Berlin, 1963: Voices From the Wall

Three stories of a divided city

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:

Conrad Schumann defects (Wikimedia)

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

In December 1962, NBC broadcast The Tunnel, a 90-minute film documenting the efforts of three West Berlin university students to dig tunnels beneath the Berlin Wall and rescue refugee families on the other side. But the students weren't the only ones digging.

Around the same time, the Potsdam-born author Erika von Hornstein, interviewed another trio of tunnelers in Berlin: Werner, Otto, and Franz (Hornstein didn't provide their last names). These interviews, which came out of her research for the 1962 book Beyond the Berlin Wall, highlight tensions even within the group. Franz, an East German refugee who had recently fled to West Berlin, has markedly different view of the city's prospects than Otto and Werner, both West German students who took time off from their studies to dig beneath the Wall. They all express passion for their rescue mission, but also deep skepticism about the future of Berlin and the hope of one day assimilating East and West (for clarity's sake, the text has been slightly reformatted into a Q&A).

Erika Von Hornstein: What importance do you think West Berlin has for Germans living in the East zone today?

A screenshot from the 1962 film,
The Tunnel (NBC)

Franz: Oh, Berlin isn’t so important today. To the East Germans it’s the same as the frontier zone, Hanover or Dresden. Until the Wall went up the East was interested in Berlin. The people were like children happy to see a shopwindow with oranges in it, you know. I was eighteen before I saw a real orange. But it wasn’t only because of the shopwindows that we went to West Berlin. We could walk along the streets and talk without having to turn around every so often in case anyone was behind us. That is past now. Of course there are people who say that if West Berlin were taken over by the East, the future would look much blacker, and the whole of West Germany might be taken over too. But that’s only a minority.

Werner: Just a minute, that’s the main question: is it in fact a minority?

Franz: That’s what I believe, of course.

Werner: I think it’s mostly people from the East zone who say that Berlin is still what it was before—a certain symbol or bulwark which will survive only if the protecting powers will keep their pledges, and that sort of thing.

Franz: I think the bulwark is collapsing.

Werner: That’s what scares people and makes them say, for God’s sake, don’t let it collapse! If in fact it does crumble, there’ll be nothing left on the other side but total resignation.

Franz: I think that for those in the East zone who believe that, West Berlin has already collapsed.

Otto: You’re far too gloomy.

Franz: Maybe.

Otto: I’d like to put in a word of warning about the sentimental feelings that play such a part in this situation, on the East side just as much as the West. In West Germany, when I talk to my school chums about Berlin and tell them what’s going and what they could do too, they are surprised and sympathetic. They find Berlin wonderfully interesting because there’s always something happening here at the Wall—shots are always being fired, things like that. That’s why Germans like to visit Berlin. But I’m sure that if you suggested to these people that they should help us build escape tunnels, they wouldn’t do it. They’d find some excuse.

Hornstein: What sort of people do get together to build tunnels and arrange escapes?

Otto: It's difficult to say. Most of them are people who have themselves fled as refugees from East Berlin or the zone. I'd say that ninety percent of the people who help the refugees are former refugees themselves. ...

One thing we must be clear about: you can't expect a refugee to escape one day and start building a tunnel the next. Refugees must first get acclimatized over here. They must establish contact with West Berliners, with other people. I know many young refugees who complain bitterly that they can't find any points of contact at all. They hardly ever get friendly with West Berliners or West Germans. Somehow there's an impenetrable obstacle between them.

Franz: It's a difference in their way of thinking, an enormous difference. ...

Werner:  I often get the feeling, too, that some people don’t go to East Berlin because they don’t want to see the great difference in conditions there, so they won’t have to admit to themselves: yes, we’re snug as a bug in a rug here, but a few yards away they’re standing in line for three hours to get one banana. And then, when they meet refugees from the East, there’s somehow always this feeling of tension: well, there he is, he’s gone through hell, and I’ve been sitting pretty.

