taken to a hospital, where Mueller died that night. The agent eventually recovered. The exact nature of Mueller’s tunnel activities and the circumstances of his death have not been reported by the German press, though one West Berlin tabloid hailed him as a martyr who gave his life to help his countrymen escape to freedom, and demanded that he be given a state funeral. That honor was not accorded him, however, and his place in the annals of die Mauer remains uncertain.

On the basis of information currently available, the position of certain other Berliners is no less ambiguous. What is one to think, for example, of a number of West Berliners who occupy apartments overlooking the wall and ask as much as twenty-five hundred dollars in return for letting the quarters be used as lookout posts by volunteers helping to spirit East Germans over the wall? Or of two East Berlin building workers, both in their twenties and with wives and children, who escaped to West Berlin by crashing a dump truck through the wall, leaving their families on the other side? “As one of the reasons for their escape,” the West Berlin newspapers said of the young men, “they cited the catastrophic food situation in the East.” One hopes that they had better reasons, and, as the director of a West Berlin publishing firm remarked to me when the subject was referred to one day at lunch, it is quite possible that they did have. “Let us beware of casting the first stone at refugees who left their wives and children behind,” he said “How can we know what situation they found themselves in? Perhaps they were in imminent danger of arrest. Is it better to stay and rot in an East German jail or to escape and be free to try to do something from here for those they had to leave? Until we know the circumstances, it is dangerous to pass judgment.”

A West Berlin lawyer advised the same policy in considering the case of a young Vopo who shot and killed his partner on sentry duty and then escaped across the border. The West Berlin authorities decided to arrest the defecting Vopo and put him on trial—either for manslaughter, which carries a penalty ranging up to fifteen years in prison, or for murder, for which the maximum penalty in West Germany is life imprisonment. His defense, the lawyer told me, will probably be that he was forced into service with the Volkspolizei, that such service was not consistent with his political beliefs, and that since border guards are under orders to shoot any person who tries to flee, he was forced to kill his comrade in self-defense. I said that this struck me as tortuous reasoning. “The world induced by the wall is a tortuous world,” the lawyer said.

One set of inhabitants of that world upon whom it is quite unnecessary to defer judgment are a large group of university students. On the night the wall came into being, a half-dozen students at West Berlin’s Free University got together to form an organization to rescue fellow-students who had been trapped behind the wall. (Before August 13th, the two universities and four academies in West Berlin had a total enrollment of approximately twenty-four thousand students, and of these some thirty-five hundred had their permanent residence in East Berlin. Only about half that number, however, were caught there when the barrier went up.) Word of the planned underground railroad got around quickly, and some fifty other students—Americans, Dutch, British, and Scandinavians among them—joined up. They called their operation Das Reisebüro (the travel bureau), and referred to one another, in the underground tradition, by fictitious names. Though most of the Bureau’s undertakings have been kept secret, a few of its agents, including one known as Der Lange Heinrich (Big Henry), who is a husky, six-foot-two engineering student from Munich, told me something about their methods. In the beginning, the operation was conducted mainly with the use of borrowed passports. A West German student would make a trip into East Berlin, get in touch with one of the trapped students, and return with his photograph. The Bureau would then hunt around for a West German student bearing a passable resemblance to the one in the photograph. If such a look-alike was found, he was asked to assist in the enterprise. Requests for such assistance were seldom refused. The double’s task consisted of making one trip into East Berlin, to secure an entry permit; this was issued at a border checkpoint and was good only on the day of its issuance and only with the passport presented. Having secured the permit, the look-alike would make a quick round trip, and, back in West Berlin, would turn his passport and the entry permit over to the Bureau. Another of its operatives, also able to cross the border legally, would then deliver these documents to the waiting East Berlin student, who would use the borrowed passport and permit to cross the border. When a satisfactory look-alike could not be found, the Bureau took a West German student’s passport, removed the photograph, and substituted a passport photograph, taken in East Berlin, of the student to be brought out. The necessary stamps on the passport were forged by an art student (code name: Herr Rembrandt), who used only sharpened wooden kitchen matches and marking ink to ply his special trade. This system worked well for nearly four weeks, and scores of East Berlin students arrived in West Berlin, courtesy of Das Reisebüro.

In the second week of September, the East Germans changed the procedure at the border. West Germans who had gone into East Berlin were now required to turn in their entry permits at the checkpoint on leaving. To counter this difficulty, Herr Rembrandt quickly turned out a supply of forged permits. But within a week the border authorities created a further difficulty by changing the color, numbering, and stamping of the permits every day. The Bureau then turned to the use of foreign passports, since persons with such passports, unlike those with West German passports, were not obliged to secure entry permits. Foreign passports were in sufficient supply, too, since the Free University alone had some seven hundred foreign students. However, the problems encountered in disguising East Berlin students in alien dress, language, and habits convincingly enough to fool the border guards turned out to be excessive. Though a few successful crossings were made with foreign passports, there were many more failures and consequent arrests. The whole scheme was abandoned when, some weeks later, the East Germans began requiring any person travelling on a foreign passport to apply for a permit to enter East Berlin.

The Bureau, however, keeping a little ahead of the times, had meanwhile been exploring a new escape route—through Berlin’s sewer system. After studying street maps and charts of the intricate network of sewer pipes crisscrossing the city, the Bureau’s operatives laid out possible routes under the wall, and then, at night, went below to test them. The initial aim of the Bureau’s sewer experts was to find the shortest possible route—that is, a route whose East Berlin entrance was situated as near as possible to the wall. Later, they worked out longer routes. Some of the channels were so small that it was necessary to crawl through them; others were as much as five feet high. Some were used for the disposal of rain water, others for waste. (The latter, known as mixed-water channels, were referred to by agents of the Bureau as Glockengasse 4711, after a popular German eau de cologne.) At intervals, all the sewers contained wheel-shaped metal barriers, whose spokes generally extended around the entire circumference of the channel and blocked passage through it. In some rain-water channels, there was a space eighteen or twenty inches high at the bottom of the barrier, which allowed persons of average size to crawl under. Ordinarily, however, the students sawed off one or more of the spokes to allow the Bureau’s clients a more comfortable passage.

The first successful underground route opened by Das Reisebüro ran through a mixed-water channel. The entrance was less than two thousand feet from the eastern side of the wall, and the trip could be made in about half an hour. When the Bureau was arranging an escape, it alerted one of its East Berlin contacts, who notified a certain number of students on the waiting list that they should be in the vicinity of a specified corner at a set time, usually around midnight. They were told to proceed separately to the rendezvous point, and, after arriving, to keep out of sight as much as possible by staying in shadows or by taking cover in the vestibules of buildings. At the appointed time, a Bureau agent appeared and lifted the manhole cover, and, one by one, the students emerged from their hiding places and disappeared into the sewer. They were guided either by one of their own number, who had been briefed on the route and had committed the briefing to memory (“Proceed thirty-two metres straight ahead, take left channel at junction, proceed forty metres to barrier, remove spoke nearest left side of wall, replace spoke . . .”), or, more often, by a Bureau expert who had come from the other side to shepherd the party. After the last student had disappeared, the manhole cover was replaced by a student known as the closer. His task, Heinrich said, was one of the most dangerous parts of the operation. The cover, which weighed a hundred and twenty-five pounds, had to be put back quickly and quietly and without leaving marks. To handle the cover, the closer was given an iron hook, and this implement became a kind of symbolic passport to West Berlin; the rule was that the student who closed the sewer one night was the first to leave the next. When the underground travellers finished their journey, several Bureau agents, including Heinrich, were on hand to greet them. Celebrating, Heinrich told me, was considered “superfluous,” and, for security reasons, was not encouraged. It was strictly forbidden after the Bureau’s original sewer route was discovered because a couple of refugees in one group had not been able to resist letting out a few high-spirited noises upon reaching a point just inside West Berlin. The sounds were heard on the street on the eastern side of the wall by Vopos, who pulled up manhole covers and threw tear-gas bombs into the sewer. That group got through safely, but the route had to be abandoned.

A few days later, the Bureau opened a second route, which was nearly twice as long as the first. It was discovered within a week. The Vopos were now installing new metal barriers, with spokes that would not yield to saws. Though the sewers were becoming increasingly hazardous, the Bureau was able to devise still another route, this one through a rain-water channel in the northern section of the city. It was longer and more circuitous than the others, taking about two hours to traverse, but it was the most successful; on one night three groups totalling thirty-five persons came through it. One young married couple, who were students at the Free University, came through carrying their year-old son in a shopping bag; they had given him a sleeping pill to insure his silence en route. One night, Heinrich said, he was waiting at the exit of the third route when he heard noises below. He was sure they could not be coming from any of his group, since, according to the schedule, they had not yet begun their descent, but he removed the manhole cover anyway. Presently, a young man pushed his head out and said, “Is this West Berlin?” It turned out that he had been wandering through the sewer system for hours by himself and had found the Bureau’s exit by chance. Students and others who tried to negotiate the sewers on their own were called “wild ones.” They caused the Bureau concern, because they were apt to give things away. The Bureau’s worries increased when East Germans who were not among the Bureau’s clients began appearing at the East Berlin entrance to the sewer route as an authorized group was scheduled to depart. Finally, agents of the Bureau were posted in a third-floor East Berlin apartment to keep a twenty-four-hour watch on the entrance to the sewer, clock the tours of duty of the Vopos assigned to the area, and take eight-millimetre movies of any suspicious persons or activities in the vicinity. Despite all efforts to maintain secrecy, the third route was discovered­ around the middle of October, after it had been in operation exactly two weeks.

Since then, West Berlin students have carried out other Scarlet Pimpernel activities—ventures that have come to light only, as a rule, after being discovered by East German security officials. Early last January, a few days before Erwin Becker had built his private tunnel, the S.S.D. uncovered an attempt by students to dig a tunnel under a subway station on the border. “Willy Brandt’s moles,” as the East German newspapers called the students, had failed to shore up the sides and roof of the passage with timbers heavy enough to withstand the vibrations of the trains rolling overhead, and the shaft caved in about twenty feet from the entrance. This caused the platform on the East Berlin side of the station to sag about four feet, which, in turn, led the perplexed maintenance employees to discover the students’ ill-fated attempt to build what would have been the first tunnel under the wall. However, the discovery was not made until after the diggers had removed their shovels, picks, wheelbarrows, and other equipment, which they put to use elsewhere with better, though not complete, success.

Around the middle of May, a group of students went to work on another tunnel, which started within a temporarily abandoned construction site, enclosed by a six-foot-high wooden fence, at a street intersection some three hundred yards from Checkpoint Charlie. Working only at night, they devoted a month to digging a shaft more than thirty yards long, which surfaced in a nondescript four-story house at 62 Zimmerstrasse, about fifty feet behind the eastern side of the wall. They thereupon made plans to bring a group of nine East Germans—four women, three men, and two children—through the tunnel at five o’clock on the afternoon of June 18th. An hour or so before that, the leader of the tunnelling organization, who will be known here as Walter, and two other students crawled through the tunnel to manage the escape. While ­Walter’s two companions remained in the house, he went to meet the nine intended refugees a block and a half away. According to the plan, they were to follow him down Zimmerstrasse in two groups, the first consisting of the two children and two of the women, the second of the two other women and the three men. The first group was instructed to stay about twenty feet behind Walter, and the second about half a block behind the first. Walter was within ten feet of the entrance to No. 62 when he was stopped by a Vopo, who asked to see his identity card. Walter took out his wallet and fumbled through its contents, stalling for time. The two women and the children kept walking, and entered the house. Then one of the women in the second group apparently became panicky and started to run. The others started to run after her. This aroused the suspicion of guards in a pill-box nearby, and they opened fire. “The Vopo who had challenged me was hit and fell to the sidewalk,” Walter said later. “The firing stopped the second group. They took cover behind a parked truck. I ran for my life with bullets whizzing after me. I was not hit.” He raced into the house, locked and blockaded the door, and shouted to the two other students to get into the tunnel. The two women and two children had already been started on their way. They and the three students reached the exit safely, but the five members of the second escape group were arrested. The Vopo who was accidentally shot by his comrades died of his injuries. Other Vopos promptly closed the tunnel entrance with a charge of dynamite.

Tunnel 57

Undiscouraged, a group of students, including several engineering majors, immediately set to work on the most ambitious tunnelling project under the wall known to have been undertaken so far. (This time, it appears, some American television producers helped finance the project in the hope of making a program showing the whole operation.) Starting in the basement of an apartment house on the western side of Bernauerstrasse, they burrowed under the street, under an apartment house opposite, under the death strip behind that building, and into the basement of an apartment house beyond the strip—a distance of approximately four hundred feet. The shaft, dug at a depth of about fifteen feet, was stoutly supported and was equipped with electric lights, alarms, and a ventilating system that made considerable use of parts from discarded vacuum cleaners. The construction was plagued by breaks in water pipes under the street, but the tunnel was completed on September 15th, at about eleven o’clock at night. Half an hour later, the East Germans who had been alerted to take part in the first escape attempt through this tunnel began entering it. Soon afterward, a water pipe broke, turning one section of the passage into mud. As the refugees, who included six children, continued to enter the shaft, another water pipe broke, and then another, but the procession continued until the early hours of the morning, when flooding finally filled the tunnel and made it impassable. By then, twenty-nine refugees had reached West Berlin—the largest group escape since the wall was erected, and, as far as is known, the students’ most successful single operation.

Up to now, it is estimated, the university students of West Berlin have made possible the escape of at least a thousand East Germans. Part of the known cost of this achievement has been the arrest by the East Germans of more than a hundred students, including at least three and possibly four Americans. Most of those arrested have been sentenced to prison terms ranging up to three years. (Two of the Americans were released after serving four months; the third, arrested last January, was sentenced in July to a twenty-one-month prison term; the fourth disappeared in East Berlin shortly after August 13, 1961, and is apparently still being detained there.) In July, Heinrich Albertz, a member of West Berlin’s Senate, delivered the principal address in a ceremony paying tribute to the victims of the abortive anti-Hitler plot of July 20, 1944, and took occasion to compare “the resistance fighters against the Nazi regime to those courageous young people who, since the erection of the wall, have sacrificed their lives to save others from oppression and dictatorship, which does not differ from Hitler’s.” “Since August 13th,” he added, “things have happened in Berlin of which we will be able to speak frankly only many years from now.”

From what we do know of events since August 13th, it is evident that while Ulbricht has succeeded in turning East Germany into what West Berliners call a concentration camp (Konzentrationslager, their abbreviation of which—KZ—they have painted on the wall in letters two feet high), he can never make it escape-proof. As soon as one escape route is discovered and closed, another is found. When the Vopos were keeping an increasingly vigilant lookout for tunnels, fourteen East Germans commandeered a five-hundred-ton excursion boat, after having got the captain and engineer drunk, and raced it across the Spree. When more careful watch was placed on excursion boats, twenty-six East Germans who had managed to embark on a government cruise ship that provided Mediterranean vacations for so-called “deserving workers” and “reliable” intellectuals disembarked at Casablanca, wandered off into the city, and never returned. When, soon afterward, the East German authorities directed that such holiday ships confine their cruises to the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea, and Cuba, many East Germans began escaping across the Baltic to Denmark and Sweden in sailboats, folding boats, and row-boats with outboard motors. When, in June, East Germany sealed its hundred-and-ninety-mile Baltic coastline with an immense “control strip,” forty-one young East Germans got themselves appointed to their country’s delegation to the World Youth Festival, held in Finland, and from there departed for the West.

