Posts Tagged ‘Berlin Wall’

Erich Mielke – Master of Fear

Monday, May 1st, 2017


Erich Mielke headed the feared East German Ministry for State Security (Ministerium fuer Staatsicherheit – MfS) for over 30 years. The agency became known as the STASI. From 1957 until shortly before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the Stasi was enormously powerful, making Erich Mielke the most influential man in East Germany, right behind Communist Party leader, Erich Honecker. One hundred thousand full-time agents and up to two million unofficial “citizen helpers” were under Mielke’s control. His agency stifled opposition by using assassination, kidnapping, execution, denunciation and intimidation to keep the 16.5 million East Germans in fear. In a 1993 interview, Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal said that the Stasi was “much, much worse than the Gestapo.”

Erich Mielke, head of the Stasi from 1957 to 1989. Photo courtesy of Bundesarchiv.

Erich Mielke, head of the Stasi from 1957 to 1989. Photo courtesy of Bundesarchiv.

Erich Mielke’s Pre-Stasi Days

Erich Mielke’s parents were founding members of the Communist Party of Germany (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands – KPD, making Erich a second-generation communist. Born into poverty in 1907 in Berlin, he joined the communist youth movement at age 15 and the KPD at age 20. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, when the Communist party and the Nazi party were frequently involved in violent armed conflicts, Mielke was member of the communist paramilitary forces.

Together with another member of the paramilitary forces, Erich Mielke shot two Berlin police captains in 1931. Their names were Paul Anlauf and Franz Lenck. Mielke escaped prosecution by fleeing to the Soviet Union. He was not tried for the murders until 1993 when incriminating papers were found in his home safe during a search. While in exile in the Soviet Union, Erich Mielke attended the Communist International’s Military-Political School and the Lenin School in Moscow.

From 1936 to 1939, Mielke served as an operative in Spain’s political police. Upon the defeat of the Spanish Republic, he fled to France, was imprisoned, but managed to escape to Belgium. His activities during World War II remain largely unknown. In 1945, at he end of the war, a law enforcement agency closely associated with the Soviet Secret Police ordered him to return to Occupied Germany. His assignment was to build up a security force in the Soviet occupation zone, which involved tracking down Nazis, anti-communists and hundreds of members of the Social Democratic Party. The number of arrests exceeded the number of available spaces in existing prisons so that eleven concentration camps were re-opened or newly established.

Erich Mielke’s Stasi Days

With the establishment of the Ministry for State Security in 1950, Mielke was appointed deputy director of the institution. In November 1957, he became the head of State Security. At that time, the Stasi had 14,000 full-time employees. By 1989 that number had increased to near 100,000. Along the way, Mielke helped Erich Honecker to topple Walter Ulbricht as the party leader.

Erich Mielke’s Final Stasi Days

On 8 October 1989, Erich Mielke and Erich Honecker ordered the Stasi to implement “Plan X,” a plan to arrest and indefinitely detain 85,939 East Germans during a state of emergency. On 13 November 1989, a few days after the opening of the wall, Erich Mielke gave a speech at the Palace of the Republic (Palast der Republik) and in which he said, “I love all – all people.” On 3 December 1989, Erich Mielke was expelled from the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (Sozialistische Einheitsparty Deutschlands – SED). Four days later he was arrested and imprisoned on remand in Hohenschoenhausen. http://www.walled-in-berlin/j-elke-ertle/berlin/hohenschoenhausen-prison-part1/ Soon thereafter he was released due to medical reason and arrested again three months later for “crimes against humanity” and “perversion of justice.” He was moved to several prisons in succession. In 1993, the by then 85-year-old Erich Mielke was sentenced to six years in prison for the murders of Captains Anlauf and Lenck in 1931. At the end of 1995, Mielke was released due to ill health. He died at the age of 93.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is my story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.

Erich Honecker – Berlin Wall Architect

Monday, April 24th, 2017


Erich Honecker was an uncompromising East German politician who rose to the top leadership post in East Germany. After holding several lesser positions, he was elected First Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands – SED) in 1971, a post which later morphed into General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party. Erich Honecker held that position until just before the fall of Berlin Wall in 1989. It was during his leadership that the Berlin Wall was built in 1961. He is said to have been its prime architect and a proponent of the order “to fire” on border crossers. More than 1,100 border crossers died trying to escape the former East Germany during his years in office.