Otto: I don’t find this surprising. I would say it comes from the astounding apathy of West Germans and, especially, of West German youth. They simply have no idea how to sit down and talk to these people or how to deal with the terrible complexes that they get in the East zone. ...

Werner: In this connection, it would be interesting to ask ourselves if this lack of interest, this apathy in young people, is something specifically German or whether it isn’t rather an apathy which is equally typical of young people in America and France and England; if in fact, it isn’t a social problem which affects the whole of the world today.

The Rebel Laborer

Even before the construction of the Wall, Kurt Wismach was active in challenging the German Democratic Republic. As a West German transplant who came East to look for work, Wismach demonstrated against oppressive working conditions within the Soviet bloc during a mass uprising in 1953. Yet Wismach ultimately made his mark through a more personal act of protest in August 1961—the same month that the Wall began to rise in Berlin. During a routine pro-Soviet rally at the Oberspree Cable Works factory, Wismach mocked the hollow rhetoric of the Communist leadership and called for the GDR to hold "free elections." Shockingly, he addressed his demands for suffrage directly to the head (and the stylized Soviet goatee) of the East German government, Walter Ulbricht. In his 1963 Atlantic essay, Wismach reflects on the cost of his confrontation with the Communist leader, which forced him to flee Berlin:

Walter Ubricht, the Spitzbart (Wikipedia)

I left East Berlin because of Walter Ulbricht. He came to the factory to give us a pep talk, something about getting a peace treaty. At half past two that Thursday afternoon, the entire shift, fifteen hundred workers, streamed into the huge high-voltage hall to listen to the Chairman of the State Council and First Secretary of the Central Committee, the Spitzbart (“Goatee") Walter Ulbricht. We waited, packed like sardines, in our overalls and wooden shoes, and some of the fellows climbed up onto the cranes and cable rollers. I caught hold of a big cable roller and sat perched way forward out ahead of the rest, so that actually I was sitting right above the row of seated officials. The Spitzbart’s boring old clichés in that thin, high-pitched voice of his began to annoy me, as usual, but it wasn’t until he said he heard that a woman worker in the plant had asked a Party member why we didn’t have any free elections that I realized I was in a real rage. I began to clap enthusiastically. There was deathly silence, and it seemed as if a thousand faces all turned toward me, toward where I sat, up on a tall roll of cable by myself above the platform, “Even if I am the only one to say it,” I shouted, “free elections!”

Ulbricht began to scream at me about “the people” and the “working class.” Some of the faithful old comrades broke in with “Hear, hear” and applauded him. I could see that from various corners of the big factory hall comrades were threading through the crowd toward me. I pulled up my knees so that they could not reach up and pull me down, and I shouted out the words which were quoted in all the papers “Have you the slightest idea what the people really think?”

This really made Ulbricht mad, and he started on a long tirade, yelling himself hoarse in a flood of words. And that saved me, because none of the comrades liked to interrupt dear Wally Ulbricht, and they couldn’t get at me without causing a noisy interruption. All the comrades applauded him madly, but hardly any of the workers lifted a hand. When he had talked himself out, he stormed out of the meeting—for once it had gone all wrong— and the comrades crowded after him to show how loyal they were.

My loyal friends advised me to clear out at once, but I turned up at the next shift as usual. There was a message for me to go to management offices, where two members of the Central Commandment of the Party and two comrades from the works were waiting to question me. That scared me a bit, but I wasn’t really afraid until I noticed that a gray car was following me as I went home. Later I saw that there was a man standing outside our house.

Now my wife and I have been in Duisborg for over eighteen months living in this one room in an emergency block for refugees. When we get our flat, we shall be all right. But the people here don’t understand what it is like to live in exile. We were born in Berlin, and that is our home, and we can never go back. Sometimes I wish I had stayed in West Berlin, but there is only one steel plant there where I could have found a job, and they have all the men they need. It hurts me to think of Berlin. It makes us lonely, we who are of and from Berlin.