(Mis)Reading the Berlin Wall — 30 years later

By Dirk Philipsen

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A crane removes part of the Berlin Wall. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

November 9 marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Most people over 50 remember where they were that day. Yet its meaning is still shrouded in historical fog.

For me as a 25-year-old Berliner in 1984, living a stone’s throw away, the Wall seemed immovable, and eternal. Despite the wall-enclosed death strip slicing through the heart of my beloved city, life seemed normal. I had close friends, freely discussed politics in street cafés in Kreuzberg, played Frisbee in the city’s verdant Tiergarten park, and learned from an astonishing range of scholars at the Free University. Erected in 1961, the Wall appeared simply a symbol of the Cold War, the dividing line between the worlds of American market capitalism and Soviet one-party communism.

In hindsight, scholars understand the construction of the wall as virtually inevitable. Political maneuvers on the part of the occupying superpowers had left two unequal parts — a booming West Germany, a struggling East Germany. As a result, some 4 million East Germans fled to the West between 1949 and 1961. By the time soldiers of the East German People’s Army rolled out the Wall’s first foundations — barbed wire and cement blocks in streets and intersections — East Germany had hemorrhaged its most vital talent. As a nation, its options boiled down to collapse or Wall.

The Wall could be seen as only one hand of a dramatic series of high-stakes poker games between the U.S. and the USSR. Had the Soviets opted for occupation rather than the Wall, only nuclear weapons could’ve deterred a Soviet takeover of the entire city. Famously, President Kennedy responded to the Wall’s construction in August 1961 by quipping, “A wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.”

The Wall separated families, friends, neighbors, and communities. Some 5,000 East Germans tried to surmount it — climbing over, digging under, attempting to fly across. At least 136 people died in such attempts, the last being shot in February of 1989, just nine months before it disintegrated.

Most young West Berliners in the 1980s like me knew virtually nothing about people living on the other side. They might be fellow Germans, but they seemed as removed a few hundred feet away as if they lived on Neptune. Neither did we recognize the wall for what it was: a gruesome result of power politics, a prison for our own hearts and minds. The Wall, somehow, had become a simple fact of life.

Only after that night in 1989, when thousands of Berliners began to pick-axe the steel-enforced concrete monstrosity into oblivion, did we realize: the wall represented a massive experiment in political engineering. A people with a common culture, history, and language were thrust into two separate worlds — hostile and unequal.

Walls don’t solve underlying problems, and rarely last. But they do truncate what we see. As a young historian, when I asked Eastern European dissidents in July 1989 if they thought Soviet rule might ever come to an end, they looked at me as if pitying my political naïveté. “Certainly not in my lifetime,” was one typical response. Four months later, the Wall crumbled. Two years later, the Soviet Union dissolved.

The tortured history of divided life between communism and capitalism seemed to come to an end on this cold November evening thirty years ago. In quick succession, people pronounced socialism dead, capitalism victorious, and even declared an “end to history.”

Today, such conclusions seem strangely facile, even narrow. The tenor of globally mobilizing young people suggests that neither system provides viable answers to our most pressing problems — earth suffered greatly from both capitalism and communism.

In light of rapidly changing realities, how does the 30th anniversary of “the end of history” speak to us today?

On the surface, it is a success story. Germany is back. The world’s fourth largest economy, the country of Mercedes, Siemens, and World Cup championship fame is proudly flying its unified flag. Europe has become larger (and, as of yet, is still holding together). The Soviet empire imploded, communism is dead, and political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic are cozying up to a Russian leader — all developments few thought imaginable in early 1989.

Meanwhile, the memory of the Berlin Wall is fading. The system that presumably won is now groaning under its own contradictions — galloping inequality, loss of social cohesion, rampant neglect of mother earth. Young people demand a viable future, while many of their elders yearn for the presumed greatness of a bygone era. The old cracks that set communism and capitalism on a collision course are re-appearing everywhere. Privilege and poverty accelerate side by side.

One question the Berlin Wall’s fate raises for the rest of the world to consider: Do walls ever provide answers, or only safeguard otherwise indefensible positions?

This is part 1 of a four-part series on the meaning of the Berlin Wall — a 30-year Retrospective. Dirk Philipsen, author of We Were the People — Voices from East Germany’s Revolutionary Autumn of 1989 (Duke UP, 1993), and The Little Big Number — How GDP Came to Rule the World (Princeton UP, 2015/17), teaches at Duke University.

Click these links for parts 2,3 and 4.

Duke University is home to nearly 15,000 undergraduate and graduate students and a world-class faculty helping to expand the frontiers of knowledge.

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