After the Second World War, with the demise of Nazi Germany, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) occupied most of eastern Europe, and in most of these countries they installed puppet communist governments. In Germany itself, the western allies (USA, UK, France) occupied what became West Germany, while the USSR occupied what became communist East Germany. In addition, the former capital of Germany, Berlin, was divided up between the USSR, USA, UK and France. The bit of Berlin occupied by the USA, UK and France, was actually within the USSR-occupied part of Germany. This apportioning of Germany was based on an agreement that had been reached in London in 1944 and confirmed during the Potsdam Conference of 19451.

Germany formally split into two separate nations in 1949: West Germany became the Federal Republic of Germany, allied to the Western democracies, and East Germany became the German Democratic Republic (another instance of a bullshit name), allied to the USSR.

In 1952, the East German government closed the border with West Germany, but the border between East and West Berlin remained open. East Germans could still escape through the city to the less oppressive and more affluent West2.

In the years between 1949 and 1961, about 2.5 million East Germans fled to West Germany, including steadily rising numbers of skilled workers, professionals and intellectuals. Their loss threatened to destroy the economic viability of the East German state. In response, East Germany built a barrier to close off East Germans’ access to West Berlin and hence West Germany. That barrier, the Berlin Wall, was first erected on the night of August 12–13, 1961. The original wall, built of barbed wire and cinder blocks, was subsequently replaced by a series of concrete walls up to 5 metres high, that were topped with barbed wire and guarded with watchtowers, gun emplacements, and stretches of land mines. By the 1980s that system of walls, electrified fences, and fortifications extended 45 km through Berlin, dividing the two parts of the city, and extended a further 120 km around West Berlin, separating it from the rest of East Germany3.

In our process of downsizing, part of which I have related here regarding photographs4, letters5, and books6.Yesterday, I discovered another treasured item, deep in the back of a second desk drawer, which as you can probably guess, is a piece of the Berlin Wall. At the time of its fall in 1989, the wall had been in place for most of my life. When the wall did fall, I wrote to a colleague in Germany, one Bernd-Dietrich Erdtmann, to see if he could send me a piece. ‘Bernie’, as he was known by just about everyone in the English-speaking palaeontological community, was larger than life, and a very well known and respected palaeontologist, and was most enjoyable company. He was always laughing and cracking jokes; but he could have represented Germany if there was an international competition in snoring. I, with several others, did a conference field trip with him in 1991, and while most of us swagged near the campfire, Bernie banished himself to a spot about 15 metres away, so the rest of us could get some sleep. When I received this piece of concrete from Bernie in 1989 or 1990, I remember almost bursting into tears to have a piece of a symbol of the bastardry of totalitarianism. I was forever grateful to him. Bernie died in 2021 at the age of 82.



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