With the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall this week, we look at some of the guns that held the line between East and West.
In the last days of World War II, the victorious American, British, French and Soviet allies occupied Germany in 1945 and separated the country into four zones. By 1949, with the Cold War setting in, the western part of the country occupied by the U.S., Britain and France became the Federal Republic of Germany, better known as West Germany, while the Russians reciprocated by forming the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany, the latter a Communist puppet state of Moscow. This division included the historical German capital city of Berlin, with the NATO allies keeping the Western part supplied initially via an airlift, resulting in an isolated enclave inside East Germany that endured for more than 40 years.
As the “Iron Curtain” descended across Europe, the tensions along the border between the two new Germanys escalated until 1961 when construction began on a wall surrounding West Berlin from East Berlin. Dubbed a means to keep fascism out of the People’s Republic (antifaschistischer), the wall was more of a mechanism to keep East Germans from escaping the soul-crushing misery that was Communism by fleeing to the West. It is estimated that more than 3 million Germans fled from East to West between 1949 and 1961. If they weren’t stopped, eventually all the workers would have fled the worker’s paradise and the country would be empty!
The new wall was guarded by the Grenztruppen, a quasi-military border police force. It was organized with a mix of old WWII German Army and surplus Soviet gear, with the 1940s-era PPSh-41 sub gun being the primary weapon. These gray-uniformed East German border troops were under the Army’s control rather than a police or customs unit and much of their training was in the form of political indoctrination. To keep these guards in line, East German secret police, or Stasi, were a regular facet of life along the wall. Still, there were several high-profile incidents of defections.
To police more remote border areas such as forests along the national border, the East German regime installed more than 60,000 Selbstschussautomat SM70 directional mines. Trying to leave the country unannounced could be downright hazardous to your health.
While NATO-allied military forces would hold the line, armed with a mix of M1 Garands (later replaced by M14s and M16s), FAL variants, HK G3s and the like, the West German border troops were a little less well-equipped. The Bundesgrenzschutz (Border Troops) and Zoll (Customs) organizations were formed in 1951, notably several years before the West German military. At first, these police-controlled units were armed with Mauser bolt-action rifles, Walther P-38 9mm pistols, and a few leftover StG44 Sturmgewehrs.
Over time, the Mausers were replaced by the more contemporary Karabiny G1, a variant of the 7.62 NATO FN-made FAL. The below film from 1969 shows BGS troops with FALs and Walthers, among other groovy period gear.
Meanwhile, the Walthers got an update.
By the late 1950s the Walther P1, an upgraded P38, was adopted by West Germany for police and military use. The company had relocated to a new factory in West Germany as their old one was occupied by the Russians and was busy cranking out new equipment for both domestic consumption and overseas commercial sales.
While the Cold War never went all the way hot, at least in Europe, the border between East and West Germany, and in particular the wall around West Berlin, was by no means safe. In Berlin alone, at least 140 people are believed to have been killed while simply trying to escape to the West between 1961 and 1989. There were also pointed incidents and casualties between the respective border guards on both sides as well as with NATO and Soviet troops. In 1985, a U.S. Army officer, Major Arthur D. Nicholson, was killed by a Red Army sentry in East Germany. At least three British, American and West German military aircraft were shot down over East Germany between 1953 and 1969.
Finally, on November 10, 1989, the security at the wall was dropped by the East German government, who had decided to throw in the towel on the whole Communism bit. The resulting Nacht des Mauerfalls (Night of the fall of the Wall), was the effective end of the Berlin Wall and by 1990 the two Germanys were on the path to reunification as the Soviets withdrew.
As a personal note, that was a big deal in the Eger household. My grandmother had fled her birthplace in then-East Germany, refusing to live under Communist oppression. She became a West German citizen in 1962, just after the Wall went up. She then legally emigrated to the U.S. in 1963 and had an American flag in front of her house until the day she died.