Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The Berlin Wall

Last weekend saw the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the building of the Berlin Wall and the media here in Germany, understandably, carried quite a bit about it. It provided the most powerful symbol of the Cold War – an ever-present, concrete reminder of the division between two opposed ideological systems competing for world domination.

For my generation, growing up in the 60s and the 70s, the Berlin Wall was a fact of life, something as obvious, inevitable and permanent as the Statue of Liberty or the Eifel Tower. It – and the conflict of ideologies it represented – was part of the way the world was and we lived with the continuous background possibility that someone on one side or the other could some day make a bad miscalculation in the chicken game of MAD (mutually assured destruction) they were playing, the missiles would fly and the cockroaches would inherit the earth.

If World War III was going to break out, Berlin was one of the prime locations for that happening. Checkpoint Charlie, concrete ramparts, barbed wire, floodlights and communist troops armed to the teeth, ready to shoot anything that moved, provided a dramatic backdrop to the reality of international politics. And, like many such dramatic backdrops, a lot of it was pure theatre; smoke and mirrors blurring a somewhat different, more complex reality.

From the establishment of the (East) German Democratic Republic (DDR) in 1949 as a Soviet satellite state up to the building of the wall, around three and a half million East German citizens (nearly 20% of the total population of the country) had left for the west, most of them through Berlin, where two thirds of the city was under western control. The communist authorities in the DDR were well aware that their country was in danger of bleeding to death through this – in their view – open wound in the middle of their country. In summer 1961 they finally achieved Khrushchev’s permission to do something about it. On August 13 they closed the border between the two parts of the city, initially with troops, torn-up streets, fences and barbed-wire before starting work on the Wall which, by the time it was finished, had a length of around 140 km and completely enclosed West Berlin.

If Walter Ulbricht, the leader of East Germany, had had his way, the Wall would have been erected much earlier; it was the Soviets who were the reluctant ones, fearing the western reaction. It was only after the newly elected President Kennedy gave a tacit indication that the US would not actively oppose such an action that the Soviets gave their permission for the action of their DDR allies. In fact, the western allies had long expected such a move and did not regard it entirely negatively. The building of the Wall, in their view, made a sudden surprise military move on the part of the Warsaw pact forces around Berlin much more difficult and thus could be regarded as a stabilising event in global geo-political terms.

For all the rhetorical hot-air on both sides (particularly the western one), both superpowers had learned to live with the de facto division of Germany and Berlin. Germany was the country where hundreds of thousands of soldiers, armed to the teeth, were stationed on both sides of the border; but, ironically, this made it the country where neither side had any real interest in provoking the other. If war broke out in Germany the missiles would fly, and both sides knew it. Instead, they consented themselves with niggling each other fighting proxy wars in other areas; the Middle East, South East Asia, Central America, Southern Africa. The “anti-fascist protective rampart” (antifaschistischer Schutzwall), as the East Germans liked to call it, was an attempt to shut West Berlin out more than it was to close it in – an effort to protect their controlled, often dreary and colourless state and its citizens from pernicious, seductive capitalist influences.

When I came to West Germany in the mid-eighties, the division of the country, symbolised by the Wall, was generally accepted. If most West Germans at the time (particularly those of my generation) were honest, it didn’t particularly bother them. The DDR was “over there” (drĂ¼ben), boring, drab and somehow foreign, something you didn’t think of much. West Berlin was well worth a visit – it was a bit exotic, there was a good scene there and a certain frisson of excitement about driving along one of the approved Autobahnen through the communist east to get there. It was an attitude I could sympathise with easily; as a citizen of the Republic of Ireland, I was used to living in a divided country, accustomed to the rhetoric of politicians mouthing about unity and national aspirations while nearly everybody was quite happy to get on with business as usual.

And when the Wall finally fell, in November 1989, the momentum came from the other side, from the East. The communist experiment had failed, and Gorbachev’s attempts to reform Soviet totalitarianism had only hastened that failure. When the countries of the Eastern bloc realised that the unscrupulous will to defend the borders of the Soviet empire with bullets and tanks had evaporated, the erosion of faith among their citizens in the putative advantages of the system they had been forced to live under reached a critical point. Following increasing public demonstrations, and a growing exodus of East German citizens westwards through open borders in Czechoslovakia and Hungary, the East Berlin party boss, Gunter Schabowski, announced in the course of a rather confused press conference on November 9 that the border crossings between East and West Berlin would be open to all “effective immediately, without delay.” That evening, thousands of Germans danced on the Wall, even as others spontaneously began chipping away at it with hammers and chisels, watched by bemused border guards who had no orders to stop them.

My children are now in their twenties and have never known the Wall, have no memory of a formally divided Germany. That Berlin is once more capital of a united Germany is as self-evident for them as the division between East and West was for me when I was their age. Germany, particularly the East, is still struggling with the residue of forty years of division but it is slowly shrinking. The world, having changed suddenly and drastically little more than twenty years ago, has moved on and different problems and challenges have replaced the old certainties.

Communism lost and capitalism won. The promise Marxist-inspired leaders promulgated of a world revolution leading, finally, to an end of alienation and the withering away of the state in a proletarian paradise has proved to be a chimera. The very building of the Wall, signifying the need to quarantine itself from the seductive lure of its ideological opponent, was already an implicit admission of weakness.

Yet the promise of the victor itself has also proved flawed. The efficacy of the “invisible hand” which ensures that greater prosperity will result for all as a result of globally untrammelled free markets has shown itself to be severely defective. It has developed into a system in which, all too often, people have been reduced to commodities, units whose costs are to be reduced and efficiency increased as much as possible, whose value is only to be reckoned in terms of their consumption power. It’s a spinning top which can only be kept stable by pumping ever more energy into it to keep it spinning, energy to be taken from wherever it can be found, from the environment, from all of us riding it, even from the future, no matter what the ultimate cost.

But the fall of the Berlin Wall also carries another, perhaps more hopeful message. The very structures we are told are certain, inevitable, unchangeable, may be nothing of the sort once their lies have been exposed, once people finally lose faith in their self-proclaimed infallibility, once hope and solidarity overcome fear. This is a truth we have seen repeated this year in Tunisia and Egypt, even if success is not guaranteed, even if it means great suffering as in Libya and Syria. Walls can still be brought down; we only have to start by taking down the most obstinate ones – those in our heads and our hearts.

Pictures retrieved from:


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