Try to understand how absurd the situation in this photo is. These grown men literally about to kill each other over a girl who just ran across a white line. You can feel the tension and the relief in that girl’s mind.
The intense part was when the East Germans were trying to prevent the young girl from crossing the line. Once she crossed, there’s nothing to be done, and all the police/soldiers in the picture know this. The second you were past the border you were pretty much safe. West German border police would rush in and help escapees from East Berlin get away once they made it across. East German border troops wouldn’t dare shoot at escapees across the border because that could start a confrontation between East and West which could essentially start World War III. People did this quite a bit back then on the inner German border that ran through Berlin, however quite a few didn’t make it past the border and were shot to death by East German border troops as they were attempting to escape.
After World War II, Germany was split into two countries, the German Democratic Republic (or East Germany), and the Federal Republic of Germany (or West Germany) based on the occupation zones established at Potsdam. West Germany was aligned with the western powers that had occupied it, while East Germany was part of the Soviet sphere. Berlin, geographically surrounded by East Germany, was also partitioned, leading to a situation where West Berlin was an island (enclave) of Western Europe surrounded by Eastern Europe. As the Cold War continued, West Berlin prospered while East Berlin did not. Many residents of the East grew disillusioned with the oppressive economic and political situation and started to defect to the West. Germans wishing to leave East Germany would often do so in Berlin, crossing from east to west. The young girl in the photo has just done exactly that, and in making it across that thin white line, she has passed from East Germany to West Germany.
In 1955 it was still legal to cross into the West zone from the East but for visiting purposes only. People had to do it via the proper way, i.e. getting the proper papers, visa and passing at the checkpoints. But since that was a very difficult process, and was simply not allowed for anything other than a temporary stay, people just walked over. That is, until the wall came up in 1961.
The Western men in the picture are wearing standard police uniforms of the time and their East German counterparts are “Kasernierte Volkspolizei” (lit. Barracked People’s Police), which was a sort of camouflaged army, police in name only. They were trained like soldiers, had ranks like soldiers, wore slightly modified Soviet uniforms and lived in barracks, but since the organization was founded very few years after the end of the war and rearmament was still a hot issue, they were called a police force. In practice, its main purpose was securing the border and combating civil unrest. It formed the nucleus of the East German army in 1956 (National People’s Army).
The weapons each side carries perfectly illustrates the two sides. The East German police are carrying assault rifles (Soviet made submachine guns PPSh-41), and the West German police have drawn their pistols. The pistol is a short-ranged weapon, while the rifle is best used for long range and when accuracy is very important. Police officers have pistols, prison guards monitoring the walls have rifles. Citizens fleeing to West Germany was both an insult and an embarrassment to “The Communist Ideal”. East German border guards were chosen for their fanatical attitude and they regularly machine gunned people trying to escape.
(Photo credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)