13 Things You Might Not Know About the Berlin Wall

Around the end of World War II and German surrender in 1945, a pair of peace conferences in Potsdam and Yalta split the defeated land into four territories controlled by the Allied powers. The Soviets took the East (known as the German Democratic Republic, or GDR), and the United States, Britain, and France each got a piece of the West. Berlin, the longtime capital, was also divided into East and West, even though it was located entirely within Soviet borders.

The barrier that was eventually erected on the city's East/West border stood for nearly three decades. On November 9, 1989, East and West Germans converged on the Berlin Wall, successfully breaking through die Mauer. Below, a few things you might not know about the structure.

1. THE WALL WAS BUILT TO KEEP PEOPLE IN.

Between 1949 and 1961, almost 3 million people defected from East Germany to the West, and almost all went through Berlin. Each day thousands of Berliners on both sides crossed the border in order to work and shop, and though the city sat some 100 miles from the actual West/East border, defectors from the East were able to escape into the West due to this “loophole.” In the two and a half months prior to the wall going up, more than 67,000 people defected to the West, many of them doctors, teachers, students, and engineers. Roughly half were younger than 25.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev lamented this “brain drain,” and on August 13, 1961, the GDR closed the border between the two sides. Thus, unlike ancient walls built in China and northern England, die Mauer was not constructed to repel invaders; it was thrown together and manned to stop the incessant flow of Germans escaping to live and work in the West.

2. THE EAST GERMANS TORE UP CITY STREETS TO CONSTRUCT THE WALL.

GDR chairman Walter Ulbricht gathered government officials at a lake house on August 12, and by midnight, operational head Erich Honecker was given orders to seal the borders. He amassed more than 3000 troops, along with armored vehicles, in the city center. Another 4000 formed a security perimeter to prevent people from breaking through.

The next morning, GDR troops ripped apart the surface of Friedrich-Ebert Strasse and piled the loose chunks into a makeshift barrier, while armed guards stood in front ready to shoot any East Germans who tried to defect. Barbed-wire and posts were hastily added to lengthen and secure the makeshift structure, which eventually wound irregularly though the city and surrounding countryside and measured approximately 96 miles long.

3. THE WALL GREW OVER TIME.

Although initially built with wayward parts, concrete slabs, and housing materials, over time—as people found a way to escape—the wall became more elaborate. In 1963, a border area was added behind the wall, which was reinforcedwith individual barriers and additional fencing. The wall topped out at 12 feet in places, with a pipe placed on top that made climbing over nearly impossible. Apartment buildings that straddled the border were either abandoned or torn down, and in the '70s, an inner wall was built to eliminate access to the main fence.

4. THE WALL WAS LOADED WITH SECURITY MEASURES.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In addition to the concrete and barbed wire, the 96.3-mile wall came with 302 observation towers, 259 dog runs, 20 bunkers manned by more than 11,000 soldiers, and more than 79 miles of electrified fencing.

5. THE "DEATH STRIP" WAS AS SCARY AS IT SOUNDS.

For any East German attempting to escape, a 30-150 meter stretch called the “Death Strip” was put in place to halt defectors and stop any potential attacks. Along with the floodlights was a line of antitank barricades, a signal fence that activated an alarm, beds of nails called “Stalin’s lawn,” buried mines, and electrified fencing. A row of freshly raked sand was added to show footprints, and armed guards in towers had orders to shoot any would-be defector if the other measures were ineffective.

6. "CHECKPOINT CHARLIE" WAS THE MOST WELL-KNOWN CROSSING.

A handful of border crossings allowed those with official documentation to move between the West and the East, and the Checkpoint C crossing at Friedrichstrasse was the only one used by foreigners and Allied forces. In October 1961, it was the site of a tank standoff between Soviet and U.S. forces. U.S. diplomat Edwin Allan Lightner was traveling to East Germany and was stopped at the border. But he refused to show his papers to the East German border guards, insisting that U.S. policy stated he was to only show them to the Soviets. After several days of escalating arguments about border access, the Allies sent 10 tanks to Checkpoint Charlie, and the Soviets followed suit. For 16 hours the tanks squared off before cooler heads prevailed and both sides backed down.

7. THE WALL IS RESPONSIBLE FOR MORE THAN 130 DEATHS.


After being cut off from her sister, who lived just blocks away on the western side of the wall, Ida Siekmann, 58, jumped from the third-story window of her apartment building and died on August 22, 1961. The first shooting victim was Günter Litfin, who lived and worked in the West, but had returned to the East side prior to the wall going up. He tried to run across the railroad tracks, but was shot in the head by police on August 24.

