Imagine that your best friend lives a mile away. You have been pals since first grade. You do everything together: school, soccer games, sleepovers.
One day, men come and put up a barbed-wire fence between your house and your buddy’s. Later, they replace it with a very long, very tall concrete wall. Each slab weighs 6,000 pounds, and many of them are topped with sharp wire.
When they finish, you stare at the giant wall that has split your home town in two. On your side, the wall is ugly but not too scary. On the other side, rattling tanks, soldiers with machine guns and growling dogs keep people from trying to cross the barrier.
The wall stands 12 feet high. Your friend lives on the other side. You can’t see him. And you won’t . . . for the next 28 years!
Welcome to Berlin, Germany. The year is 1961.
The Germans were used to their land being divided. When Germany lost World War II in 1945, the winning Allies divided the country into four zones. France, Britain and the United States controlled three zones, which later became West Germany. The Soviet Union, which wasn’t friendly with the other Allies, controlled the fourth. It became East Germany.
The Allies also carved up Berlin, Germany’s capital. The Soviets claimed East Berlin. The Allies controlled West Berlin.
Berlin posed a problem for the Allies because it sat smack in the middle of the Soviet zone. Thus, West Berlin became a tiny island in the middle of Soviet-controlled East Germany. The problem grew as it became clear that the Allies were in a fight over two very different forms of government.
In the Soviet system, called communism, the government owned and controlled almost everything, including property and transportation. Goods were to be shared equally, although this rarely happened.
The United States, France and Britain — they were often called the Western powers — were rooted in democracy and capitalism. People in those countries elected their leaders, and most property and goods were owned by individuals or companies.
Despite being wartime allies, neither side trusted the other.
With the Soviet Union forcing its system on East Germany and several neighboring countries, “an iron curtain” had descended across Europe, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said. This marked the start of an era called the Cold War, during which the Western powers had several confrontations with the Soviet Union. It lasted until 1991, when the Soviet Union fell apart.
People unhappy with life in East Germany began fleeing in the late 1940s. By 1961, 2.7 million people — 15 percent of the population — had left. After East Germany tightened its borders in 1952, many got out through West Berlin. With more than 50,000 East Berliners working there, escaping was not hard.
East German leaders were upset about losing so many young, highly skilled workers. But how could they stop this “brain drain”? They built a large wall through the heart of Berlin, splitting East from West. The barrier would extend about 100 miles, circling West Berlin like a tight belt. The idea wasn’t to keep West Berliners in; it was to keep East Berliners, and other East Germans, out.
Barbed-wire fencing went up August 13, 1961, followed by the concrete wall. Streets in East Berlin were ripped up and buildings razed to create wide-open “death strips” along the wall, making escape very hard. Bright lights lit the area at night, and electrified fences kept vehicles and people away. Soldiers manned 302 watchtowers along the wall.
Some East Germans got out just in time. Hans Conrad Schumann, 19, was a soldier sent to guard the wall on its third day of construction. He became famous for a photo showing him leaping over a tangle of barbed wire and dashing to freedom.
Families and friendships were torn apart by the wall. Westerners could apply for a pass to visit East Berlin. East Berliners could not leave. Newlyweds in West Berlin sometimes climbed ladders so relatives on the other side of the wall could see them in their wedding clothes.
Most subway lines that once crossed the city now stopped at the border and turned back. A few trains continued briefly into East Berlin but did not stop at what were called “ghost stations.”
Some foods became scarce in East Berlin. Children there were lucky to get one or two bananas a year. And Western businesses such as McDonald’s and Coca- Cola were banned.
Radio and television shows couldn’t be easily blocked, so teens in East Berlin — just like their peers on the other side of the wall — heard and went crazy for a new style of music called rock-and-roll.
Growing unrest among the young worried East German officials. In 1988, they invited American rock legend Bruce Springsteen to give a concert in East Berlin. People came from all over East Germany, and millions more watched on TV. “I’ve come to play rock-and-roll for you in the hope that one day all the barriers will be torn down,” Springsteen told the cheering crowd.
The wall did its job. The day before it went up, 2,400 East Germans crossed into West Berlin. But in the 28 years that followed, just 5,000 people crossed.
They dug tunnels, flew small planes and drifted over in a homemade hot-air balloon. Some slid along wires strung like a zip line between East and West.
Many didn’t make it. Peter Fechter, 18, was an early victim. He and a friend planned to escape over a 6½-foot section of the wall. His friend made it, but Fechter was shot while climbing the wall. He fell, badly wounded. His cries for help were ignored, and he died at the base of the wall an hour later. (A memorial was later built on the spot. In German, it reads: “He just wanted freedom.”)
No one knows how many died trying to cross into West Berlin. One guess is about 200, including children as young as 10. Thousands of people were captured and sent to prison for trying to get out of East Berlin.
In June 1987, Berlin celebrated its 750th anniversary. U.S. President Ronald Reagan traveled to West Berlin and gave a speech calling on the Soviets to “tear down this wall.”
By 1989, change was sweeping across Eastern Europe. People were tired of communist rule. Angry Berliners wanted the wall removed. In a surprise move, East German officials opened the border on November 9 — 25 years ago.
More than 2 million Berliners streamed from one side of the city to the other that weekend. In a two-day party, people danced atop the wall and chipped off souvenirs with hammers and picks.
Over the next year, the wall was reduced to rubble. In October 1990, East and West Germany were reunited as one country.
■ Some West Berliners used the wall as a trash dump. They tossed stuff they didn’t want over the wall and let the East German soldiers on the other side haul it away.
■ While the wall stood, the side facing West Berlin became covered in graffiti. The side facing east remained bare. Can you guess why?
■ When the wall was being torn down, some people chipped off pieces to keep as souvenirs. These people were called “wall woodpeckers.”
■ East German officials called the wall the Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart. West Germans often called it the Wall of Shame.
After the Berlin Wall was torn down, pieces were shipped to museums and other places around the world. Washington has three sites where you can see chunks of the wall:
● The Newseum , at 555 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, has the largest public display of Berlin Wall sections outside Germany. The exhibit features eight 12-foot-high concrete sections and a three-story guard tower. Admission to the Newseum starts at $13.95 for age 7 and older. But everyone 18 and younger can get in free on November 29 as part of a special Santa letter-writing event. A parent can visit www.newseum.org.
The Newseum also is hosting “Fall of the Wall Day” on November 8. Regular admission prices apply. For information, have a parent visit www.newseum.org/event/fall-of-the-wall-day.
● The Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center was given a colorful 9-by-3-foot piece of the wall. A tablet describes President Reagan’s 1987 “Tear Down This Wall” speech. Additional Educational materials will be available Monday through Friday this week. The wall segment is at the Woodrow Wilson Plaza entrance, across from the Federal Triangle Metro station, and can be visited daily 5 a.m. to 2 a.m. 1300 Pennsylvania Avenue NW. www.itcdc.com.
● Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies also has a single piece of the wall in its courtyard at 1740 Massachusetts Avenue NW. The courtyard is open to the public.
Here are four books to help you learn more about the history behind the wall — and about how it came down.
“The Berlin Wall: An Interactive Modern History Adventure” by Matt Doeden. As the story moves along, you choose what actions to take. Ages 8 to 12. 112 pages.
“The Fall of the Berlin Wall (Days That Shook the World)” by Pat Levy. Age 9 and older. 48 pages.
“The Fall of the Berlin Wall” by Jeremy Smith. Age 10 and older. 48 pages.
“A Place in History: The Berlin Wall” by Anne Rooney. Age 10 and older. 46 pages.