Erich Honecker, First Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party 1971-1989. Photo courtesy of Bundesarchiv.

Erich Honecker, First Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party 1971-1989. Photo courtesy of Bundesarchiv.

Erich Honecker – Communist to the core

Born in 1912, Erich Honecker was the fourth of six children in the family. By the time he was ten years old, he had already joined the children’s division of a Marxist youth organization. Two years later, Honecker entered the Young Communist League of Germany (Kommunistischer Jugendverband Deutschlands – KJVD). Following high school he worked for a farmer in Pomerania for a stint. Then he returned to his hometown to enter an apprenticeship as a roofer. He never completed that apprenticeship but entered the International Lenin School in Moscow instead.

At that point Honecker’s political career began in earnest. He entered the Communist Party of Germany (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands – KPD), but during the Nazi years, Communist activities became illegal. Honecker was imprisoned. Following his release in 1946, he helped form the Free German Youth (Freie Deutsche Jugend) and quickly became a leading member in the party’s Central Committee. As Party Security Secretary, he was the prime planner of the construction of the Berlin Wall.

Erich Honecker – Rise to the Top

In 1971, Erich Honecker initiated a political power struggle that ended with him replacing Walter Ulbricht as the First Secretary of the Central Committee and as chairman of the state’s National Defense Council. Under Honecker’s command, East Germany began to normalize  relations with West Germany and became a full member of the United Nations. The latter was one of his greatest political successes.

Erich Honecker – Fall to the bottom

In the late 1980s, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev introduced several reforms to liberalize communism. Honecker refused to implement similar reforms in East Germany. Friction grew between the two men. At the national celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the East German state in October 1989, which were attended by Gorbachev, several hundred members of the Free German Youth suddenly chanted, Gorby, help us! Gorby, save us! The peaceful revolution had begun. Honecker’s leadership came to an end. He was forced to resign in October 1989.

Erich Honecker’s Final days

Following German reunification in 1990, Erich Honecker escaped to the Chilean embassy in Moscow. He was handed over to Germany a year later to stand trial for his role in the human rights abuses committed by the East German regime. Due to his illness proceedings were abandoned, and he was allowed to join his wife in Chile. In 1994, Erich Honecker died in Chile from liver cancer.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, “Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom,” click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of

Berlin Hauptbahnhof Rail Station

Monday, September 26th, 2016


The Berlin Hauptbahnhof rail station was constructed after the fall of the Berlin Wall as a central rail and transportation hub for the newly reunited city. Construction took 11 years. The station opened in 2006 and is located on the site of the historic Lehrter Bahnhof. By constructing a new north-south rail line, Berlin Hauptbahnhof supplements the east-west S-Bahn (above ground rapid transit rail).

Berlin Hauptbahnhof rail station. Photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2016.

Berlin Hauptbahnhof rail station. Photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2016.

Berlin Hauptbahnhof replaces Lehrter Bahnhof

Lehrter Bahnhof (Lehrte Station) was Berlin Hauptbahnhof’s predecessor. Opening in 1871, it linked Berlin with the town of Lehrte near Hanover. Eventually, Lehrter Bahnhof became Germany’s most important east-west main rail line. The station was heavily damaged during the Second World War. Services resumed for a short time but were suspended again in 1951. Between 1957 and 1959, the East German government bulldozed Lehrter Bahnhof.

The State-of-the-Art Berlin Hauptbahnhof

The modern and transparent structure of the Berlin Hauptbahnhof station is made of glass and steel. A glass roof spans the main station hall. A photovoltaic system (a power system which converts sunlight into electricity) is integrated into the surface of the glass and can provide up to 2% of the station’s electricity needs. To bring in as much light as possible, glass is used throughout the station.

Inside Berlin Hauptbahnhof rail station. Photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2016.

Inside Berlin Hauptbahnhof rail station. Photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2016.

The Berlin Hauptbahnhof station has tracks on two levels, running perpendicular to one another. The upper level of Berlin Hauptbahnhof has six passenger tracks. Two are used by the S-Bahn; the other four serve trains destined to east and west locations. The lower level has eight tracks for trains travelling to north and south locations, including tracks for the U-Bahn (underground rapid transit rail) and the Airport Express. The station entrance is on the middle level for easy street access for rail users arriving by tram, bus, bike or and automobile.

Construction of Berlin Hauptbahnhof

Construction of the Berlin Hauptbahnhof station began with the building of tunnel tubes that would take the trains beneath the Spree River: Four tubes for long distance and regional rail transportation, two tubes for the U-Bahn and one road tunnel. Four of the tubes were created with tunnel boring machines (Schildvortriebsmaschinen). Pre-fabricated tubes were also used.

Tunnel tubes under construction. Photo © J. Elke Ertle, 1998.

Tunnel tubes under construction. Photo © J. Elke Ertle, 1998.

To allow for continued sub-surface work, the Spree River had to be temporarily re-channeled.

Construction Difficulties Encountered

Since the tunnels are only 3 1/3 feet below the Spree River, tunneling proved extremely problematic due to the combination of the sandy soil and Berlin’s high water table. Tunneling under and building over the Spree River so close to the still-operating S-Bahn and adjacent landmarks, such as the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate, created additional hurdles to overcome. Unexploded World War II munitions caused construction delays, and finally, the steel and glass construction of the building itself challenged the engineers. It became even more interesting when they were asked to shorten the glass roofs by approximately 423 feet to reduce costs and speed up construction. Now, that this difficult project is completed, the Berlin Hauptbahnhof is well worth a visit.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of


Berlin Wall Memorial

Monday, September 12th, 2016


The Berlin Wall Memorial (Berliner-Mauer-Gedenkstaette) opened on 9 November 1999, the 10th anniversary of German reunification. The memorial was created to pass on the history of the city’s 44-year division and the Berlin Wall’s 28-year existence. For years after the border opened in 1989 the German people demanded, “The Wall must go.” They wanted to forget the monstrosity that had separated families, friends and neighbors. Therefore, most of the Berlin Wall was demolished. But a few sections of the Wall escaped the bulldozer, among them a stretch at Bernauer Strasse, including a preserved section of the death strip.


Preserved Berlin Wall section at the Berlin Wall Memorial, photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2014,

Preserved Berlin Wall section on exhibit at the Berlin Wall Memorial, photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2014,

From Division to the Berlin Wall and Bernauer Strasse

After World War II, Berlin was divided into a Western and an Eastern section. American, British and French forces occupied the western section; Soviet forces occupied the eastern section. In 1961 the East German government built a wall around West Berlin to prevent East Germans from fleeing to West Berlin. As a result, West Berlin became an island surrounded by East Germany. Bernauer Strasse was right on the border between East and West Berlin. The border along this street ran in such a way that the roadway, both sidewalks and the buildings on the north side ended up in West Berlin, but the buildings on the south side turned out to be in East Berlin. Soon, Bernauer Strasse became a symbol of the inhumanity of the Berlin Wall.

After the construction of the wall, the protestant Versoehnungskirche (Church of Reconciliation), built in 1894, ended up in “no man’s land,” inaccessible to residents of either West or East Berlin. The church tower was even used by border guards as a watchtower. In 1985 the East German government detonated the church. Today, the Chapel of Reconciliation stands at the very site where the Reconciliation Church once stood and serves as a place for contemplation.

Berlin Wall Memorial

Bernauer Strasse is the only place in Berlin where visitors can still see a section of the border fortifications with all its installations and barriers. The Berlin Wall Memorial extends 4,500 feet along the former border between East and West Berlin at Bernauer Strasse. Between Ackerstrasse and Bergstrasse, the visitor can still see the last sections of Berlin Wall with the preserved grounds behind it and the extent of the border fortifications. Of the 96 miles of former Berlin Wall, close to 700 feet have been preserved and are on exhibit.