Some estimates put the number of people who died attempting to cross to the West at more than 200, but a German research group confirmed 138 deaths [PDF].

8. ABOUT HALF OF ALL EAST GERMAN DEFECTORS MADE IT.

Stories abound of East Germans flying balloons, ramming cars through the Wall, jumping out of windows, and shimmying down a wire to escape. About 5,000 people were able to make it of an estimated 10,000 who tried. Most, however, used bribes and forged documents to leave.

9. THE EAST GERMANS DYNAMITED AN ADJACENT CHURCH.

A chapel called the Church of Reconciliation, which was mainly used by West German worshippers, unfortunately sat in the Death Strip and was abandoned after the wall went up. On January 22, 1985, the East Germans blew up the crumbling, 19th century Protestant church.

10. TWO U.S. PRESIDENTS GAVE ICONIC SPEECHES THERE.

John F. Kennedy supposedly told White House aides that “a Wall is a hell of a lot better than a war,” and deflected suggestions that he deal with the Wall aggressively. But on June 26, 1963, just a few months before he was killed, he spoke in front of nearly half a million Germans on the steps of Berlin’s city hall, Rathaus Schöneberg, declaring “Ich bin ein Berliner (I am a Berliner)” in order to offer support to West Germany and offer a contrast between the two sides.

In June 1987, Ronald Reagan visited on Berlin’s 750th Anniversary, stood at the Brandenburg Gate, and demanded of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

11. THE BOSS ROCKED IT.

Springsteen and the E-Street band performed a concert for over 300,000 in East Berlin in July 1988, and the show was also broadcast across the world. Speaking in German, Springsteen told the crowd, “I want to tell you that I’m not here for or against any government, I have come to play rock 'n roll for the East Berliners, in the hope that one day all barriers will be torn down.”

12. WHEN IT FELL, IT FELL "IMMEDIATELY."

Hungary loosened its physical borders in the summer of 1989 and more than 13,000 East German tourists streamed into Austria. Some restrictions were placed on citizens to prevent such a massive exodus, but the writing was on the wall. By the fall, longtime GDR leader Hoenecker was forced out of office, 500,000 people demonstrated in Berlin, and GDR spokesman Günter Schabowski declared in a press conference that citizens would be able to freely travel to the West “immediately.” The government tried to call for a slower, more orderly migration, but the order was taken literally and thousands of people stormed the wall, tearing it apart on both the East and West sides.

13. THE WALL CAN BE YOURS!

It took nearly a year for East and West Germany to become officially reunified. Meanwhile “mauerspechtes,” or wall peckers, chipped away at the concrete fortification and took pieces away for souvenirs and memorials. You can even buy a piece on eBay.

When Theodore Roosevelt Refused Geronimo's Plea

Portrait of Geronimo (Guiyatle), Apache
Portrait of Geronimo (Guiyatle), Apache
Frank A. Rinehart, Wikimedia // Public Domain

On March 4, 1905, Theodore Roosevelt settled in to watch his first inaugural parade. Though he'd been president since the 1901 assassination of William McKinley, this was the first time Roosevelt would get to enjoy the full pomp and ceremony, as Army regiments, West Point cadets, and military bands streamed down Pennsylvania Avenue in the warm March air. Standing in the president's box with his guests, Roosevelt at times clapped and swung his hat in the air to show his appreciation.

Suddenly, six men on horseback appeared in the procession. They were Native American leaders and warriors, "arrayed in all the glory of feathers and war paint," according to The New York Times report the next day. According to Herman J. Viola, they were “Little Plume, Piegan Blackfoot; Buckskin Charley, Ute; ... Quanah Parker, Comanche; Hollow Horn Bear, Brulé Sioux; and American Horse, Oglala Sioux.” The eldest man, leading the group, was "the once-feared Geronimo," as the Times put it.

The inclusion of the Apache elder was not without controversy. For a quarter-century, Geronimo had attacked Mexican and American troops and civilians, putting up a fierce resistance to settler encroachment. That bloody history—though often sensationalized by press reports—still loomed large during the parade: According to Smithsonian, a member of the 1905 inaugural committee asked Roosevelt, “Why did you select Geronimo to march in your parade, Mr. President? He is the greatest single-handed murderer in American history.”

Roosevelt replied, “I wanted to give the people a good show.”

But unlike the other parade participants, Geronimo wasn't there entirely willingly. He was a prisoner of war. And a few days later, he'd beg Roosevelt for his release.

