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Germany: A Wall Of Iron And Of Will

Berlin, 16 August 1996 (RFE/RL) -- The soul of the Berlin Wall took its aura from a speech by Winston Churchill at Westminster College in the central U.S. state of Missouri in 1946. Churchill said, "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an Iron Curtain has descended across Europe."

Thirty-five years ago this week, Iron Curtain ceased to be merely a metaphor. In August 1961, the East German regime erected a real wall of concrete and barbed wire through the heart of the traditional German capital of Berlin.

Long before then, a psychological and cultural screen had dropped between the controlled society of East Berliners and that of their dynamic brothers and sisters in West Berlin.

Immediately after the end of World War II in Europe, with tensions between East and West already high, the former allies -- Russia, the United States, Britain, and France -- divided Berlin into occupied sectors. Subsequently, the United States, Britain and France merged their sectors into a single economic unit. West Berlin prospered, despite its isolation completely surrounded by Communist East Germany.

East Berlin fared far less well.

For a year, from mid-1948 to mid-1949, the Communist East retaliated by enforcing a blockade intended to bring West Berlin to its knees. The West responded with a logistic miracle. It threw together a Berlin airlift, flying in everything from hams to coal, from military policemen to diplomats, to provide for West Berlin's needs. From June 1948 to September 1949, the airlift delivered more than 1.8 million tons of cargo. When the East Germans and Russians capitulated and ended the blockade, West Berlin had stockpiles of supplies.

An RFE/RL correspondent recalls:

"I flew into Berlin in late 1948 on an airlift freighter for assignment to the U.S. 759th Military Police Battalion. An arrival's first view from Templehof Airport was of rutted and rubble-strewn streets, and roofless buildings with twisted walls.

"Several weeks after landing on Templehof's pockmarked runways, I experienced a scene that ever afterwards symbolized for me the spirit that rebuilt Germany and created the wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) of the next ten years.

Our correspondent continues: "One fall day, I emerged from the MP barracks to stand in the gray early morning mist. Across from the American barracks was an entire city block where a massive building had imploded into a mountain of rust-brown and gray rubble. It was a scene of hopeless desolation. A smell of damp decay prevailed. The fog muffled almost all sounds. There was no traffic, no motion.

"Then in the distance, I heard a faint clankety-clank. The clanking grew nearer and louder. Eventually from the mist, a bent and rusted garden cart emerged, pushed by a bent and elderly man, a reconstruction worker. CLANKETY-CLANK. In those early post-war days, every available able-bodied German was required to devote several hours a week to reconstruction labor.

The story concludes: "Without a glance in my direction, the old man pushed his cart -- clankety-clank, clankety-clank -- across the street to the mass of mist-shrouded rubble. He bent wearily over and lifted the first brick."

By 1961, West Germany had recovered to the point that it was a magnet for the less-fortunate East Germans. An estimated 2.6 million of them had escaped to freedom, most by crossing the still open border between East and West Berlin.

In June 1961, East German leader Walter Ulbricht astounded a press conference by answering a question nobody had asked.

"There are people in West Germany who wish that we will mobilize the building workers in our capital to build a wall. . . . Nobody has the intention of building a wall," he said.

Two months later, workers suddenly erected the wall that Ulbricht said would not be built.

The Berlin Wall stood until November 1989, when it fell along with other institutions of communism throughout Central and Eastern Europe. Low-key ceremonies in Berlin and elsewhere this week commemorated the construction of the Wall. Commentators noted that hardly any vestiges of its physical presence remain. But many reminders of its divisive effects linger.

Soon after the fall, Winston Churchill's grandson had a piece of the old wall installed in Fulton, Missouri, near the site of the famous Iron Curtain speech.