The building of the Wall on August 13, 1961, sealed the division between the two German states by creating a virtually insurmountable barrier in Berlin. Since the Socialist Unity Party (SED) had been unable to stop an increasing number of its citizens from deserting, this desperate measure, rationalized as "anti-Fascist protection," sought to plug the last hole in the approximately 1,200 kilometer long border between East and West. After its construction, Easterners could no longer leave, and Westerners could no longer visit; family ties and other personal relationships were thereby ruptured. Those desperate souls who tried to cross the "death-strip" of electric fences, guard dogs, automatic rifles, and concrete blocks often paid with their lives. Though a trickle of inter-German trade continued and Allied soldiers still moved through Checkpoint Charlie, the building of the Wall ruptured the remaining institutional links, such as the joint Olympic team and the Protestant Church (9). The Wall therefore became the symbol of the Cold War division of the European continent.
It was first with Deutschland- und Ostpolitik (the conciliatory policy of the Social Democratic Party/Free Democratic Party [SPD/FDP] government toward East Germany and the Communist East) that the border was softened enough to make it passable for larger numbers of people. As mayor of West Berlin, Willy Brandt had realized that the GDR would not disintegrate any time soon and that the Western powers were unwilling to risk a third World War to roll back the Communist regime. When he became Chancellor in 1969, he built on growing sentiment among elites and the wider public to pursue a policy of détente with the Soviet Union and East Central European neighbor states, so as to isolate the GDR within its own camp. Though the Basic Treaty (1972) between the two German states recognized East Germany de facto, it maintained a de jure reservation in favor of the option of future reunification. This "policy of small steps" basically offered various West German financial rewards in exchange for East German "humanitarian concessions" so as to render the border more porous. As a result, political prisoners were released, Western relatives once again allowed to visit, and Eastern retirees permitted to travel westward. Some human ties were thereby reestablished despite the SED's demarcation efforts (10).
Until the summer of 1989, the division of Germany seemed to deepen, even if some remaining connections kept it from becoming final. The West German commemoration of the June 17, 1953, uprising in East Berlin was supposed to maintain a sense of unity, but the trend toward "bi-nationalism" strengthened during the 1980s. On both sides of the Wall, young people saw partition as the natural state of things; the peace movement considered the prevention of nuclear war more important than reunification; and the western Left agitated for the recognition of a separate East German citizenship. Nonetheless, the Christian Democratic Union/Free Democratic Party (CDU/FDP) coalition led by Helmut Kohl clung rhetorically to the imperative of unification; the all-German ministry continued to mount propaganda for this goal; and the Federal Constitutional Court upheld the constitutional mandate of reunification against challenges. Erich Honecker's 1987 visit to Bonn symbolized both trends: the SED leader was received with all the honors of a head of state, while his host stressed German unity (11).
(9) Hans-Herrmann Hertle, Konrad H. Jarausch, and Christoph Kleßmann, eds., Mauerbau und Mauerfall. Ursachen – Verlauf – Auswirkungen (Berlin, 2002); A. James McAdams, East Germany and Detente. Building Authority After the Wall (Cambridge and New York, 1985).
(10) Timothy Garton Ash, In Europe's Name: Germany and the Divided Continent (New York, 1993); Mary E. Sarotte, Dealing with the Devil. East Germany, Détente, and Ostpolitik, 1969-1973 (Chapel Hill, NC, 2001).
(11) Konrad H. Jarausch, "Nation ohne Staat. Von der Zweistaatlichkeit zur Vereinigung," Praxis Geschichte 13 (2000), pp. 6-11; A. James McAdams, Germany Divided. From the Wall to Reunification (Princeton, NJ, 1993).