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Flip Schulke and the Berlin Wall

Photographs, negatives, notes, and letters help historians piece together a personal history of an iconic Cold War monument.

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Flip Schulke, Berlin
Flip Schulke, Berlin
Photo by Flip Schulke

"It just can't be real," thought Flip Schulke the first time he gazed upon the Berlin Wall. It was 1962 and he was on a photography assignment for The Miami Herald. Comprised of bricks, mortar, steel wire, and jagged glass fragments to deter climbing, the wall had been up less than a year and still wasn't technically finished. It had a "jerry built" look to it, underlining the fact that it had been constructed in reactionary haste. Additionally, it was patrolled by hundreds of East German border guards, "not there to keep out West Berliners but to keep in their own 'contented workers,'" reflected Schulke in notes found among his papers. It was ugly and forbidding, a "monument to human misery" that "splits the world in half like a melon," the note continued.And it was indeed real—proof that "the iron curtain was real and built to last."

At the end of World War II in 1945, Germany had been split into four zones—American, French, British, and Russian. Berlin lay well within the Russian zone, but due to its strategic and cultural importance, it too had been divided between the Allies. As tensions between the world powers deteriorated during the late 1940s, what Winston Churchill termed an "iron curtain" descended across Central Europe, with democracies aligned with the United States on one side and communist regimes that answered to the Kremlin on the other. In 1949, Britain, France, and the United States joined their occupied sectors together to create the state of West Germany. Meanwhile, West Berlin was left isolated as a democratic and capitalist enclave deep inside communist East Germany.

During the 1950s, over two million East Germans fled to West Germany. The Soviet response was to seal off the border between the two states—over a thousand miles of fences, watchtowers, and tank traps. However, many East Germans, especially professionals and those with money, continued to defect, fleeing through West Berlin and from there flying on to the West. As well as being a cause of acute embarrassment to communist pretensions, the exodus undermined the Eastern German economy. The Berlin Wall—officially titled the "anti-fascist protective barrier"—was designed to prevent further defections. While 5,000 people made it over, under, and sometimes even through the wall over the next three decades, several hundred were killed attempting to do so—either shot by border guards, drowned in sewers, or injured jumping from high-rise apartment buildings adjacent to the wall.

For Schulke, the wall operated as much as a metaphor as it did as a physical structure: it was "the wall that fear built," the wall where "hate stands guard," a "dam built to contact the spirit of humanity." Through photography, he attempted to capture the wall's mythic and symbolic qualities as well as its physical reality. It was an approach he had developed in the 1950s as a photojournalist documenting the civil rights movement in the American South. Before traveling to Berlin, he had developed a relationship with Martin Luther King and worked for a time as his personal photographer. For Schulke, the Berlin Wall and the civil rights movement were both part of the same monumental struggle for freedom. With his camera, Schulke sought to capture the timeless aspects of both.

During the 1970s, Schulke made several trips back to Berlin, photographing the wall from the same vantage points to illustrate the wall's growth and reinforcement. These "improvements" made it more of a void than a wall. The removal of trees and buildings had created a barren strip 200 yards wide that along with walls, traps and guards strangled the entire western sector of the city. It cut through parks and communities, separating families and neighbors. On numerous occasions Schulke drew the ire of the East German guards, who barked orders if he got too close to the wall from the east and shined mirrors in his camera lenses if he approached it from the west. He returned again in 1980 to document the "new" wall made of modular concrete. It remained imposing but had a strange aesthetic quality with its minimalist uniformity, murals, and graffiti. It would become the wall everyone would "remember," but in fact it only lasted half as long as the original "jerry built" structure.

In 1985, the Soviet Union began to open up under the perestroika and glasnost polices of Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev. Concurrently, the Cold War entered a new period of detente as Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan met for a series of historic summits. Internally, the Soviet economy was crumbling, and unrest was widespread. Meanwhile, in Eastern European countries like Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, opposition to proxy rule from Moscow grew louder and louder. On the night of November 9, 1989, the pace of history quickened when East German leaders announced that citizens were free to cross their nation's borders for the first time in a generation. East Germans at first queued and then streamed through border checkpoints. Crowds gathered on the West German side of the wall, some even climbing atop. Over the next few days, in order to ease congestion and chaos at the checkpoints, the East German government began to demolish sections of the wall. West Berliners were happy to lend a helping hand, descending with chisels and sledgehammers upon the hated structure.

Schulke moved as quickly as he could, but it was several weeks before he could fly to Berlin. Upon arriving in late November, he was shocked by what he found. What had once been "something sinister, . . . a dark forbidding monstrosity was now a 'joke.'" Germany was still two nations, but Schulke encountered no issues photographing parts of East Berlin where he once might have been arrested (or worse). He captured East Germans shopping in West Berlin, families and neighbors reunited, border guards smiling and waving, even children hawking pieces of the wall on the streets to tourists. Enough of the wall remained intact for Schulke to notch out several large chunks himself. Upon flying home, he wrapped them in his clothes, put them in his suitcase, and smiled his way through customs before distributing them to friends with homemade certificates.

None of these nuggets are housed in Schulke's archives, preserved at the Briscoe Center. But they do contain hundreds of images that document the wall from 1962 all the way up to 1997 when Schulke made a final trip to survey its ruins. Today these archives provide historians with a unique visual inventory of the wall through the eyes of a photographer who returned to the subject again and again over the course of three decades. Schulke was deeply moved by his experiences in Berlin, and many of his thoughts are captured in notes, letters, and drafts. From his perceptive, history had come full circle. "We did it by non-violent protesting and marching in the streets," one East German activist told him in 1989. "We shall keep our protests non-violent" like the civil rights marchers of your country, he continued. On the same trip Schulke heard protesters singing the African American anthem, "We Shall Overcome." Schulke knew all too well that German politics, like American, was complicated. Walls of injustice could be built, torn down, and built again. But change through nonviolent protest was possible on either side of the Atlantic. As he listened to the students sing and looked toward where the wall once stood, Schulke remembered his old friend. "All I could think of was Dr. King saying, 'free at last, free at last.'"