A Bitter Legacy

Theodore Roosevelt was no friend of America's First Nations. During his childhood, he read books that contained stereotypes of Native Americas, and he and his siblings would, as he wrote in his autobiography, "[play] Indians in too realistic manner by staining ourselves (and incidentally our clothes) in a liberal fashion with poke-cherry juice.” He carried what he had read into adulthood, saying at a lecture in New York while away from his ranch in the Dakotas in the late 19th century that, "I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”

As president, he supported the allotment system, which broke up reservations and forced Native peoples onto smaller, individually-owned lots—essentially remaking traditional land practices in the dominant white image. In his first message to Congress, Roosevelt called the General Allotment Act “a mighty pulverizing engine to break up the tribal mass.” Roosevelt also favored programs like Pennsylvania's Carlisle Indian Industrial School, established in 1879 to forcibly assimilate Native American children. Students were given new names and clothes, baptized, and forbidden to speak their languages. "In dealing with the Indians our aim should be their ultimate absorption into the body of our people,” Roosevelt said in his second message to Congress.

For most of his life, Geronimo aggressively resisted such attempts at assimilation. Born in the 1820s and named Goyahkla—"One Who Yawns"—near what is now the Arizona-New Mexico border, his life changed forever after his wife, mother, and small children were murdered by Mexican soldiers in the 1850s. Afterwards, Geronimo began attacking any Mexicans he could find; conflict with American settlers soon followed. It is said that his nickname, Geronimo, may have come about after one of his victims screamed for help from Saint Jerome, or Jeronimo/Geronimo in Spanish.

In the 1870s, the Chiricahua Apache were forced onto a reservation in Arizona, but Geronimo and his men repeatedly escaped. Eventually, as Gilbert King writes for Smithsonian, "Badly outnumbered and exhausted by a pursuit that had gone on for 3000 miles ... [Geronimo] finally surrendered to General Nelson A. Miles at Skeleton Canyon, Arizona, in 1886 and turned over his Winchester rifle and Sheffield Bowie knife."

The next chapter of Geronimo's life included being shuffled from Florida to Alabama to Fort Sill in the Oklahoma Territory while watching his fellow Apaches die of one disease after another. He was also repeatedly turned into a tourist attraction, appearing at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair and even joining Pawnee Bill’s Wild West show (according to King, under Army guard), where he was billed as "The Worst Indian That Ever Lived."

Geronimo's Tearful Request

The 1905 meeting between Roosevelt, Geronimo, and some of the other Native American men took place a few days after the inauguration, once the crowds had thinned out and things had calmed down a little. Geronimo addressed Roosevelt through an interpreter, calling him "Great Father." According to one contemporary account, Norman Wood’s Lives of Famous Indian Chiefs, he began, "Great Father, I look to you as I look to God. When I see your face I think I see the face of the Great Spirit. I come here to pray to you to be good to me and to my people."

After describing his youthful days on the warpath, which the septuagenarian Geronimo now called foolish, he said, "My heart was bad then, but I did not know it." Now, however, he said, "My heart is good and my talk is straight."

With a tear running down his cheek, he got to the heart of the matter: "Great Father, other Indians have homes where they can live and be happy. I and my people have no homes. The place where we are kept is bad for us. Our cattle can not live in that place. We are sick there and we die. White men are in the country that was my home. ... I pray you to cut the ropes and make me free. Let me die in my own country, an old man who has been punished enough and is free."

According to a March 1905 New York Tribune article, Roosevelt said, “I cannot do so now ... We must wait a while and see how you and your people act. You must not forget that when you were in Arizona you had a bad heart; you killed many of my people; you burned villages; you stole horses and cattle, and were not good Indians.” But it seems at some point, Roosevelt softened—according to Wood, Roosevelt said, “Geronimo, I do not see how I can grant your prayer. You speak truly when you say that you have been foolish. I am glad that you have ceased to commit follies. I am glad that you are trying to live at peace and in friendship with the white people.

"I have no anger in my heart against you," Roosevelt went on. But, he said, "You must remember that there are white people in your old home. It is probable that some of these have bad hearts toward you. If you went back there some of these men might kill you, or make trouble for your people. It is hard for them to forget that you made trouble for them. I should have to interfere between you. There would be more war and more bloodshed. My country has had enough of these troubles."

The president reminded Geronimo that he was not confined indoors in Fort Sill, and allowed to farm, cut timber, and earn money. He promised, "I will confer with the Commissioner and with the Secretary of War about your case, but I do not think I can hold out any hope for you. That is all that I can say, Geronimo, except that I am sorry, and have no feeling against you."

