The Berlin Wall: Poetry of the Wall

Blog post submitted by Marilyn Turkovich on Friday, August 12, 2011 – 10:01am. Construction began on The Berlin Wall early in the morning of Sunday, August 13, 1961. It was a desperate – and effective – move by the GDR (German Democratic Republic) to stop East Berliners escaping from the Soviet-controlled East German state into … Continued

Blog post submitted by Marilyn Turkovich on Friday, August 12, 2011 – 10:01am.

Construction began on The Berlin Wall early in the morning of Sunday, August 13, 1961. It was a desperate – and effective – move by the GDR (German Democratic Republic) to stop East Berliners escaping from the Soviet-controlled East German state into the West of the city, which was then occupied by the Americans, British and French. 

Berlin’s unique situation as a city half-controlled by Western forces, in the middle of the Soviet Occupation Zone of Germany, made it a focal point for tensions between the Allies and the Soviets and a place where conflicting ideologies were enforced side-by-side. However, as more and more people in the Soviet-controlled East grew disillusioned with communism and the increasingly oppressive economic and political conditions, an increasing number began defecting to the West. By 1961 an estimated 1,500 people a day were fleeing to the West, damaging both the credibility and – more importantly – the workforce of the GDR. Soon rumours began to spread about a wall, and it wasn’t long after that those rumours were made a concrete reality. 

In a masterfully-planned operation, spanning just 24 hours, the streets of Berlin were torn up, barricades of paving stones were erected, tanks were gathered at crucial places and subways and local railway services were interrupted, so that within a day the West of Berlin was completely sealed off from the East. As of that same day inhabitants of East Berlin and the GDR were no longer allowed to enter the West of the city (including the 60,000 who had been commuters). In response to international criticism that such drastic measures inevitably drew, the GDR claimed that the barricade had been raised as an ‘anti-fascist protection wall’, and that they had moved to prevent a third world war. 

The version of the ‘Wall’ that started life in 1961, was in fact not a wall but a 96 miles barbed wire fence. However, after this incarnation proved too easy to scale, work started in 1962 on a second fence, parallel to the first but up to 100 yards further in. The area in between the two fences was demolished to create an empty space, which became widely known as “death strip” as it was here that many would-be escapers met their doom. The strip was covered with raked gravel, making it easy to spot footprints, it offered no cover, was mined and booby-trapped with tripwires and, most importantly, it offered a clear field of fire to the armed guards – who were instructed to shoot on sight. 

Later on even these measures were deemed insufficient and a concrete wall was added in 1965, which served until 1975 when the infamous ‘Stützwandelement UL 12.11’ was constructed. Known also as Grenzmauer 75 (Border Wall ’75), it was the final and most sophisticated version of the Wall. It was made from 45,000 separate sections of reinforced concrete, each 3.6 m high and 1.5 m wide, and topped with a smooth pipe, intended to make it more difficult for escapers to scale it. The Grenzmauer was reinforced by mesh fencing, signal fencing, anti-vehicle trenches, barbed wire, over 300 watchtowers, and thirty bunkers… Just to be on the safe side! 

Despite the various security measures enforced, escape attempts were commonplace, especially in the years immediately following the erection of the wall, when there was still a fighting chance of making it across alive. Climbing was the obvious way to go and some 5,000 were said to have reached the other side. However in its thirty year history 100 people were shot dead, most famously the eighteen year old Peter Fetcher, who, after he was hit in the hip, was left to bleed to death in no-man’s land as the world’s media watched on. 

As security tightened, more ‘creative’ escape plans became the order of the day. Tunnels and jumping from bordering buildings were two more successful ways of getting to the West, although the Wetzel and Strlzyck families eloped in true style – floating to salvation in a hot air balloon which they had fashioned from hundreds of small pieces of nylon cloth (after which it became almost impossible to buy cloth in the East). Rivalling them for the coveted prize of brave escapes, is the citizen who drove up to the checkpoint barrier and, winding down the roof of his convertible at the last minute, slipped underneath! Needless to say that a lower barrier was subsequently installed. 

For those unable or unwilling to abscond from the East, life was bleak; and things only continued to get worse throughout the 70s and 80s as Communism and the USSR began to collapse. Honecker and the GDR resolutely stuck to their guns, speaking out in support of their regime; but when Hungary opened its borders in the summer of 1989, a flood of East Germans made their way West. Meanwhile student protests in Leipzeig put pressure on the government to lower the borders into West Berlin. 

As the Iron Curtain cracked the fall of the wall looked inevitable. In the evening of November 9th, 1989 Gunter Schabowski, Minister of Propoganda, read out a note at a press conference announcing that the border would be opened for “private trips abroad”. The news spread like wildfire and the German people immediately gathered in their thousands by the checkpoints, demanding passage. There was some confusion as to what the official line was and the border guards, uncertain of what to do and ill-equipped to deal with the huge and unyielding mob, were forced to let them pass. The Wall had fallen. 

The days that followed saw chaotic celebrations erupt over the country as Germany celebrated the political fall of the Wall – and in the following days and weeks hundreds of citizens began physically tearing down the concrete division. These events were the first steps to the reunification of Germany, which was formally concluded on October 3rd, 1990. Today remnants of the Berlin Wall can be found at Bernauer Strasse and in front of the Neiderkirchnerstrasse, the former Prussian Parliament and current Berlin Parliament. 

