In December 1963, The Atlantic Monthly published a 43-page supplement on Berlin, "the Broken City." The report was published just two years after construction began on the Berlin Wall, and many of the stories revolve around the rise of this new, tangible division between the city's East and West. In honor of the 25th anniversary this week of the Wall's fall, we've included three of the most remarkable reflections from Berliners whose lives were very much defined by one of history's most consequential barriers.
The Runaway Guard
On Christmas Eve, 1961, an East German guard named Michael Mara defected to the West. He was neither the first nor the last guard to do so: By 1963, more than 1,000 guards had crossed over the Wall, including Conrad Schumann, who made his iconic "leap of hope" just three days into the barrier's construction.
Mara's own story of crossing over, however, is marked by a sense of circularity. In the conclusion of his text—excerpted below—he describes a moment two years after his defection, when he wanders back to the wall and establishes a connection with a new crop of conflicted border guards:
A few weeks ago, I was standing one evening somewhere near Checkpoint Charlie. On the other side of the Wall, three soldiers were sitting on a block of concrete. They gestured to me to ask if I had a few cigarettes for them. I went to the nearest cigarette machine and bought some packs of Lifes, the favorite brand of border soldiers. I wrote a few words of greetings on a small piece of paper and threw it over with the cigarettes. The soldiers carefully scanned their surroundings before they picked up the cigarettes. A little later a note weighted down by a stone came flying over. It said, “Thanks a lot for the cigarettes. ... We’re married, with children, and that’s why we can’t jump over—we’ve just got to put up with this humbug. There are many here who think as we do.”
The three of them shared the cigarettes and burned the packages. One of them kept constant watch on the area behind them.
I wrote another note, telling them that I had also been a border soldier and had fled to the West, and that I would like to come to the Wall another day and see them again. I threw this over the wall with two more packs of Lifes.
They sent me a detailed answer: “Today is the last day of our sixteen days’ duty at the Wall. You know yourself what it’s going to be like here. Tomorrow we’re going into intensive training. So that you’ll know the new guards are OK, we’ll tell them to turn their caps around in their hands. We’ll be back here on the nineteenth or twentieth. Many of us here envy you for making it.”
From time to time, I speak to these soldiers, in spite of the cleverly contrived control system. The urge towards freedom cannot be suppressed, and the fact gives us something to hope for.
The Tunnel Diggers