Berlin Wall Memorial site with the Chapel of Reconciliation to the upper left and the preserved border strip to the right, photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2014,

Berlin Wall Memorial site with the Chapel of Reconciliation to the upper left and the preserved border strip to the right, photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2014,

The Berlin Wall Memorial runs along both sides of Bernauer Strasse. The Visitor and the Documentation Center are located on the side of the street that formerly belonged to West Berlin. At the Visitor Center two films are shown and information is available about the entire memorial site. The Documentation Center shows an exhibition about the division of the city and has a viewing platform from which visitors can see a 230-foot long section of preserved border area, including the death strip and a watchtower. The surviving border elements reflect the complexity of the border fortifications: the border strip lying between the border wall facing west and “hinterland security wall” facing east, and the additional perimeter defenses installed to prevent any approach to the border strip from its eastern side. The original remains of the Berlin Wall have been preserved as an historical monument, but where sections of the Wall no longer exist, reddish steel poles allude to the Wall. The poles mark where the Berlin Wall used to stand. If observed from a sharp angle, the poles seem to form a solid wall.


Steel poles alluding to the part of the Berlin Wall that no longer exists - Berlin Wall Memorial - photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2014,

Steel poles alluding to the part of the Berlin Wall that no longer exists – Berlin Wall Memorial – photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2014,

You may recall photographs that show people trying to escape to West Berlin by jumping from windows. These photos were taken at Bernauer Strasse. One of the most famous is that of border guard Conrad Schumann who fled to the West by leaping over the barbed wire fence at Bernauer Strasse.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of






Oberbaumbruecke – mock medieval bridge

Monday, March 28th, 2016

Of the city’s nearly 1,000 bridges, Berlin’s Oberbaumbruecke (Oberbaum Bridge) is by far the most striking. Its Backsteingotik (brick gothic) towers, pointed arches, turrets, cross vaults and arched walkways hark back to its city gate past. The double-deck bridge with its seven arches spans the River Spree. Vehicles and pedestrians use the lower deck; Berlin’s bright yellow underground tram, the U-Bahn, uses the upper deck.

  • Berlin's Oberbaumbruecke spans the River Spree between the districts of Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain, photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2015

    Berlin’s Oberbaumbruecke spans the River Spree between the districts of Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain, photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2015

What does the name “Oberbaumbruecke” mean?

The bridge got its name from the spike-covered tree trunk that was lowered into the river each night during Friedrich Wilhelm I, King of Prussia’s reign. The purpose was to prevent the passage of ships without paying taxes. “Baum” means tree in German; thus the name “Oberbaumbruecke” can be translated to mean “Upper Tree Bridge.” There was also an “Unterbaumbruecke,” a “Lower Tree Bridge” downstream.

The Oberbaumbruecke’s history

Archival evidence shows that around 1724 a timber bridge on pilings was constructed close to the location of the current bridge. When King Friedrich Wilhelm I established a customs border in 1732, the bridge formed the border between Berlin and the surrounding State of Brandenburg. Between 1737 and 1860, the Oberbaumbruecke functioned as one of 14 city gates and was an integral part of Berlin’s Custom Wall.

At the end of the 18th century the wooden barriers were replaced with stone walls, and in 1860 the Customs Wall was removed altogether. At the end of the 19th century, when plans for an elevated railway required a reinforced structure, a granite bridge with a brick façade was built. Architectural details included the current mock medieval turrets, reminiscent of the old toll bridge and city gate function.

Backsteingotik mock medieval turrets of Berlin's Oberbaumbruecke, photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2015

Backsteingotik mock medieval turrets of Berlin’s Oberbaumbruecke, photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2015

In April 1945 the German military blew up the middle section of the bridge to prevent the Red Army from crossing it. After the war ended and Berlin was divided into four sectors, the Oberbaumbruecke crossed between the American and the Soviet sector. Until the mid-1950s pedestrians, motor vehicles and the underground tram were able to cross the bridge without difficulty.

The Oberbaumbruecke and the Berlin Wall

But with the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 the bridge became part of the border between East Berlin and West Berlin. The River Spree at this location belonged to East Berlin so that East German fortifications extended all the way to the shore on the West Berlin side. The West Berlin underground tram, the U-Bahn, was forced to terminate at the previous stop. Between 1963 and 1989, the Oberbaumbruecke served as a pedestrian border crossing for West Berlin residents only. Only pedestrians were allowed to cross. The bridge was closed to vehicular traffic. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and German reunification in 1990, the bridge was restored and reopened to pedestrians and motorized traffic at the end of 1994.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of

Wolfgang Vogel: East German Profiteer

Monday, November 2nd, 2015

Not only capitalist societies spawn profiteers. During the Cold War, Wolfgang Vogel, largely unknown to the general public but known to many prominent figures, pulled strings in Moscow as effectively as in Washington. For three decades, he was an extremely successful communist profiteer.

Licensed to practice law in both East and West Berlin, Vogel was the “point man” between East and West Germany. He was central to the exchanges of more than 150 spies from 23 countries and the last hope for many emigrants from East Germany. He earned millions in the process

Wolfgang Vogel was central to the exchanges of more than 150 spies from 23 countries, photo

Wolfgang Vogel was central to the exchanges of more than 150 spies from 23 countries, photo

The life of Wolfgang Vogel

Born in 1925 in Lower Silesia (now Poland), Wolfgang Vogel studied law in Jena and Leipzig and passed the equivalent of the bar exam in 1949. In 1954, he began practicing law in East Berlin. Three years later, he gained the right to practice in West Berlin as well. The East German Ministry for State Security, known as the Stasi, employed Vogel to make contacts among West German lawyers and politicians. These contacts eventually helped him broker exchanges of spies captured by the West for political prisoners held by the East. Vogel died in Bavaria in 2008.

Wolfgang Vogel’s famed spy swaps

Wolfgang Vogel brokered some of the most famous spy swaps between East and West. In 1962, he was instrumental to negotiating the exchange of both, the American U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers and the American Ph.D. student Frederic L. Pryor for the Soviet KGB spy, Vilyam Genrikhovich Fisher (also known as Rudolf Abel). The exchange inspired the 2015 movie, “Bridge of Spies, starring Tom Hanks as James Donovan, Abel’s defense attorney, and Sebastian Koch as the East German attorney Wolfgang Vogel. For more information on Glienicke Bridge, visit

In 1981, Vogel negotiated the exchange of East German Stasi-agent Guenter Guillaume for Western agents captured by the Eastern bloc.

 In 1986, Wolfgang Vogel brokered the exchange of Israeli human rights activist and author Anatoly Shcharansky for Czech sleeper-agent Karl Koecher and his wife.

Wolfgang Vogel – the profiteer

Representing the East German leader Erich Honecker, Wolfgang Vogel not only helped facilitate East-West prisoner exchanges, he also negotiated the re-location of thousands of East Germans to the West. However, his assistance did not come cheap. He became a wealthy man in the process.

Between the 1950s and 1989 (the fall of the Berlin Wall), Wolfgang Vogel was an official “representative of the German Democratic Republic for humanitarian issues.” In that capacity, he “sold” 33,755 political prisoners to West Germany. Their value varied according to their profession, their “crime” and how well they were known in the West. He also reunited 215,019 families and individuals in line with to the East German government’s maxim, “Human relief against hard Deutschmark”. The family reunion-seekers were individuals who had been left behind when the Berlin Wall was erected in August 1961, or they were relatives of escapees or of those who had defected on business trips to the West. When these individuals turned to Vogel to obtain permission to emigrate, he was often able to negotiate the necessary permissions, provided these family reunion-seekers had private property to sell. Only then would Vogel locate buyers – for a fee, of course.

For his efforts, Wolfgang Vogel received benefits in cash and in kind. These benefits amounted to the equivalent of more than a half billion euros. At times, he earned half a million Deutschmark and more in just one year, practically tax-free. Still, Wolfgang Vogel saw himself as a humanitarian and a lawyer of the people. He said, “My ways were not white and not black; they had to be gray.”


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is a story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.

Image-challenged Walter Ulbricht

Monday, September 28th, 2015

Walter Ulbricht was a 20th century East German politician who always knew which side his bread was buttered on. By instinctively understanding whom to defer to and which efforts to pursue, he became East Germany’s postwar leader. Loyal to Leninist and Stalinist principles, he was described by peers and populace alike as an inflexible, dull and unlikeable man. It didn’t help that he spoke with a squeaky falsetto voice due to a childhood diphtheria infection. Still, he remained East Germany’s chief decision maker until 1971 – a period of more than twenty years. A joke made the rounds in East Germany during those years. It went like this: An airplane crashes carrying the presidents of the United States and France and the British Queen. They all perish. Which country mourns the most? The answer: East Germany because Ulbricht wasn’t on the plane.,postext,herbst89,artikel_id,12915.html

Who was Walter Ulbricht?

Walter Ulbricht came from humble beginnings. He was born in 1893 to a tailor in Leipzig, Germany. After graduating primary school, Ulbricht trained as a cabinetmaker. Since both his parents were active in the Social Democratic Party (SPD), young Ulbricht joined the party as well. He was 19 at the time. Eight years later, in 1920, he left the SPD and joined the newly created KPD, the Communist Party of Germany. By aligning himself with the “right” people he rose swiftly through party ranks.

Walter Ulbricht, East German Statesman 1950-1971

Walter Ulbricht, East German Statesman

Walter Ulbricht’s political life

Walter Ulbricht quickly became an important member in the party. In 1923, he was elected to the Central Committee and five years later to the Reichstag (German parliament). He remained a member of the Reichstag until 1933 when the Nazis came to power. When they imprisoned other KPD leaders in connection with a high profile murder, Ulbricht fled to France, Czechoslovakia and finally Spain. Between 1937 and 1945, he settled in Moscow and resided in the famous Hotel Lux. While there, he worked on a variety of communist causes.

Walter Ulbricht – leader of East Germany

In April 1945, Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, chose Walter Ulbricht to lead a group of party functionaries into Germany to begin reconstruction of the Communist party in Germany. Within the Soviet-occupied zone of Germany and the Soviet-occupied sector of Berlin, Social Democrats were pressured into merging with the Communist party to form the new Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED). After the founding of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) in 1949, Ulbricht became Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers. In 1950, he became General Secretary of the SED Central Committee and First Secretary in 1953. After the death of Stalin that same year, Ulbricht’s position was in danger. However, the East German Uprising of 1953 helped him to gain the Kremlin’s support. With Moscow’s backing, Ulbricht suppressed the uprising and secured his position in East Germany. From that point on, Walter Ulbricht was East Germany’s chief decision maker.

Ulbricht continued to plot his course. By 1952, he had nationalized 80 percent of the industry, which resulted in an economy that was short of consumer goods and often produced goods of shoddy quality. When his economic measures proved flawed, millions of East Germans fled to the west. Aware of the possibility of a total collapse of East Germany, Ulbricht pressured the Soviet Union in early 1961 to stop the outflow or workers and to resolve the status of Berlin. This led to the construction of the Berlin Wall, only two months after Ulbricht had emphatically denied that there were such plans when he stated, “No one has any intention of building a wall.” The Berlin Wall became a public relations disaster for Ulbricht and the Soviet Union. By the late 1960s, Ulbricht found himself more and more isolated, both at home and abroad. His refusal to work with West Germany on Soviet terms infuriated Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev. In 1971, Ulbricht was forced to resign from virtually all of his public functions. He was only allowed to remain head of state as Chairman of the Council of State in an honorary capacity.

Walter Ulbricht was a survivor

Image-challenged Walter Ulbricht came close to being toppled several times, but he always landed on his feet. His private life was beset with difficulties as well. Next time, I will write about his relationship with his wife, Lotte, and their daughter, Beate.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is a story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.


25 years ago today Berlin Wall became history

Thursday, February 19th, 2015

Twenty-five years ago today, the Berlin Wall became history. On this day 25 years ago – on February 19, 1990 – East German border guards began the large-scale demolition of the Berlin Wall. By the end of the year, most of the Berlin Wall – or the “anti-fascist protection rampart” as it was called in East Germany – was history.

The demolition process that had been started by private Mauerspechte (wallpeckers), was completed by commercial construction crews. The initial teardown began in the area of the Brandenburg Gate. With jackhammers, crews began to remove 570 feet of Berlin Wall that stood between the Reichstag (Seat of the German Parliament) and Checkpoint Charlie (best known Berlin Wall crossing point between East and West Berlin). Trucks carted away the 2.6-ton wall segments. The East German company Limex would later sell them for up to 500,000 marks each.

The same area that was first freed from the Berlin Wall was also the location of the first provisional border crossing between East and West Berlin, hastily created in December 1989. Less than three years earlier, President Ronald Reagan had appealed to the Soviet leader: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” No one had imagined then that those words might soon become reality.

When the concrete elements were finally released from their foundation in February of 1990, most Berliners celebrated the event like a street festival. But not everyone shared their enthusiasm. Also on the day the Berlin Wall began to come down, a group of East German civil rights activists, clergy and politicians came together to discuss potential paths to a democratic transformation of East Germany. The group did not want to join West Germany and hoped to find a different solution. But East Germany was facing bankruptcy and economic collapse. In the preceding weeks and months, Hans Modrow, the last premier of the East German regime, had tried in vain to obtain a 15 billion mark loan from West Germany. At the end of their meeting on February 19, 1990, the group of round table members rejected the plan of joining West Germany and called for a demilitarized united Germany instead. We know that history did not support their decision.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is a story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.


German reunification

Thursday, October 30th, 2014

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

At the beginning of 1989 German reunification was on no one’s mind. Hardly anybody in Germany or elsewhere anticipated that the Berlin Wall would disappear in the near future. During the course of the preceding twenty-eight years, the East German government had continually “improved” the Wall. Now, in its forth generation, the Berlin Wall was higher, stronger, and even less surmountable than ever before.

Reunification within one year

On October 7 of the same year, the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) celebrated its 40th anniversary. Despite preceding unrest and demonstrations, no one expected it to be the GDR’s last anniversary celebration. But only one year later, on October 3, 1990, the two distinct German states were reunited after forty years of separation. East Germany had collapsed like a house of cards in the space of just a few months, and the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) had added five new federal states by accession. They were: Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia.

The cost of reunification

Initially, reunification brought forth nothing but exuberance among the people on both sides of the dividing line. East and West Germans assumed that the reunification process could turn into an administrative nightmare, but that it would be a manageable undertaking. But it tuned out that the social and financial costs of reunification were enormous. Within a brief period, people in the East and West were forced to come to terms with their past, present and future without so much as a precedent in history.

Next time, I will discuss some of the problems East and West Germans had to face during the reunification process and for many years thereafter.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is a story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.



Ampelmaennchen – former East Berliners

Thursday, May 15th, 2014

What is green and helps pedestrians cross the road? Ampelmännchen! Ampelmännchen is German for “little traffic light men.” Internationally, a generic walking figure or a WALK sign gives pedestrians permission to cross, a hand or a DON’T WALK sign implies to wait. Prior to German reunification in 1990, the two German states used different forms of Ampelmännchen: West German traffic signs showed a generic human figure; East German signs displayed a stocky male figure wearing a hat.

Ampelmännchen (little traffic light men) created by former East Berliner, Karl Peglau

Ampelmännchen (little traffic light men) created by Karl Peglau in 1961

History of the German Ampelmännchen

Until 1961, only vehicle traffic lights directed traffic in the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany). The lights looked more or less the way they had in the 1930s. But the growing number of cars had led to an increase in vehicle-pedestrian accidents, which caused the East Berlin Traffic Commission to consider traffic lights for pedestrians. They asked East Berlin traffic psychologist Karl Peglau to design such lights. In early October 1961, less than two months after the Berlin Wall had gone up, Peglau introduced an icon of a little perky green man with a happy stride to signal permission to cross. His red cousin spread his arms like a human barricade. By the early 1980s, the icons had also gained widespread popularity throughout East Germany as characters in children’s road safety education programs, a cartoon strip, a radio nighttime story series, and on television.

Save the East German Ampelmännchen

Following reunification, traffic lights were to be standardized, and the East German Ampelmännchen were slated to disappear, much like other features that had once been part of life in former East Germany. Immediately, a campaign to “Save the Ampelmännchen” was launched with the result that those perky little guys with their human features were preserved from extinction first in the former East Germany, then in the former West Berlin, and eventually in other formerly West German cities as well.

The Ampelmännchen mascot

In the years after German reunification, the former East German Ampelmännchen became the mascot for an East German nostalgia movement because, as Peglau believes, they represented a positive aspect of an otherwise failed social order. Today, Ampelmännchen are extremely popular souvenirs with locals and tourists alike and are recognized worldwide as a brand from Berlin. Over forty souvenir products bearing the Ampelmann logo, including t-shirts, bags mugs, lamps, and jewelry, are hot ticket items and have become the German equivalent of Mickey Mouse. Also visit Ampelmann to marry Ampelfrau


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is a story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.