Source: Berlin-Life; http://www.berlin-life.com/berlin/wall


Snarling, stinking, snapping his fore-fangs,
out of the woods, wild waste beyond woods,
comes beast, come brute, carnivorous, ravenous,
but before him–and oh, we were saved–rose our wall.

Violent, fearsome, with invulnerable helmet and shield
comes antagonist, foe, furious, pitiless, lethal,
axe-men behind him chanting their cuneiform curse,
but before him–and, oh, saved again–loomed our wall.

So we raised ever more walls, even walls
that might fail: Jericho shucked from its ramparts,
men, women, old, young, all slaughtered.
What did it matter? We believed still in our wall.

Then the inspiration to build walls facing in!
Reservation, concentration camp, ghetto,
finally whole countries walled in, and saved were we
from traitors who’d dare wish to flee our within.

That such walls fail, too, fall, too? No matter,
Only raise more. That all walls, facing out or in,
fail, fall, leaving fossils of lives in numb rubble?
No matter. Raise more. Only raise more.
~C.K. Williams, the author of Collected Poems and Wait, a winner of the Pultizer Prize and the National Book Award and a creative writing professor at Princeton.

It Was A Weird Wall

It was a weird wall
Like the Mobius strip,
it had only one side,
the other one was unseen:
the far side of the Moon.
But some people would race
against bullets, to rip
the barbed finish tape
with their chests, to give
a push to the wrecking ball:
the pendulum of the invisible clock.

Under 11/09/89,
my diary says:
“Natasha lost a front tooth,
Liza for the first time
stood up in her crib
on her own.”
~Vera Pavlova, the author of the If There is Something to Desire. This poem was translated by Seven Seymour from the Russian.

The Missing Language

The cold days are counted up
the snow has stopped
and turned
into snow made of paper

I should finish
writing this story
but inside my head
is a snail
in its shell

its been sleeping there all winter
and hasn’t shown

maybe it’s dead by now
~Zafer Senocak, the author of Door Languages. This poem was translated by Elizabeth Oehlikers Wright from the German

Remembrance of a Yugoslav

Yep. There was a wall. It was ornamental
and thick. Bumblebees held secret

meetings. Artaud was exhumed, they
brought him on a stretcher so he

could view it. Some dug it, others did
not. It was scrawny, thinner than

the Chinese one, but not quite
as scrawny as the Israelis’.

I walked on the Chinese with Ron
Padgett, who bought himself

a cap there. On Jan. 2, 1983,
I walked through Berlin’s

with Metka to visit Pergamon.
Alexanderplatz was without

people. We sat there in a People’s
canteen. In my hands I held five

West German marks, which glittered like a wafer.
I bought Honecker’s daily

Neues Deutschland with only
one photo, how in America in 1931

people stood in line for some hot
soup, I remember people’s eys.

~Tomas Salamun, the author of Woods and Chalices. This poem was translated by Brian Henry from the Slovenian.

When the Berlin Wall Fell

When the Berlin Wall fell, dear Fau Schubert,I began dreaming migraines.  Multilingual mi-graines, no preservatives.  Bulging freedom,the excess weight of the united countries, be-gan peering in through my window.  Its eye–I wonder what it’s thinking.

We Have It All Now

We have it all now, dear Frau Schubert.  Theborders’ invisible stitch.  Impeccably tailoredfields.  Close-cropped towns.  A genetic crisis.In the greenhouse, where I’m resting aftergrowing a novel, Newton’s orange ripens.

~Ewa Lipska, the author of The New Century and Pet Shops.  These poems were translated fby Barbara Bogoczek and Tony Howard from the Polish.

The above poems appeared in a New York Times article, “What Fell Apart, What Came Together,” as part of an Op-Ed Poetry selection on November 8, 2009; http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2009/11/08/opinion/08berlinpoems.html

Berlin Wall Peddlers

History on sale
One chunk for only twenty dollars

Look at this one
it’s full of bullet holes
this one is stained with deserters’ blood
and see these two dark holes
they were burned by an anxious gaze
the remains of cold war on this one
still make you tremble
and what we have here 
are the dancing footprints of the youth
and the shouting and clapping 
when a heavy chain tore it down

Our supply is abundant
after the Berlin Wall
we’ll tear down the walls
the rich and the poor
the fortunate and the unfortunate
the oppressors and the oppressed

and of course we always have
the inexhaustible walls
between the hearts 
of indifference

~William Marr was an engineer by profession, working nearly thirty years at the Argonne National Laboratory.  He now devotes himself to creating poetry and art.

The Berlin Wall

It was the day after,
John Kennedy had
uncharacteristically loud,
shouted the unforgettable
and oft misquoted words
‘Ich bin ein Berliner’,
words that echoed back
from the remnants of
a wall that had been built
with capitalist materials
and communist anger.

Gorbatschov sat
in the Sauna of his datscha,
partaking liberally of
near-frozen Vodka, pure,
while sweating in the name
of the people and humanity.

The loudspeaker crackled to life,
and the hiss of the water Aufguss
could not drown them out,
these historical doves, so rare.

Later, when the actor turned prez
threw down the gauntlet, loudly,
with the flushed cheeks of anger
and righteous indignation,
‘Mr. Gorbatschov, tear down this wall’,
the entire world applauded,
though some did not mean it at all.
But I do think that the wall was torn
down in its entirety, that day in the Sauna.

~Dr. Herbert Nehrlich


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