On my last day in Berlin, I paid a visit to the Marienfelde reception center, accompanied by a friend named Max, who is the Berlin correspondent of a West German newspaper. Max had offered to drive me to this now historic way station because I was curious to see it; neither of us expected to run into much activity there. Marienfelde, I found, is a complex of three-story apartment houses, in the southern part of Berlin, which before August 13th sometimes accommodated as many as thirty-three hundred refugees. Now it has hardly any, and more than half of its capacity has been converted into permanent residential quarters. It was mid-afternoon when Max and I arrived, and Marienfelde looked deserted. The only person I saw on the grounds was an elderly man working on the lawn. Inside the Administration Building, we were met by a staff member, who wore shiny black leather gloves over artificial hands (in government offices in Berlin one so frequently encounters employees with artificial limbs that in time one tends not to notice), and he directed us to the room where refugees are—to use the disagreeable but proper term—processed. To get there, we walked down a hall, which, Max said, had usually been packed tight with refugees in the years before the wall. Now the hall was empty. At the far end, we entered a long, low-ceilinged room, dominated by a large green-topped table, where three officials were sitting. One of them, a slight, elderly man, was glancing through some dossiers. Two refugees, he said, were scheduled to receive their final processing that afternoon, and perhaps two more as well, if they could be found. He explained that the second pair were an old couple; the husband was partly blind and the wife totally blind. They were probably somewhere around the grounds, he added, but apparently they had got lost. I remarked to Max that the official’s concern for the old couple didn’t seem profound. “I know,” Max said. “It is unfortunate. It is not that we have no heart. It is just that we get to the point where we begin to think of a human being as an animal who gets used to everything.” The lost couple, he added, had no doubt been allowed to leave East Germany legally. Since the wall went up, the Red Cross has succeeded in securing official permission for six hundred and twenty East Germans to cross the border. Nearly all have been aged or infirm parents, who wished to be reunited with their children in West Germany. Close to ten thousand other applications for exit permits have been filed with the East German authorities and have been turned down.

The first refugee to be examined, the elderly official said, would be an eighteen-year-old East Berliner who had arrived in West Berlin two days earlier. Presently, he came into the room and sat in a chair at the far end of the table. A well-built youth with a round face, pink cheeks, long, carefully combed blond hair, and long sideburns, he was wearing blue jeans, a striped sports shirt, and black loafers with pointed toes. In response to questions put by the elderly official, he gave his vital statistics, and said that he had no relatives in West Berlin. He said that his parents were still living in East Berlin, that neither of them was a member of the Communist Party, and that he had belonged to none of the Communist youth organizations. After finishing the eighth grade, he was sent to a trade school but soon left to go to work in a steel mill. On his day off, he used to come to West Berlin to earn extra money by working in the wholesale fruit-and-vegetable market. He said that he had tried to keep this activity secret, because it was frowned upon by the East German authorities, who called it Schwarzarbeit (black work). One night a week or two after the wall went up, he was returning home late after celebrating a friend’s birthday. He had drunk too much and was being noisy on the street. Two Vopos stopped him and asked for his identity card, which he gave them. They then searched him and found ten marks in his wallet. They returned the identity card but kept the ten marks. The youth said that this made him angry, and he quarrelled with the Vopos. They arrested him, and the police subsequently found out about his record of “black work.” He said that this was a bad mark against him, and that he was sentenced to a youth prison for an indefinite term. The official asked on what charge he had been tried. “I don’t remember the paragraph of the law,” he replied, “but it was something about acting against the state.” He was released last May, and soon afterward began working out a plan to flee to West Berlin with three friends. They began their escape shortly before ten o’clock on a starless summer night, he said, and planned to cross the border in the vicinity of Teltow. He was not asked to be more explicit. By one o’clock, he said, he and one of his comrades were in West Berlin. The official asked, “What became of the other two?” The youth replied, “I don’t know. I guess they were caught.” The official looked through the youth’s dossier, and then told him that he would be registered the following day as a citizen of West Berlin. The youth rose, thanked the official, and left.

Max shook his head. “I don’t know about him,” he said. “He could be capable of anything.”

The second refugee was an elderly, thin-faced woman who wore a long pale-blue coat and a white scarf and carried a straw purse nearly as large as a shopping bag. Her ears had been pierced, and she was wearing small gold earrings. As she sat, with her hands folded in her lap, her tiny bright-blue eyes darted about the room, and she looked like a frightened bird. She was the widow of a carpenter who had been killed as a soldier during the war. Until 1960, she had lived with her son, an official in the East Berlin government. Then he had fled to West Berlin. The official asked why. “He had a responsible position, but they asked too much of him,” the widow replied. “In his heart, he was different.” After he had left, she went on, she changed her apartment, but the Party functionaries located her and called her in for questioning. “I had to answer all kinds of questions,” she said. “They shouted, ‘Tell the truth!’ But I didn’t say much. They let me go but said I would have to come back again and answer more questions. Then I was afraid. I knew I must have the courage to leave, but I couldn’t make myself do it, and then they built the wall.” The widow wet her lips and pushed up the hair at one side of her head. The official asked when she had arrived in West Berlin. “I was fetched at eleven o’clock at night,” she said. “I was put in a box, and it was nailed up and put on a truck. At the crossing point, I was scared. My God, I thought, what will become of me.­ At two o’clock, the box was opened, and I was in West Berlin. I am so glad to be here. I will be seventy years old in three weeks.” She said she was living with her son, who had found a job as a clerk. She sat and watched intently while the examiner thumbed through her dossier. “Tomorrow,” he said, “you will be registered as a citizen of West Berlin.” The widow smiled, looked around the room, and nodded to each of us. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you, everybody.” Picking up her straw bag, she darted out of the room. The officials began collecting their papers. That day’s processing was finished.

