Berlin (CNSNews.com) - The former East German government imprisoned some 75,000 people, including many soldiers, for trying to cross Berlin Wall, according to a report published a week ahead of the 40th anniversary of the building of the wall.
The new research published by two historians states that, on average, one person was caught fleeing to the West every three and a half hours. Some 800 people were killed trying to cross.
The report is published at a time many Germans remain unsettled about the issues raised by the division and subsequent reunification of their country.
The concrete wall may have collapsed but a mental block still exists for many. Efforts by the government to develop the East have met with resistance from westerners, many of whom still nurse a grudge against the East.
Many blame the government's reconstruction of the East for current economic problems. The Berlin government carries a huge burden of debt and is left with no money for development projects.
The wall has also become a political issue ahead of an election for mayor of Berlin, scheduled for October.
Soon after expressing its desire to be a coalition in the new Berlin government, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) - successor to the old East German communist party - issued an apology for the construction of the wall.
The 96 kilometer-long wall was built hurriedly 40 years ago, shocking the residents of the East. The concrete and steel structure split Berlin and Germany into two during the Cold War period, until it was brought down during the tumultuous events of 1989.
The East German government, which denied permission to its citizens to travel abroad unless they were close to the ruling party for the fear of losing population under its control, had a special force deployed around the Berlin Wall to nab people attempting to cross, according to historians Bernd Eisenfeld and Roger Engelmann.
The Stasi intelligence agency played a crucial role in terrorizing people and keeping them away from the wall. It also encouraged people to spy on friends, colleagues, neighbors to prevent residents of the East to flee west, the report said.
Eisenfeld and Engelmann said the East German police devoted all their resources during 1961 to seal off the border and find methods to improve surveillance around the wall.
Some 5,500 East German border guards were also caught trying to escape to the West . They had to serve sentences ranging up to five years in prison. Nearly 2,500 border guards were successful in their attempt.
The historians said 250 were killed at the Berlin Wall. Others who died trying to escape to the West included 189 killed while trying to escape via the Baltic Sea and 370 who died while trying to cross the border between East and West Germany, other than at the wall.
"It was East Germany's confession of defeat. The only way to stop people from leaving was to lock them up in East Germany," said Marianne Birthler, head of the government agency that is the custodian of the East German secret files.
Birthler was 13 when the wall was constructed overnight. "We were hermetically cut off from the west," she told a function organized to release the research report. "It's a mystery to me how we were able to suppress the pain of that separation."
Along the remains of the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie still stands. It is the gate manned by American soldiers during the Cold War period. A museum next to the checkpoint has on display some of the ingenious methods adopted by East Germans in their bids to cross the wall.
Ladders, balloons, gliders, barrels, catapults are some of the items displayed at the museum.