Berlin yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the day the Berlin Wall started to go up with a memorial service and a minute of silence in memory of those who died trying to flee to the West.
German President Christian Wulff, Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in the East, and Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit were to attend a nationally televised commemoration followed by a church service at a chapel built where the wall stood for 28 years.
Flags flew at half-mast on the Reichstag, while church and regional authorities have called for a minute of silence at noon to remember at least 136 people who are known to have died in Berlin trying to cross the wall.
Overall figures of those killed while attempting to flee from East to West Germany stand at between 600 and 700.
Berlin’s public transport system was to stop all buses and trains at noon to honor victims, with electronic messages at stations marking the occasion.
The commemorations began overnight at a chapel on the former death strip with a more than seven-hour-long reading of the names and stories about the lives of those killed seeking freedom.
Wulff, who was to make a keynote address yesterday, has said the anniversary is an occasion for Germans to reflect on how far they have come since the darkest days of the Cold War.
“We have reason to be very pleased to live here and now,” he told yesterday’s issue of Die Welt newspaper. “We can look with pride to East Germans’ irrepressible desire for freedom and West Germans’ solidarity with them.”
European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek said in a statement that the anniversary was “a strong reminder that we should cherish our European Union and avoid any new divisions.”
“The Berlin Wall was Europe’s nightmare for more than 28 years. It symbolized the division of our continent and the contempt and violation of basic human rights,” said the former Polish prime minister, who happened to be in East Berlin when the Wall went up.
The Wall was born in the early hours of Aug. 13, 1961, a day chosen by East German authorities as that most likely to catch people by surprise as they enjoyed a summer day off.
In a secret operation codenamed “Rose,” tens of thousands of East German soldiers and factory militiamen were called out to cut off the Soviet-occupied eastern sector from the western part of the city, occupied by US, British and French forces since the end of World War II.
The wall, known in the East as the “anti-fascist protection wall,” was set up to stop the exodus of East Germans who found it easy to cross into West Berlin and then fly on to the West rather than attempt to cross the inter-German border farther afield.
In 1961, more than 2.5 million of East Germany’s 19 million inhabitants had already voted with their feet by going West and, with up to 3,000 leaving every day, communist authorities feared the mass flight would bleed the state dry.
Soldiers blocked off the streets, cut off rail links, and began building a wall of barbed wire and cemented paving stones that over the years, in Berlin, grew in height and complexity over 155km.
Today, much of the wall has disappeared with only small portions, totaling about 3km, remaining.
“There is the accusation that too much of the wall was torn down,” Wowereit said recently.
“Tourists may see it that way, but back then we were just so happy that the wall was gone and we couldn’t wait for those excavators to come and do away with it, this thing that created such misery in this city, that divided families, that claimed so many victims and caused such suffering,” he said. “But perhaps more should have been left to really show the horror of the division.”