When late US President John F. Kennedy stood in front of the Berlin wall dividing East and West Berlin in 1963, proudly declaring his solidarity with the Berlin citizenry, saying “Ich bin ein Berliner,” and blissfully unaware that a Berliner is actually a type of German doughnut, he could not have realised that 28 years would pass before the wall crumbled as the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe imploded and the “iron curtain,” lowered in 1945, was finally raised.
On August 13th, 1961, the wall was erected, and in 1989, it was demolished by Eastern Europeans eager to reach East Berlin and the West. So what was the Berlin wall? Why was it built? What caused its demise? And, as a final point, what does it say about border walls today?
After the end of World War II, the USSR effectively dominated Eastern and Central Europe, and Germany was divided into two states: the Communist-controlled German Democratic Republic (GDR), or East Germany, and the western Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), usually called West Germany, with its capital in Bonn. However, there was a loophole. Berlin was partly dominated by the GDR (East Berlin) and partly dominated by the US, Britain, and France (West Berlin). Berlin became the brain drain as East Germans flooded across the border to enjoy the benefits of the German “economic miracle” in the West. According to the Week magazine, up to three million East Germans crossed into West Germany between 1949 and 1961, and 20,000 in the months after Walter Ulbricht, the leader of East Germany, declared that “no one intends to build a wall,” a clear indication to the wise that the contrary would happen.
The wall itself consisted of breeze blocks, barbed wire, and an inner and outer wall, separated by a “no-man's land” 300 feet (91.44 metres) wide with watchtowers, guards with machine guns, floodlights, trenches, and trip wires. A few brave souls made it across the barrier to freedom and safety but many fewer than before. The wall divided housing estates and families and became a symbol of the Cold War between the USSR and the West. The key crossing point between the two zones was the famous Checkpoint Charlie, now a Berlin historical tourist attraction. I remember being in Berlin and crossing the former 'no-man's land' in the early nineties and seeing rabbits hopping around the area in the middle of a busy Berlin.
What changed? The answer is the accession of Mikhail Gorbachev as General Secretary of the Soviet Union in 1985. He introduced the policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reform), and most important, he sought a rapprochement with the West. Communism fell in Poland and Hungary in 1989, and as Austria began to dismantle its section of the wall, Poles and Hungarians flocked to the West, only to be blocked by the GDR. On November 9th, the GDR announced permission for Eastern Europeans to apply for passports to visit the West, and West German media declared the wall was open. Thousands of East Germans gathered at the wall and began to take it apart brick by brick and swarm across into West Berlin. Bits of the wall still stand here and there in Berlin as visitor attractions, but it is mainly sold as lumps of stone, authentic or phoney, as tourist souvenirs. Ten years later, in 1999, Russia accepted that a re-united Germany as part of NATO was a fact, but it was the day the wall fell that really symbolised the end of Communist-dominated Eastern and Central Europe.
And what of today? We still have walls. Israel has erected a security wall against Hamas and Hezbollah in Palestine, and Donald Trump still talks about his wall to keep out migrants from South America. Just two examples. Writing in Time Magazine, Mikhail Gorbachev, the man whose policies brought down the wall and who ended the separatist mentality dividing East and West, for a time at least, worries about the future. He feels the spirit of cooperation that marked the opening up of Eastern and Western Europe is not present anymore and that we are building up too many divisions and not enough dialogue and cooperation. Perhaps in most countries the physical walls are no more, but too many political and emotional walls are still being erected.