Driving back from Marienfelde, Max stopped at a traffic light next to a pair of blue Volkswagen station wagons, each with six loudspeaker horns on its roof and each bearing on its side, above a drawing of a length of barbed wire, the words “Studio am Stacheldraht” (“Studio at the Barbed Wire”). Max said that the station wagons were part of a mobile fleet that RIAS—Radio in the American Sector—had set up after August 13th to broadcast into East Berlin from right beside the wall. He added that the sessions were sometimes rather lively affairs, and asked if I would like us to follow the unit ahead. I said yes, and as we started off, Max explained that while it is not actually against the law in East Germany to tune in on Western television or radio broadcasts, a tremendous campaign is constantly being waged to discourage the practice on a “voluntary” basis. “The press raves that only spies and traitors listen to RIAS,” Max said. “Schoolchildren sign pledges that they won’t watch or listen to Western broadcasts. Teachers ask innocent-sounding questions to trick the youngsters into informing on their parents. The regime lets groups of the Jugend roam the roofs of East Berlin apartment houses and tear down every television antenna that looks as if it might be set to receive Western stations.” Soon after SAS got started, Max added, the East Germans retaliated on a large scale, ringing the city with hundreds of loudspeakers attached to utility poles along both the wall and the zonal border, and putting mobile transmitting units of their own into action. As a result, the two sides are now engaged in what Berliners call the Loudspeaker War. As we got within half a mile or so of the wall, it became clear that that day’s battle was already under way, for march music from East Berlin began to fill the air, becoming louder and louder as we followed the SAS station wagons to their destination, which turned out to be near a section of the wall just around the corner from Wilhelmstrasse, and Max parked behind them. We walked over to Wilhelmstrasse, a broad thoroughfare that comes to an abrupt dead end at the wall. The street was full of people—perhaps two hundred and fifty on foot and at least a hundred in small cars and on motorcycles, scooters, and bicycles. In a few minutes, the march music stopped, and a few seconds later an equally jarring voice came on. “Citizens of West Berlin,” it began, and as it went on, I was struck by the constant repetition of the words “Vest Bear-leen.” Almost at once, the cars that had swarmed into the street and the surrounding area began sounding their horns. The racket was remarkable, and, in the immediate vicinity, drowned out the voice of the commentator. On one side of Wilhelmstrasse is a vacant lot covered with rubble that rises considerably higher than the wall. Standing on this rubble mountain, dozens of West Berliners added to the din by whistling through their fingers, hooting, and catcalling. The demonstration had an impromptu air. People on their way home from work—it was now about a quarter after five—stopped and joined in. “You see,” Max shouted in my ear, “we don’t need any jamming devices!” We climbed up on the rubble mountain to have a look at the other side. Three sound trucks the size of moving vans were parked alongside one another in the middle of the street, about half a block beyond the wall. “They’ve brought up their biggest guns tonight!” Max shouted. “Our transmitters can’t compete with that stuff.” Standing at one side of the trucks were half a dozen Vopo officers, two of them using binoculars. Beside a vacant lot a few feet away, three steel-helmeted Vopos were lying on the ground, their submachine guns pointed toward the wall. Elsewhere in the vacant lot I eventually made out three other Vopos, similarly equipped and positioned, who were partly concealed by weeds and rubble. Directly across the wall from where I stood is the East German House of Ministries, a great gray pile that formerly housed Hermann Göring’s Air Ministry. Here, at several open windows facing the wall, Vopos stood with submachine guns over their shoulders and binoculars at their eyes. There were no civilians in sight.

Up on the rubble mountain, I could hear some of the commentator’s words over the continuing din below. “In West Berlin,” he was saying, “they deny who the real enemy is. The real enemy is the West German militarists. We ask: Do you want to wait until your last bit of security has been played out? The people of West Berlin must realize that the way to peaceful coexistence lies in peaceful negotiation with the German Democratic Republic.” At length, he stopped. The West Berliners immediately broke into a chant. “Mauer muss weg! [Wall must go!],” they shouted in a chorus that developed into a roar. I looked around at the participants. Most of them were men in their early twenties. There were a few young women, a number of older people, and a handful of children, including a couple of boys, standing nearby, who appeared to be around twelve. Each of the boys held a pair of old aluminum saucepan covers, which they used like cymbals. I asked one of them why he was making so much noise. “To get even,” he replied. He explained that the other boy was his brother, and that they lived, with their mother, in an apartment a block away. “Every night, we have crazy words and music,” he said. “It is so loud we cannot practice our piano lessons. We cannot hear the notes. Sometimes they keep up the noise until nine o’clock. Sometimes all night, playing those crazy marches so loud nobody can sleep.” He and his brother took up their task again as the commentator resumed.

Down on the street, a West Berlin television crew had arrived. After recording the scene below, the cameramen climbed up the rubble mountain and began photographing over the wall. This created consternation among the Vopo officers. First, they all raised their binoculars. Then they began talking among themselves. Presently, two Vopos lobbed three tear-gas grenades over the wall into the crowd on the street. The instant the grenades landed, two young men, one of whom had been idly standing with his arm around a girl, ran over, picked them up, and threw them back over the wall, where they exploded. This brought a tremendous roar of applause from the crowd, and further disconcerted the Vopos, who sent for reinforcements. Before long, two personnel carriers roared up beside the sound trucks, and soon the vacant lot and the street itself were alive with Vopos in battle gear, lying on their bellies with guns at the ready. The hooting and jeering of the West Berliners grew even louder. The troops were still deployed half an hour later, when, with the dinner hour approaching, the crowd began to drift away and Max and I also left. We were going in different directions, so I looked for a taxi, but didn’t find one until I had walked several blocks. Away from Wilhelmstrasse, I discovered, the voice of the commentator was loud and clear as he warned the citizens of West Berlin: “You live under the rule of capitalism in the middle of a sea of Socialist people. How do you expect to survive in the storm that is coming? We can find a way to help you.” On some street corners, small clusters of people were gathered, apparently listening to the harangue. On the sill of a second-floor window somebody had placed a radio, facing Wilhelmstrasse and playing jazz at full volume. Over the music produced by this gesture of defiance came the voice of the commentator, clear as a bell: “Citizens of West Berlin, your time is running out. You must realize there is only one solution for your trouble. You can achieve an honorable agreement with the workers and farmers of the German Democratic Republic and the fruitful rewards of peaceful coexistence. Citizens of West Berlin . . .”

