It is 13 feet high and 28 miles long and cuts a historic city into two wounded worlds. More than a barrier made of concrete, it is a powerful symbol of the cold war tensions that continue to divide East and West. It is the Berlin Wall, the place where rival political and economic systems come together but cannot meet, and this month is the 25th anniversary of its erection. "In the beginning it was just a wall," says Peter Werner, 49, a designer- architect who lives in West Berlin. "Then they made it more and more perfect with an inner wall and cleared earth between them like a desert war zone." This unique piece of architecture is known among East German officials as the "antifascist protection wall." West Berliners call it the "wall of shame."
Whatever it is called, the Wall appears to Berliners on both sides as a palpable presence that divides friends, families and neighborhoods. A quarter- century ago, East German soldiers and laborers worked through the night to lay down a crude barrier of cinder blocks, mortar and barbed wire. The resulting barricade gave graphic meaning to the political division of Berlin that had been imposed by Moscow in 1948, sundering the local population and leaving occupying U.S., French and British troops on the western side while the Soviets controlled the east. "In August 1961 the curtain was drawn aside to show us an empty stage," former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt recalled in his memoirs. "It was then that we lost the illusions that had survived even after the end of our hopes."
East German officials claim that the Wall is intended to keep the West out. In reality, however, it was designed to keep East Germans in. To that end, the monolith has proved extremely effective. One week before the Wall went up, 2,000 people fled to the West in a single day. But over the next 25 years, only about 5,000 East Germans successfully made the journey, some scaling the Wall, others tunneling beneath it. Countless others failed, and often died, in their escape attempts.
The rampart has inevitably inspired false tales of bravado and derring-do. Two weeks ago, Heinz Braun, an East Berlin tire salesman, captured worldwide attention when he claimed to have escaped to the West by painting his car to resemble a Soviet patrol vehicle and dressing himself and three mannequins in Soviet army uniforms. Last week Braun admitted that his story was a hoax. His coconspirator, West Berliner Wolfgang Quasner, said the bogus flight was intended to dramatize the tragedy of the Wall on the eve of its 25th anniversary. But there is speculation that the two men staged the stunt in the hope of making a fortune by selling the rights to their story.
In their long separation, the two Berlins have acquired markedly different personalities. West Berlin (pop. 2.1 million) is a city with insomnia. By day the streets hum as dark-suited businessmen brush impatiently past roller skaters clad in little more than G-strings, and camera-laden tourists gawk at punk couples in Dracula makeup and matching spiky hairdos. So fast is the tempo that when a quarrel erupted recently between two West Berliners, the story goes, one snapped at the other, "Slap yourself for me. I don't have time." At night the city grows more manic still, with revelers jamming its cabarets, dance halls and 23-hour-a-day pubs.