Image: Berlin Wall, 1961
AFP - Getty Images
This photo from 1961 shows the Berlin Wall, built by the East German government to seal off East Berlin from the part of the city occupied by the three main western powers (U.S., Great Britain and France), and to prevent mass illegal emigration to the West.
By contributor
updated 8/12/2011 3:38:38 PM ET 2011-08-12T19:38:38

Fifty years ago, the Soviet-controlled German Democratic Republic began to build what it euphemistically called its “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart,” better known as the Berlin Wall.

Few then could have imagined that the concrete wall would become a blood-soaked symbol of the Cold War.

But on Aug. 13, 1961, engineers for the Communist-controlled dictatorship began erecting a barbed-wire fence around West Berlin in an attempt to demonstrate East Germany’s sovereignty to the world and prevent a population that disagreed with its policies from fleeing to the West.

Klaus-M. von Keussler was a 23-year-old university law student in West Berlin in 1961. He remembers thinking when the wall began going up that it would be temporary nuisance.

He couldn’t have known it would endure for 28 years and would transform his life from earnest law student to passionate freedom fighter who risked his life to help 68 defectors defeat a wall fortified with beds of nails, attack dogs, bunkers and 116 watchtowers manned by guards with orders to shoot to kill.

“None of us believed it would last more than a few weeks,” says von Keussler. “When we realized it wasn’t going away, we went into the escape-helping business. We saw it as our duty. We knew a free Berlin was a bone stuck in the throat of the Soviets and their desire for a unified Communist East Germany.”

Slideshow: Rise and fall of the Berlin Wall (on this page)

Fragmented wall on display
The history of the wall has long been overshadowed by the events of Nov. 9, 1989, when crowds rushed the border after a new emigration law was falsely announced and the wall tumbled under the onslaught of people.

Today, more than 72 sections of the wall have been purchased or donated for display around the world in parks, presidential libraries, museums, church yards and in resort playgrounds, hotel lobbies and Las Vegas casinos where people gamble for stakes far less consequential than the ones that escaping East Germans faced.

European travel expert Rick Steves said Berlin today is so vibrant that guidebooks published just 10 years ago are today obsolete.

That dynamism has not gone unnoticed by world travelers, according to VisitBerlin CEO Burkhard Kieker, who said more than 8.1 million tourists visited the city in just the first five months of 2011.

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“What’s really astounding is today people from 180 nations live peacefully together in a formerly divided city,” he says. “The wall affected the fate of many Berliners but they found a unique way to cope with it. You see wall memorials on the one hand and colorful painted wall remains on the other. And this mixture attracts even more visitors, especially on occasions like the 50th anniversary of the building of the wall.”

But the global euphoria surrounding the end of the wall, and the collapse of East Germany has for an entire generation obscured the inhuman blight of what the wall meant to men like retired Col. Vern Pike.

“The bitterness of what happened there will never leave me,” Pike says. “The Berlin Wall today is something people celebrate, but I have too many excruciating memories of it to ever celebrate it.”

Story: Escape from East Berlin, wedding dress in hand

Day of remembrance
Beginning at 1 a.m. on Aug. 13, a day of commemorations, prayers and artistic expression will take place at the Berlin Wall Foundation along the historic Bernauer Strasse. Ceremonies will include the readings of the names of 157 East Germans who were killed trying to escape between 1961 and 1989. Some estimates put the total gunned down at nearly twice that number.

More ceremonies will take place on the Contemporary History Information Mile where victims’ associations, border area museums and memorial sites will hold educational ceremonies.

Visitors will learn what Pike, today a 75-year-old military retiree living in Pinehurst, N.C., saw that infamous night when he was a 25-year-old military policeman on duty at what became famous to the world as Checkpoint Charlie, a flash point of Cold War tensions between East and West.

“It was 1 a.m. and I got a report something strange was going on,” Pike says. “East German engineers were digging post holes in the middle of the street and stringing barbed wire around their quadrant of the city.”

Uneasy peace treaties from World War II had divided Berlin into four distinct sectors with victorious allies (U.S., French, U.K. and the Soviets) each getting one piece of the 3.5 million-person metropolitan pie.

In a series of moves that would foreshadow Communist intentions over the next three decades, the Soviets instituted a harsh police state, severed phone lines to the outside and began indoctrinating students into Marxist-Leninist beliefs. A brain drain ensued with East German professionals fleeing to the West.

They eventually built the Berlin Wall under the guise that Berlin had not been purified of Nazi influence.

Video: Berlin city guide (on this page)

'Heartache, violence and death'
The division led to near daily examples of human triumph and despair. The memories are indelible to Pike, author of the memoir, “Checkpoint Charlie: Hotspot of the Cold War.”

“There was so much heartache, violence and death,” he says. “And they kept making the wall worse and more lethal.”

Fluent in German and a visible authority figure, Pike was quietly beseeched by East German construction workers to intervene as they labored under the watchful eyes of the guards.

“I remember one East German helping to build the wall saying, ‘Lieutenant, I’m working as slowly as I can. What are you waiting for?’ He wanted us to knock the wall down before it even went up.”

The world reacted with revulsion to each sensational death like on Aug. 17, 1962, when Peter Fechter, an East German teenager was shot in the pelvis while trying to escape. His body lay tangled in a barbed wire fence and he bled to death in full view of the gathering media. American soldiers could not rescue him because he fell a few yards within the Soviet sector.

Each escape attempt meant soldiers like Pike needed to balance their human instinct to intervene with understanding that any event could trigger an international incident that might turn the Cold War hot.

“I’ll never forget one refugee, an East German school teacher, who’d gotten ahold of an old U.S. Air Corp Ike jacket,” Pike says. “He just confidently walked past the East German guards who didn’t know what to think. When they finally realized it was an escape attempt, they grabbed for him right on the line at Checkpoint Charlie.”

Video: Kempe: JFK's indecision over Berlin Wall led to missile crisis (on this page)

Dragged to freedom
A literal tug of war ensued between East German police and U.S. MPs with the struggling teacher serving as the human rope.

“One of my sergeants took out his billy club and he bopped the two Volkspolizei (East German People’s Police) on their heads. They let go and our guys dragged that teacher to freedom. All the Berliners were cheering like crazy.”

Most of the escapes involved more stealth, according to von Keussler.

“We were always tunneling and forging passports and always looking over our shoulders because we could be arrested for our escape efforts. We never asked any of the escapees for money. Those of us who devoted our lives to helping people escape risked arrest on the western side of the wall and death on the eastern side.”

He eventually took a job with the United Nations, and von Keussler was in Ethiopia when the wall constructed to keep people in and ideas out began to collapse.

“I immediately flew to Berlin, climbed up on the wall and sat there and cried,” he said.

On the anniversary, the 71-year-old intends to visit with friends who were strangers when they needed help evading one the 20th century’s most fearsome boundaries.

“We’ve become really close,” he says. “We were once bound by our shared hatred of tyranny. Today, we are bound by love.”

Chris Rodell is a Latrobe, Pa., contributor who blogs at

© 2013  Reprints

Photos: The rise and fall of the Berlin Wall

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  1. A city divided

    The Berlin Wall was erected to separate East and West Berlin following the wider partition of Germany after the Second World War. Standing from 1961 to 1989, it became a symbol of the broader Cold War conflict. Half-controlled by Western forces, the city was geographically in the middle of the Soviet Occupation Zone of Germany and became a focal point for tensions between the NATO allies and the communist Eastern Bloc. In this image, the Brandenburg Gate is seen behind barbed wire in 1962. (John Waterman / Fox Photos via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. The Big Three

    The leaders of the Big Three meet at the Potsdam Conference on Aug. 2, 1945. Left to right: British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, U.S. President Harry Truman and Soviet leader Josef Stalin. The Potsdam Agreement divided Germany into four occupation zones: British, French, American and Soviet, setting policy for the reconstruction of Germany following its surrender on May 8, 1945. (MPI via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Berlin Airlift

    A U.S. C-47 cargo plane carrying food and other relief supplies approaches Tempelhof Airport amid the ruins of a shattered Berlin in 1948. The Berlin Airlift was in response to the Soviet blockade of West Berlin. Disagreements regarding reconstruction and a new German currency led to the conflict. The allies responded with a massive effort to supply the 2 million inhabitants of West Berlin with food and fuel. The airlift began on June 26, 1948 and ended 14 months later on August 27, 1949. More than 277,000 flights involving 300 aircraft took part in the operation. At its busiest, planes were taking off and landing at 90-second intervals. More than two million tons of supplies were airlifted before the operation came to a close. (Walter Sanders / Time & Life Pictures via Getty Image) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Thin white line

    Police officers from West and East Berlin meet at a line marking the the border in 1955. As the Cold War continued, West Berlin prospered while East Berlin did not. Many residents of the East grew disillusioned with the oppressive economic and political situation and started to defect to the West. Millions had fled East Germany by 1955 and restrictions of movement between the two gradually increased. The inner border was officially closed in 1952 but initially there was no physical barrier. (Three Lions / Hulton Archive via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Krushchev gets involved

    Left to right: Walter Ulbricht, Nikita Khrushchev and Otto Grotewohl arrive in East Berlin on May 1, 1960. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev became increasingly distressed by U.S. spy planes flying reconnaissance missions over Berlin. On May 1, 1960, the Soviets shot down an American U-2 plane and called for an end to the provocations and disarmament. Although Walter Ulbricht, chairman of the East Germany's state council, stated in 1961 there would be no wall erected, Khrushchev saw a need to contain the flight to the West. By 1960, the loss of working professionals to the West was profound. The East German brain drain had become so damaging to the country's economic viability that the securing the border became imperative. (Robert Lackenbach / Time & Life Pictures via Getty Image) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Building the barrier

    In August 1961, a barbed-wire barrier was erected between East and West Berlin. A few days later, workers started building a concrete block wall. Residents of East were no longer allowed to enter the West. The "Iron Curtain" that Winston Churchill had spoken about in a 1946 speech had now come to fruition. "The working class of Germany has erected a wall so that no wolf can break into the (communist) German Democratic Republic again." – Nikita Khrushchev (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Separated

    Two mothers wave to their children and grandchildren from across the wall in the Soviet sector of Berlin. Many families were split by the border's closure. Some Berliners were also cut off from their jobs. (Keystone via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Homes razed

    The Berlin Wall grew increasingly formidable and eventually stretched more than 96 miles. Houses in its path were knocked down as it expanded. (Robert Lackenbach / Time & Life Pictures via Getty Image) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Escape bid

    A man attempts to flee East Germany by climbing over the Berlin Wall on Oct. 16, 1961. Although 'shoot-to-kill' orders were in effect, many still attempted to escape. It is estimated that approximately 5,000 people successfully made it to the West. However, up to 75,000 others were caught and imprisoned. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Standoff at the border

    Soviet tanks are seen at Checkpoint Charlie on Oct. 28, 1961. The standoff began on Oct. 22 as a dispute over whether East German guards were authorized to examine the travel documents of a U.S. diplomat. By Oct. 27, ten Soviet and an equal number of American tanks stood 100 yards apart on either side of the crossing. The standoff ended peacefully on Oct. 28 (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Death at the wall

    A dying Peter Fechter is carried away by East German border guards who shot him when he tried to flee to the West on Aug. 17, 1962. Fechter jumped the barbed wire fence near Checkpoint Charlie and was wounded. He was left in 'no-man's land' for about 50 minutes before being taken to hospital where he died a short time later. Fechter’s death, in full view of the Western media, sparked negative publicity worldwide. According to the August 13 Association, which specializes in the history of the Berlin Wall, at least 938 people were killed by East German border guards as they attempted to flee to West Berlin or West Germany. The last person to be shot while trying to cross the border was Chris Gueffroy on Feb. 6, 1989. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. 'Ich bin ein Berliner'

    Striding past a cordon of saluting servicemen at Checkpoint Charlie, President John F. Kennedy arrives in Berlin on June 26, 1963. Kennedy delivered one of his most famous speeches, declaring, "Ich bin ein Berliner" - or "I am a Berliner" - to a cheering crowd of thousands. The much-needed morale boost for West Berliners also sent a strong message to the Soviets. Two months later, Kennedy negotiated the first nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Adapting to life

    A family uses the Berlin Wall as a windbreak on a sunny day in West Berlin on May 27, 1964. While East Germany stagnated under Soviet domination, West Berlin received millions of dollars in American aid. (Keystone via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Ingenious escape

    Stanislaus Gefroerer hides in the back of a truck after crossing the Berlin Wall by ladder on Sept. 20, 1965. As border defenses tightened, would-be escapees were forced to become more creative. One woman hid under the hood of a car while two families floated over the wall in a hot-air balloon. (Express Newspapers via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. 'Golden Tank'

    Erich Honecker, the president of East Germany, presents a 'Golden Tank' award following Warsaw Pact military exercises in 1980. After fleeing to the Soviet Union, Honecker would later be extradited back to a unified Germany to stand trial for high treason and other crimes allegedly committed during the Cold War. Honecker was released after being diagnosed with cancer during his trial in 1993. He died in exile in Chile about 18 months later. (Keystone via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. 'Death strip'

    This image shows the 'death strip' which stretched like a barren moat around West Berlin. The top of the wall was lined with a smooth pipe, intended to make scaling it more difficult. It was reinforced by mesh fencing, anti-vehicle trenches, obstacles and barbed wire. (KEENPRESS) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. American presence

    U.S. troops on a Jeep patrol in West Berlin's American sector stop near graffiti reading "Give peace a chance". (Sahm Doherty / Time & Life Pictures via Getty Image) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. 'Tear down this wall'

    President Ronald Reagan delivers one of his most famous speeches in front of the Brandenburg Gate on June 12, 1987. About 25.000 Berliners cheered as he said, "General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." Reagan's visit coincided with celebrations marking the city's 750th anniversary. (Michael Probst / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Warm welcome

    A West German border guard is given flowers as he welcomes East Germans to Rudolphstein, Bavaria, the day the Berlin Wall collapsed on Nov. 9, 1989. (Sven Creutzmann / Mambo photo via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Chipping away

    A man attacks the Berlin Wall with a pickaxe on Nov. 9, 1989 after news spread rapidly that the East German government would start granting exit visas to anyone who wanted to go to the West. The announcement was misinterpreted as meaning the border was now open and East German border guards were unable to stop the rush of people to the wall. Within hours, Germans were smashing sections of the iconic barrier with their own tools. (Robert Wallis / CORBIS) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Packed perch

    Thousands of young East Berliners crowd atop the Berlin Wall near the Brandenburg Gate on Nov. 11, 1989. One day earlier, an official had declared that starting from midnight East Germans would be free to leave the country, without permission, at any point along the border. (Gerard Malie / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Cry freedom

    A German youth waves victoriously from the top of the Berlin Wall on the morning of Nov.12, 1989. The fall of the Berlin Wall led the way to German reunification, which was formally concluded on Oct. 3, 1990. (Peter Turnley / CORBIS) Back to slideshow navigation
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