Geronimo's request was never granted. Four years later, in 1909, he died after falling from a horse and developing pneumonia. The Chicago Daily Tribune printed the headline: “Geronimo Now [a] Good Indian."

At least, he was finally free.

Mental Floss has a podcast with iHeartRadio called History Vs., about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. Our first season is all about President Theodore Roosevelt. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts here, and for more TR content, visit the History Vs. site.

5 Facts About Charles Ponzi and the Original Ponzi Scheme

Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Some of the most infamous scams in history have been Ponzi schemes, but before Bernie Madoff (or Bitcoin), there was Charles Ponzi himself. The con he built was so successful that his last name became synonymous with fraud. In January 2020, a century after he set up his fraudulent Securities Exchange Company, the phrase Ponzi scheme is still used to describe any scheme in which funds from new investors are used to pay back old investors. Here are some facts about Ponzi and his scheme that you should know.

1. Charles Ponzi arrived in the U.S. with $2.50 in his pocket.

Charles Ponzi was born in Lugo, Italy, in 1882. As a young adult, he worked as a postal worker and studied at the University of Roma La Sapienza. Neither path panned out for him, however. In 1903, when faced with dwindling funds, Ponzi boarded a ship for America in search of a better life. But Ponzi wasn't a master hustler at this point in his life; he arrived in Boston with $2.50 after gambling away the rest of his life savings on the ship.

2. Charles Ponzi spent time in prison before his famous scheme.

Ponzi was no stranger to crime before concocting the scheme that made his surname infamous. Not long after arriving in Boston, he moved to Canada and got in trouble for forging checks. He spent two years in a Canadian prison for his offenses. Back in the U.S., he served a term in federal prison for illegally transporting five Italians immigrants across the Canadian border. It was only after his so-called Ponzi scheme began to crumble that his criminal history was made public by journalists, thus speeding up his downfall.

3. Charles Ponzi got rich off the postal system.

In 1920, Ponzi discovered the key to the ultimate get-rich-quick scheme: an international postal reply coupon worth $.05. It had been included in a parcel he received from Spain as prepayment for his reply postage. Thanks to an international treaty, the voucher could be exchanged for one U.S. postage stamp worth a nickel, which Ponzi could then sell. Ponzi knew that the value of the Spanish peseta had recently fallen in relation to the dollar, which meant that the coupon was actually worth more than the 30 centavos used to purchase it in Spain. He took this concept to the extreme by recruiting people back home in Italy to buy postal reply coupons in bulk from countries with weak economies, so that he could redeem them in the U.S. for a profit.

4. Charles Ponzi swindled $20 million from investors.

Ponzi technically wasn’t breaking any laws with his postal service transactions, and if he had kept his idea to himself he would have gotten away with it. Instead, he turned his small money-making operation into a wide-reaching scam. If people invested money into his “business” of cashing in foreign postal vouchers, which he dubbed the Securities Exchange Company, they would get their money back plus 50 percent interest in 90 days. The deal was too good for many investors to pass up.

It was also too good to be true: The money wasn’t being used to buy coupons overseas. Ponzi kept most of the investments for himself and used the flood of money coming in from new investors to pay off the old ones. Many investors were so thrilled with their returns that they invested whatever money they had made back into the business, which helped Ponzi keep the sham afloat.

Ponzi was finally rich and famous, but soon enough, cracks in the scheme started to form. The Boston Post launched an investigation into Ponzi and revealed that in order for his business to be functional, he would need to be moving 160 million vouchers across world borders. There were only 27,000 postal reply coupons in circulation at the time. The final blow came when the publicist he had hired to represent him came out against him to the public. His system fell apart and it was revealed that he had stolen $20 million from investors.

Because he had lied to his clients about their investments through the mail, Ponzi was ultimately charged by the federal government for mail fraud. He served three-and-a-half years in prison and then served an additional nine years for state charges.

5. Charles Ponzi didn’t invent the Ponzi scheme.

Though Ponzi schemes were eventually named for him, Charles Ponzi didn’t invent this type of scam. There were many crooks before him who used the same method to exploit investors. Charles Dickens even wrote pre-Ponzi Ponzi schemes into his 1857 novel Little Doritt.

It’s possible that Ponzi got the idea for his own fraud from William F. Miller, who pulled a similar stunt working as a bookkeeper in Brooklyn in 1899. But it was the highs of Ponzi’s success—and the lows of his demise—that made his story so memorable.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER