berlin wall Archive

Remember Ida Siekmann and 22 August 1961

Remember Ida Siekmann and 22 August 1961

Reading Ida Siekmann’s story at the Chronik der Mauer (Chronicle of the Berlin Wall) website will likely make you shake your head a few times and wonder how this all could have happened.  The German version of the story is quite detailed, whereas the English version is only a few lines.  So I’ll give here a summary of some of the content that’s available in German but not in English.

Ms. Siekmann’s death is recognized as having been the first attributed directly to the building of the Wall.  She was born in 1902 in West Prussia and it’s not known when she first moved to Berlin.    At the time the Wall was built she lived at Bernauer Straße 48 in Central Berlin, specifically the district Berlin-Mitte, which, during the 4-power occupation of Berlin, was in the Soviet zone.  However, the street in front of the building belonged in the district of Berlin-Wedding, which was part of the French zone.  Prior to the Wall, this unfortunate circumstance caused no great difficulty; there was neighborly contact between both sides of the street.  In fact, Ms. Siekmann visited her sister, a few blocks to the west, regularly and without difficulty.

Because of the arrangement of the building, it could only be entered from Wedding, but once you were within it, you were in Berlin-Mitte.  In the first few days of the Wall’s construction, many people living along that side of Bernauer Straße were still able to escape and go over to the west via their front doors.  Beginning on the 18th of August, however, the communist authorities barricaded the front doors and created new entrances from the sides of the buildings not facing west.  Authorities tightly controlled entrance to these buildings.

With their front doors barricaded, residents inside the buildings began jumping out of windows on the western side.  You can see footage here:

Authorities barricaded the front door of Ms. Siekmann’s building on 21 August 1961. Early the next morning, 22 August 1961, she threw many of her belongings out of the window of her third-floor flat. Probably because of her fear of being seen and stopped, she jumped out of the window herself too quickly and before West Berlin firemen were prepared to catch her. She died from her injuries on the way to the hospital, one day before her 59th birthday.

Her death caused a great deal of consternation in West Berlin. The press described her fate as a “deadly jump to freedom.” A memorial was soon erected in her honor. U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy later visited this memorial with German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer.

I have a special page dedicated to links concerning the Berlin Wall.

Photo credit: I found this photo at Wikimedia Commons. The copyright holder is listed as “Mutter Erde”, which is most certainly not a real name (it’s the German for “Mother Earth.”) The copyright holder has given full permission for the image to be used and altered.

Berlin Wall link updates

I added ten or so links to my Berlin Wall links page over the weekend. Two of my new favorites are, unfortunately, only very useful for people who can read and understand German. The first is Hinrich Olsen’s private page, Friedliche Revolution und Mauerfall, which also has several photos so could be interesting even if you do not read German, and German broadcaster ZDF’s Mediathek, whereat you can type in a search for "DDR" and find lots of useful and interesting television clips. I particularly liked ZDF’s "Countdown Mauerfall" series, which shows clips from ZDF news on the same day in 1989 (e.g., today they will show their 17 August 1989 broadcast.)

For those who cannot speak/read German, one of the more interesting sites I linked to this weekend is Moments in Time: 1989/1990, from the federal office of civic education. It contains lots of material in English, and many of its photos are licensed under Creative Commons, meaning you can re-use them for non-commercial purposes.

Berlin Wall link page — just starting out

No doubt about it, I’ve caught the Berlin Wall Bug big time.  This is going to be quite a year of commemorations, and I’ll be eating it all up with gusto.

As I already spend a bunch of time scouring the web for Berlin Wall history, information and photos, I decided I may as well take the next step and put up a page containing links to some of the better resources I have found.  The beginnings of this endeavor are visible now at my page simply titled “Berlin Wall“.   The link is also available up on the navigation bar.

There are only a few sites listed there now, as I need to pause for the rest of today and work on other things.  But I’ll be regularly updating the set of links.  And if you have found some good web resources concerning the Berlin Wall, I urge you to go to my “Berlin Wall” page and submit a comment to tell me about it.  Or you can always write me an e-mail: just address it to bill at this domain.

Berlin Wall construction began 48 years ago today

Berlin Wall construction began 48 years ago today

After tens of thousands had fled East Berlin for West Berlin in recent months, the East Germans began to erect a physical barrier in the early morning of 13 August 1961.  Thus began the Berlin Wall’s 28 year existence.  As Germans and others celebrate — this year, 2009 — the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, more attention will naturally be given as well to this anniversary of its construction.

I enjoy looking at archives to read through immediate reactions to such big historical events.  I’ve looked today the U.S. State Department archives, specifically “Foreign Relations, 1961-1963, Volume XIV, Berlin Crisis, 1961-1962“.

An early telegram to Washington from the leader of the U.S. Mission in Berlin, Allen Lightner, speculated:

Evidently as a result of increased refugee flow with attendant economic loss to GDR and prestige to Socialist camp, East decided at recent Moscow conference of Warsaw Pact countries to proceed with fait accompli which would drastically disrupt freedom of movement within Berlin and erect frontier with respect entry into West Berlin of Sov Zone and East Berlin residents. In this way East has now taken some of the steps which it had been anticipated would follow from separate peace treaty with GDR.

As one would expect for such a momentous and dangerous event, the archives show a mix of reactions among U.S. diplomats.  On 16 August, after three days of relative inactivity on the part of the west, Lightner’s telegrams show obvious frustration:

In essence these people feel that we are facing a crisis of confidence which endangers quite seriously our position. This is based on the absence of any sharp and definite followup action since the Secretary’s statement. However this feeling of letdown is the greater because the President’s speech had had such a large readership and television following and had evoked such widespread public acceptance as a promise of firmness. I have not been impressed by German complaints of the lack of display of US military presence since sector borders were closed. I realize also that the longstanding belief that US support is the main and only German protection makes them impatient of our desire to act in concert with NATO Allies. Taking into account these prejudices and discounting numerous emotional arguments which have been made to me I am nevertheless convinced that what is described as the surrender of East Berlin to Ulbricht with all that this immediately implies has been a shock so severe that it can gravely affect our future relations, first, with the city of Berlin and its leaders, and second with the Federal Republic once the extent of the disillusionment here is recognized in Bonn.


Comment: I anticipate Berliners will label our Aug 15 letter of protest belated and tepid. No one here asking large violent action, merely some action, some proof this is not “another sample of `Hitler’s take over of Rhineland'”. I think the timetable for this crisis has been stepped up very considerably and there is real danger that Berliners will conclude they should take themselves, their bank accounts and movable assets to some other place. What is in danger or being destroyed here is that perishable commodity called hope. [my emphasis]

Berlin Mayor and future German Chancellor Willy Brandt wrote to President Kennedy personally on 16 August to express his doubts about western reactions to the crisis:

This development has not changed will to resist of West Berlin population, but has tended to arouse doubts as to determination of three powers and their ability to react. In this connection the decisive factor is that the West has always specifically invoked the existing Four-Power status.


[I] recollect not without bitterness declarations rejecting negotiations with USSR on basis one should not negotiate under pressure. We now have state of accomplished extortion, and already I hear it will not be possible turn down negotiations. In such situation, when possibility of initiative for action is already so small, it is all the more important at least to demonstrate political initiative.

Among those located in Washington, you can see as early as 14 August, the day after construction began, the beginnings of the treatment of the event as a fait accompli as shown in McGeorge Bundy’s summary of his discussions with others:

The Department’s proposal for a riposte is likely to be the ending of the travel permits which have been issued by the three powers in West Berlin to East Germans who want to visit allied or neutral countries. This was used a year ago in response to East German harassment of civilian traffic, and it worked well. No one thinks it will cause a reversal of policy this time, in the light of the much more serious causes of this much larger action. But it is argued that it will give some pain, since it will cut off East German access to allied countries and to those neutral nations which play along.

I find this argument unconvincing. I doubt if we should take little actions in reprisal against this big one, especially when the punishment is unrelated to the crime. The only good argument for this action is that it has been discussed among the 4 Powers before as a possible retort to border-closing, and there may be some Allied worry about our “reliability” if we don’t support it now.

Incidentally, I find agreement in both Joe Alsop and George Kennan to these three conclusions: (1) this is something they have always had the power to do; (2) it is something they were bound to do sooner or later, unless they could control the exits from West Berlin to the West; (3) since it was bound to happen, it is as well to have it happen early, as their doing and their responsibility.

It reminds me of the opening pages of Rainer Eppelmann’s memoir, Fremd im eigenen Haus (Amazon US, UK, DE). Eppelmann’s father had papers showing him as being registered in West Berlin, whereas the family home was in the east. The parents agreed that the father should remain in the west (where work was more plenty):

Both [parents] were absolutely convinced that the Wall, erected brick-by-brick in front of the eyes of the world, would not remain for long. The West would never allow it! [My translation and emphasis]

Welt Online shows child victims of the Berlin Wall

Welt Online shows child victims of the Berlin Wall

November 2009 will mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Many German publications and websites are therefore dedicating a great deal of time and space to commemorating the event.

The online presence of the German newspaper Die Welt posted on Monday a photo essay of five children who died because of the presence of the “Wall” (the term is used broadly to describe the entire border between East and West Berlin, including the Spree River, which, as you will see, plays a significant role here.) I include here a brief English summary of each entry:

  1. Cengaver Katranci, an 8 year-old Turkish immigrant in West Berlin, fell into the water from the banks of the Spree River in October 1972. A fisherman wanted to help him but decided against it, knowing that the whole of the river at this point was found within GDR borders. West Berlin police tried to summon boats from the east to save him, but failed. It took 90 minutes for a boat from the east to finally begin the search. His body was found two hours after he fell in.
  2. Siegfried Kroboth, a five year-old, also fell into the Spree from the west in May 1973. West Berlin police saw him in the water but could do nothing. Occupants of an East Berlin border post did nothing. Only hours later did divers from the east fish out his body.
  3. Cetin Mer fell into the Spree on 11 May 1975, his fifth birthday. His body was retrieved two hours later. After this event, the east and west finally agreed on a warning system by which border police could raise alarm and call on rescuers.
  4. Giuseppe Savoca, the 6 year-old son of Italian immigrants, fell into the Spree on 15 June 1974. Border guards on the eastern side saw this and reported it. Shortly thereafter, a boat belonging to the eastern border troops came by but simply kept going. Only after receiving orders did the boat crew fish out the young boy’s body.
  5. The East German parents of the 15 month-old Holger H. wanted their son to grow up in freedom.  In 1973 they attempted to escape by hiding in boxes in a lorry of a friend from West Berlin.  During the wait at the border post, Holger began to cry.  His mother covered the baby’s mouth, but because Holger had a middle-ear infection his nasal membranes were swollen and he was therefore unable to breath.  He suffocated in his mother’s arms.

The photo accompanying this blog post shows part of the Spree river going through Berlin. Credit: flickr user Murdoch. / CC BY 2.0.