That night, at dinner with the political editor of one of West Berlin’s newspapers, I mentioned the events of the afternoon on Wilhelmstrasse. “As you saw, West Berlin is at a disadvantage in the loudspeaker war,” he said. “We do not have equipment to compare with the East’s. One day this summer, when the atmospheric conditions were favorable for transmitting, their loudspeakers could be heard over half the city. Furthermore, a loudspeaker offensive is harder on West Berliners, because so many of them live right up against the wall. East Berliners, of course, have been evacuated for a considerable distance behind it. You heard their loudspeaker message once today. Well, then, you’ve heard it a thousand times. It’s always the same, and so is the purpose. They are just playing on our nerves. I don’t think they expect any immediate results from their propaganda. They believe they will get what they want if they wait. The loudspeaker offensive is to make us feel helpless. That is the object—to make us feel that nothing can be done, that we must just sit here and listen, and not be able to turn them off or do anything else about it.” I said that the West Berliners that I saw had seemed to respond to the offensive calmly enough, and remarked on the orderliness of the crowd on Wilhelmstrasse and the contrast between its behavior and the actions on the other side of the wall. We talked for a while about the way the West Berliners have reacted to the provocation of the wall, and the fact that, aside from the demonstrations following Peter Fechter’s death and the setting off of a few explosive charges at the wall, which caused inconsequential damage, they have created no incidents. “They are following the policy of the city government,” the editor said. “The West Berliners are told that they should be aware of the wall, they should not be content with it, but they should never attack it. This puts an unusual stress on the police, because they feel the same way everybody else does. They, too, have relatives and friends on the other side. But they have the responsibility of stopping any kind of activity against the wall, and they have done their job well.” The West Berliners’ obedience, I remarked, is praised by some people as a demonstration of exemplary discipline under stress, but is regarded by others simply as a manifestation of lack of will to resist. “We are not unfamiliar with the charge,” the editor said. “A few weeks ago, there was a newspaper publisher visiting here from Arkansas. He said, ‘I’m going home and tell my readers that the United States shouldn’t lift a finger to do anything about the wall until the West Berliners do something about it themselves.’ Of course, we reject out of hand any idea of appeasement at the wall. At the same time, we cannot ignore the fact that any serious exchange of fire at the wall could set off a chain reaction that might well end in disaster. If something happened at the wall, it could give the Communists the chance to do what they’ve always wanted to do—take over West Berlin on the pretext of intervening to ‘restore order.’ Also, the Allied forces are still in charge of this city. It is still occupied. All the authority that the Berlin government, officials, and police have is what is delegated to them by the Allies. As for a solution, we know that it can be reached only through an agreement between Washington and Moscow. Anything that jeopardizes the possibility of effecting that agreement is against the best interests of Berlin and of Germany. Meanwhile, we must be patient. The philosophy of the people in West Berlin is that one must maintain one’s existence, knowing there will be no calm.”

Later that night, I decided to have a last look at the wall, and just before eleven o’clock, I stopped by Potsdamer Platz, which before August 13th was one of the busiest spots in Berlin, crisscrossed by streetcars, buses, and all manner of other traffic almost as if no border existed. Since the wall was erected across the square, it has been rendered lifeless, and the area around it is languishing. Most of its grocery stores, small restaurants, and shops, which used to do a substantial part of their trade with East Berliners, have either gone out of business or been turned into souvenir stands. The windows display collections of both black-and-white and color pictures of the wall, and some display color slides as well. Since the wall has become Berlin’s premier sightseeing attraction, a great many tourists visit Potsdamer Platz in the course of each day, but scarcely anybody goes there after dark, and when I arrived all the stores but one were closed. The single light came from what was once a small shop and is now being used as a headquarters for the police on border duty in the area. Inside, a policeman was eating a sandwich and reading a newspaper. Another policeman was standing out on the street, and a third was sitting in a small wooden observation tower, from which he could survey the square. No other people were in sight on the West Berlin side of the wall, nor, I discovered when I had climbed a few rickety steps to a stand looking into East Berlin, were any in sight on the other side. Beyond the wall, one sees the customary barbed-wire barrier, then a high metal fence topped with barbed wire, then a row of tank traps, and then another barbed-wire barrier. At the far side of the square, one street was illuminated. The other streets converging on the square, and the square itself, were dark. There were no sounds, no movement. I recalled that the Berlin correspondent of the London Times, a woman who has lived in Berlin all her life, had told me the day before that she had recently seen a rabbit run across the eastern part of Potsdamer Platz—a sight that would once have been about as likely as seeing a rabbit run across Times Square. It didn’t seem hard to imagine now. A military truck came down the one lighted street and turned off into one of the dark side streets. Apparently, it was time to change the guards, for two Vopos materialized out of the darkness on the right side of the square and then two more on the left side. A fifth and sixth came out of the shadows almost directly ahead. They walked across the square and turned the corner where the truck had stopped. Presently, what I took to be the new shift came around the corner, walked into the center of the square, and then individually disappeared into the shadows at its edges. The Army truck backed out of the side street and drove off in the direction from which it had come. Again Potsdamer Platz was deathly still and completely deserted except for the six hidden Vopos. As I stood peering into their eerie domain, a streetcar came down the illuminated street and stopped at the far side of the square. It was the end of the line. Nobody got off, and nobody got on. The streetcar soon started back again, and disappeared in the distance.