Checkpoint Charlie was the most famous crossing along a long wall designed through rather perverted logic – to keep East German’s in the country, the FDR (East German) government decided to build a wall around West Berlin. Its modern day (vastly imperfect) but au courant analogy would be to ring-fence Mexico to prevent Americans from leaving the United States, even the wall idea in the United States today is used to keep people out, not in.
The ring-fence appeared within a night and progressively became more and more sophisticated, it stood for 28 years, collapsing in 1990 this year marking as long an amount of time since the wall has fallen, as the amount of time it stood erect for. The structure was vastly more elaborate than a rig fence, it was a double stone wall structute on both sides with a death strip in the middle. The walls were extra hard concrete that was impenetrable to cars. Separating the double walls were first a high wall followed by barbed wires and deadly dog patrols. The second wall had a rounded top to prevent spikes from grapping onto the other side and enabling climber. If an escapee managed to beat this, there was a long emott death strip and guard posts with on duty sentries instructed to kill on sight. Then there was the repeat of the dangers of the first wall on the other side.
This formidable, impenetrable structure emerged through trial and error, East Germans would try to breach it and sometimes succeed, the security officers would realise their errors and reinforce the wall.
There are many narratives that this fallen wall can tell: it tells a political story a symbol of the start and end of the Cold War, it tells a societal story about the failure of ideological communism, it tells a human story about bravery and courage (and many others).
The wall went up in 1961 because the presence of West Berlin was a problem for the East German model. Locals could see how life was different in a capitalist run system compared to a socialist run system – West Berlin had become the Trojan Horse located in the heart of East Germany (see the post on Checkpoint Charlie for the story of how post-war Germany was divvied up between the winning nations). East Germans had little trouble simply crossing the divide and going into West Germany and people were leaving. This was also problematic since the USSR was in an expansionist mood (it particularly wanted to make sure its former German rival never became strong again and would a puppet under Soviet control) was using the opportunity to create for itself a Soviet shield across Germany.
The solution to this was simple, access to West Berlin had to be restricted. But they needed an excuse, and one was provided in 1948. What a bomb destroys in a few minutes may take years to rebuild and Berlin was in ruins after the war, its economy shambolic. The old currency was useless and there were urgent needs for fundamental economic reforms in the city. An earlier attempt at currency reforms failed when Stalin hijacked the plan by purposely overprinting notes to devalue the currency. Then came moves to establish a single German state with a new currency. This was the excuse needed, and then began the Berlin Blockade and the subsequent heroic story of the Berlin airlift.
The Berlin Blockade was but a flashpoint and ended practically when Stalin realised that the American led alliance was here to stay. Ironically, the very act that the blockade was meant to induce (Western departure from Berlin) led to the formation of a Western German state, and brought the Germans and French, British and Americans on closer terms then they did – they now had a common enemy.
Now, the simple fact that people want to flee a place and need to be forced to stay in betrays just how bad things must have been for the people. The fact that the Berlin Wall stood for 28 years says a lot to the sheer power of the communist party in Germany anf the failure of an ideologically driven socialist/communist system (think of Cuba too), as compared to a practically capitalist model in modern-day China. Leaving a place and returning willingly is a measure of how good or bad things are, North Koreans attempt to escape to China, but Chinese don’t escape to North Korean, as the former Singaporean diplomat once said, and I paraphrase, 120 million Chinese leave mainland every year and 120 million Chinese return home willingly every year… if things were bad in their county, why would they go back?
I think a lot of the failure of communism across societies can be attributed to the failure of the concept of “from each his best, to each his needs” and therefore Socialism was doomed at some point to fail because there is just no intrinsic motivation for an individual to succeed, which requires state led extrinsic motivation.
You could say therefore, that the moment the wall went up, it was a sign of the inevitable decay of a system and the wall – even if it seemed impossible then, would have to eventually go down. The Cold War was thawing and a clear winner had begun to emerge. Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempts at reform through Perestroika and Glastnost were not able to turn the tide in favour of the party and the system was seeing its last days. In 1989, Poland had its first semi-free elections and the people elected Lech Walesa and his Solidarity Party in massive numbers (the Communist barely held on to power). Hungary’s own liberation movement was gaining steam and the electric walls bewteen it and Austria were brought down that year. East Germans fled to Hungary (and later to Czechoslovakia), but barely had they done so, the authorities shut the borders. This prompted the beginning of s series of weekly Monday protests against the communist East German government.
The leader of East Germany, Erich Hoeneker, resigned and was replaced with new leadership. The new leadership eventual had to recognise reality and allow its citizens to travel to Hungary and Czechoslovakia. They send a man, Gunter Schabowski the party boss in East Berlin to announce the decision to the people through the press. Schabowski was however not part of the decision making team and was not fully apprised of the decision. The decision was meant to take place the next day, but confused by the decisions given to him Schabowski read the note as saying that the decision would take immediate effect.
Thousands assembled at the Berlin Walls demanding to be let into West Berlin. The Guards were lost, their superiors too had no desire to allow lethal force – the cause was over. An order was given at one checkpoint to let people through, passes were not checked both east and west Berliners went to greet each other.
A few young people on both sides climbed onto the war.
That night was the first night of all sorts of toold used to take down the wall bit by bit.
For a generation, the wall seemed like it would never go down, but when it did, how glorious it was.
The Cold War in Berlin had ended, Berlin was whole again.
ON THE MAP (Remains of the Berlin Wall)
ON THE MAP (East Side Gallery)