Wait, The Berlin Wall's Already Been Down for Twenty Years?


Brian Ladd is the author of The Ghosts of Berlin.

Fifty years ago this week, the world was shocked by the sight of a barrier being built across the center of Berlin.  The Cold War was at its height in 1961, but the Berlin Wall quickly became its icon. Long after its demise, the Wall can still help us sort out the contradictions of a bygone age.

The Wall was actually the capstone of Europe’s division.  West Berlin had long been the hole in the Iron Curtain. It was a relic of the incomplete World War II peace settlement, a Western enclave surrounded by communist East Germany.  The 1945 Allied agreement ensured free movement across Hitler’s former capital, a guarantee that became a problem only after the Soviet Union and its estranged Western allies split the rest of Germany and Europe into fortified zones.  The simmering Berlin crisis seemed the likeliest spark for World War III, as Joseph Stalin and his successor Nikita Khrushchev tried for years to bully the West into pulling out of the city.  By 1961, Berlin was bleeding East Germany to death, as its younger and more skilled citizens slipped across the invisible line into West Berlin, leaving behind faltering factories and understaffed hospitals.

East Germany’s Communist leaders convinced Khrushchev to let them solve the problem overnight.  And solve it they did, with a barrier that surrounded West Berlin.  The Wall stemmed the flow of refugees and ended the diplomatic crisis.  By building it, the East clearly surrendered any claim to West Berlin.  By letting it stand, the West reciprocated.  The Wall was a brutal thing, especially for the families who were divided by it.  But President Kennedy and other Western leaders breathed a sigh of relief.  Berlin and Europe would never again threaten world peace.

Of course Kennedy knew better than to thank the East Germans.  Instead, the West exploited this symbol of communist oppression as a favored photo opportunity (later used to best effect by Ronald Reagan).  In fact, the West won the propaganda war on both sides of the Wall handily—the barrier, after all, was built to stem the tide of defections from East to West.  Eastern leaders defended the Wall as a necessary bulwark against Western aggression, but hardly anyone believed them.  Most East Germans were not especially hostile to their own government, which was slowly giving them a degree of prosperity, but they deeply resented the prohibition on travel which the Wall symbolized.

What made things worse, of course, was the East German government’s decision to use deadly force to secure the Wall against its own unhappy citizens.  The dozens who were killed trying to cross the Wall stained the regime with blood.  The Wall came to symbolize its vain attempt to stem the tide of history.

For most people, though, the Wall was not so much cruel as uncanny.  Berlin, deprived of its flow of people, became a comfortable backwater (or rather, two of them), thanks to a diplomatic truce enforced by guards with shoot-to-kill orders.  The eerily silent prison wall would have been barely noticed if not for its colorful and often memorable graffiti.

The Wall was as necessary as it was absurd.  Inhumanity brought security.  A bad wall made good neighbors—until the world changed, and it was no longer needed.  The Berlin Wall marked the Cold War’s culmination in 1961, and then its end in 1989.  East German leaders were correct to believe they needed their Wall.  Once it was pried open, the communist state was doomed.

Thus began the Wall’s strange afterlife.  The victorious people set upon that symbol of oppression, first with picks and hammers, then with heavy machinery.  The cruel monument would be destroyed and forgotten.  The capitalist spirit bloomed, as entrepreneurs sold chips of painted concrete to tourists (you can still buy them).

Soon, though, the tourists wondered where the Wall was.  So a few segments were restored, and its course across the city was marked for all to remember.  Berlin was better off without the Wall, but perhaps not entirely.  The Wall made Berlin special.  It had also permitted East Berliners and West Berliners to idealize each other, like absent lovers, without having to live together.  Now Berlin is just another grumpy European city, except for its many ghosts.

Amazingly, the Berlin Wall has now been gone nearly as long as it stood.  We remember it as a monument to brutality.  But it can also remind us how we use violence—even our enemies’ violence—to maintain peace.  The Wall made the Iron Curtain visible, and also made it bearable.  It had to be destroyed, and it had to be preserved.  Through it we remember the Cold War, that remote era of peace and fear.

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