If you want to impress someone from western Germany with your German-language ability, or frighten an elderly eastern German, try out this mouthful: Stacheldrahtsonntag. Translation: “Barbed-Wire Sunday.” Most Germans still know what it means—and Germans over the age of sixty-five cannot forget the day it happened, and where they were and what they were doing. It is a marker of generational consciousness, comparable to how Americans over sixty can still recall exactly how and when they heard that President John F. Kennedy was shot.
August 13, 1961. This was the day East Berliners woke up to find their half of the city encircled by barbed wire—and themselves incarcerated in a state-wide prison, separated from friends and families. Stacheldrahtsonntag. On that shocking day, the military and police of East Germany—officially known as the German Democratic Republic (GDR)—closed the border between East and West Berlin and began the construction of what would, within weeks, become the towering Berlin Wall, complete with 296 watchtowers and thousands of army snipers. Why the barbed wire? It was a fast and relatively cheap way to prevent border crossings until the big construction crews got to work on the concrete wall itself.
Seventeen million people were trapped inside the GDR overnight, and 533,000 East German troops and police amassed near the border to make sure no one escaped. On August 13 and 14 at least four thousand GDR protesters were arrested by the secret police. By the morning of August 18, the foundation for the concrete wall had already been laid.
Why close the border? To prevent the West Germans and Americans from invading the GDR! So declared the GDR’s state-controlled radio and TV stations to the skeptical East German public. Die Schutzmauer (“the Wall of Protection,” often expanded to “the Anti-Fascist Wall of Protection,” in case there was any doubt about what the citizens of the GDR had to be protected from) was the term used in all East German schoolbooks—as I discovered when I taught in East Germany after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Over the following year, thousands of outraged citizens rose up and rebelled, marching through the streets month after month, peacefully protesting the decades of tyranny. These demonstrations finally brought down the Communist regime without a bloodbath.