"Berlin had been isolated"

Border post at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate in 1961 RDB

The Berlin Wall was set up 50 years ago in the early hours of August 13. For 28 years it divided the city into the east and west, a microcosm of the Cold War.

This content was published on August 13, 2011 - 10:13
Lena Langbein in Berlin,

Swiss citizen Burghard Feller, whose dairyman father had moved to Berlin to work, was born there in 1943, and his family lived for many years near the wall. He looks back at life in Berlin during and after the construction of the wall.

Feller, one of eight children, trained to become a locomotive mechanic with the German National Railways from 1958 to 1961.  He was on holiday in Switzerland when he first heard the news.

“That Sunday, August 13, I had an appointment with one of my brothers in Basel. […] The first thing we heard in the café we met in was that Berlin had been isolated, that East Germany had shut all the borders,” he told

“It was unbelievable for us. After learning of the events in Berlin, we had a meeting with my  brothers and sisters. Three of them were living in Switzerland and I was considering looking for a job there too.”

“But the others decided I should go back to Berlin to take care of our parents. So I waited a few more days and then headed north.”

“Incomprehensible… absurd”

“After my return, I immediately went to see the wall. I headed to the area where the Neukölln and Treptow districts meet. Suddenly the footpaths were in East Berlin and the buildings in the West. It was incomprehensible to me, absurd.”

“I knew East Berlin better than West Berlin in those days. The school I had attended as part of my apprenticeship was in the east and I had two friends from that side of the city. I never saw them again.”

“In the beginning, nobody thought it would last. But it soon became clear that the wall would stay and the situation would get worse. Our lives didn’t change that much, we just couldn’t leave West Berlin anymore.”

“Before the wall went up, I belonged to a rowing club in the east. I couldn’t go there for example. […] We were stuck there.”

“The atmosphere in the city was depressing, especially for young people. Swiss expatriates were also wondering what would happen next.”

Swiss citizens

“Fewer people attended events at the Swiss association’s headquarters after the wall went up because many Swiss lived in East Berlin, making it more difficult to come. The building was near the Swiss embassy and it was also in the so-called no man’s land between east and west.”

"As Swiss, we weren’t worried that something would happen to us if the Russians or the East Germans decided to march into West Berlin. We were sure that we could leave the city with our Swiss passports.”

“That's why everyone made sure their passports were up to date. But like everyone else, we were concerned and worried if something were to happen.”

“As a kind of security, I bought myself a house in canton Valais. If there had been some kind of revolution, I would have moved to Switzerland with my family. Each of us knew something would happen. We just didn’t know what.”

“Until the mid-1980s,  the situation was tense and precarious. Then it eased up somewhat, even if there was no indication that changes would take place. That East Germany would ever become a democracy was unthinkable.”

The Berlin Wall

Between 1949, when the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was created, and 1961, around 2.7 million people fled Communist Germany, bring it close to the point of collapse.

On August 13, 1961, the border between the Soviet-occupied sector and West Berlin was closed and connecting roads torn up. Later on, a 3.6-metre concrete wall was built. 

The section of the wall separating the two Berlins was 43.1 kilometres long, while the total length of the fence separating West Berlin from the GDR was 112 kilometres.

More than 100,000 East German citizens tried between 1961 and 1988 to cross over to West Germany.

Of these, more than 600 were shot by border guards or died attempting to flee. In Berlin itself, there were at least 136 people killed.

Berlin held a commemoration on Saturday to mark the 50th anniversary of the wall, which included a minute's silence for those killed trying to cross the wall.

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