Actually, the comparison never turned out in favor of the communists. Republikflucht, or “republic flight,” was a crime, but largely unenforceable. By 1961, an estimated 1,000 East Germans were fleeing every day. From 1949 to 1961, an estimated 3.5 million people, or fully one‐fifth of the GDR’s citizens, had left. And the productive young were disproportionately represented among those heading West. The percentage of working‐age people in the GDR’s population dropped from 71 percent to 61 percent by 1960.
If those trends continued, the GDR would cease to exist.
For some years, Ulbricht pressed the Soviets for permission to seal off Berlin, as well. USSR Communist General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev said no, apparently out of fear of the negative symbolism of walling in workers for whom the revolution supposedly had been won. However, the latter changed his mind in mid‐1961, perhaps because he perceived US President John F. Kennedy, who had indicated he would not oppose construction of such a barrier, to be weak.
In any case, during the night of August 12, 1961, East German security personnel began constructing what became known as the Berlin Wall. Initially, streets were torn up and wire fences were strung, soon to be replaced with a brick wall, and then much more. The barrier got ever higher, more complex, and deadlier. Eventually, there were two walls with a death strip in between. The Berlin Wall had miles of concrete walls, wire mesh fencing, barbed wire, trained dogs, and anti‐vehicle trenches. The boundary was supplemented with watchtowers, bunkers, and mines. Border guards were told to shoot those attempting to escape, the infamous “Schiessbefehl” order. The people’s paradise would kill its people to stop them from fleeing.
A Wall of Death
The wall did not stop human flight. Instead, it forced people to be more creative. East Germans climbed over, tunneled under, and flew over. They jumped from windows of buildings along the border—which later were demolished. GDR residents used balloons, built submarines, and created secret compartments in cars. An estimated 100,000 people tried to escape, and some 5,000 made it. Many of those who failed in their lunge for freedom paid a high price. Tens of thousands of East Germans were imprisoned for Republikflucht. Around 200 were killed—no one knows how many for sure—challenging the Berlin Wall. Include those murdered while attempting to cross the border elsewhere, and the death toll probably exceeded 1,000.
The first Berliner to die in an escape attempt was 58‐year‐old Ida Siekmann, who on August 22, 1961, jumped from a window in her building onto a West Berlin road (the area later was cleared and turned into a “death strip”). Two days later the first Berliner was murdered by the GDR authorities: 24‐year‐old tailor Guenter Litfin was shot while attempting to swim across the River Spree.
The true horror of a system that imprisoned an entire people was most dramatically illustrated almost a year later, on August 17, 1962, when East German border agents shot an 18‐year‐old bricklayer, Peter Fechter, as he sought to surmount the wall. They left the conscious Fechter to bleed out in full view of residents in West Berlin. He was the 27th Berliner to die seeking freedom.
The carnage continued year in and year out, even as the Soviet Empire began to implode. The GDR government, at this point under ruthless hardliner Erich Honecker, continued to murder people who simply wanted to live free. On February 6, 1989, 20‐year‐old Chris Gueffroy became the last East German to be murdered while fleeing. He worked in a restaurant but was about to be drafted into the army. He and his friend Christian Gaudian mistakenly thought the order to shoot had been lifted. While climbing the last fence along a canal, he was shot and killed. Gueffroy would have been 51 today.
Gaudian was injured, arrested, and sentenced to three years in prison. But he was released on bail in September 1989 and sent to West Berlin the following month. The four border guards who fired on Gueffroy and Gaudian received awards, but they, along with two Communist Party officials, were later tried in a reunited Germany (ultimately spending little or no time in prison).
One more Berliner was to die. An electrical engineer, 32‐year‐old Winfried Freudenberg, used a home‐made balloon to flee. It crashed on March 8, killing him. By then communism was disintegrating in Poland and Hungary. When the latter began pulling down its border fence with Austria in May, the Iron Curtain had a huge hole. East Germans began flooding out.
Demonstrations erupted in the GDR, highlighted by people determined to stay and transform their country. Honecker reportedly wanted to shoot and requested Soviet intervention. Mikhail Gorbachev refused, and Honecker’s colleagues retired him in October. But their tepid attempts at reform could not stem the freedom tsunami. On November 4, a million people marched in East Berlin demanding the end of communism.
On November 9, 1989, decades of oppression were symbolically swept away. There had been other moments of hope. The 1953 East German demonstrations, the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, and the 1968 Prague Spring. But all were crushed with various degrees of bloody brutality.
However, 1989 was different. And it was the result of a mistake. The GDR decided to allow East Germans to apply for visas to travel. Politburo spokesman Guenter Schabowski missed most of the critical meeting but was tasked with announcing the new policy to the international press. He indicated that people could travel now, “immediately, without delay.” Crowds gathered at Berlin’s crossing points as GDR border guards unsuccessfully sought guidance from above. Receiving none, they opened the gate after 10,316 brutal, sometimes murderous days.
The euphoria of that evening—with Berliners East and West heading west and east—was not the end of the GDR. But those powerful emotions heralded the regime’s end. Nothing, including East German officials’ desperate attempts to preserve their state and West European officials’ furtive objections to Germany reunification, could stem popular demand to put the German Humpty Dumpty back together.
However, liberty was not fully restored until the rest of the Eastern European states defenestrated their communist regimes, including Romania, whose leader, Nicolae Ceausescu, was a crackpot even by communist standards. He and his wife fled by helicopter when demonstrators they had gathered to harangue instead shouted him down. Their pilot observed: “They look as if they were fainting. They were white with terror.”
On Christmas Eve, soldiers couldn’t wait to start shooting to carry out the death sentence of a drumhead court‐martial. Most important, the Soviet Union ultimately dissolved. Mikhail Gorbachev resigned Christmas Day 1991; the Soviet flag was lowered for the last time at midnight. On the 26th there was no more USSR.
After the Soviet Union
It is impossible to overstate the importance of that moment. There was a unique evil in Nazi Germany, with the attempted extermination of an entire people, a group long scapegoated and persecuted. However, communism’s body count dwarfs that of fascism generally and Nazism specifically. The Black Book of Communism estimated the death toll at more than 100 million. R.J. Rummel’s figures in Death by Government are similar, though analysts vary in their figures for specific countries. And brutal repression, if not necessarily mass murder, continues in Communist survivors China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea, and Vietnam.
Often the murder didn’t even make logical sense. Rummel described Stalin’s USSR: