Walls are built for many purposes—to protect, to secure, to mark, to define. No wall in modern history has left a greater mark than the Berlin Wall. November 9, 2014, marks the 25th anniversary of its fall. Erected in 1961, it was a symbol of the Cold War, the dividing line between the worlds of American-style market capitalism and Soviet style one-party communism.
Living a stone’s throw away from the wall seemed perfectly normal. The twelve-foot high concrete monstrosity that cut right through the heart of my beloved city, I thought, had little impact on my life. I was a student at the university in West Berlin. I moved around freely, had close friends around the world.
Most young West Berliners knew virtually nothing about people living right behind the wall—fellow Germans, yes, but people who might as well have been from Mars. Neither did we recognize the wall for what it was: a gruesome result of power politics, and a prison for our own hearts and minds. The wall, somehow, had become a fact of life.
It divided families, friends, neighbors, and communities. Some 5,000 East Germans tried to get across the wall—climbing it, digging under it, attempting to fly over it. At least 136 people died in such attempts, the last being shot in February of 1989, just 9 months before it fell.
The construction of the wall was 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 barbed wire and put down cement blocs in streets and intersections, East Germany had hemorrhaged its most vital talent. As a nation, its options boiled down to collapse or wall.
It was a high-stakes poker between the U.S. and the USSR. American troops stationed in West Berlin were virtually defenseless against an overwhelming presence of Soviet forces in the East. Had the Soviets opted for occupation rather than demarcation, only nuclear weapons could’ve deterred a Soviet takeover of the city. Not surprisingly, President Kennedy responded to the events of August 1961 by saying “a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.”
The result was a massive experiment in political engineering. A people with a common culture, history, and language were thrust into two separate worlds—hostile and unequal.
In hindsight, it was perhaps less of a historical aberration than it would seem. We still build walls and segregate people—in Korea, in Israel, in the Middle East, in India, and, of course, on our own border with Mexico. Separating people with a common homeland, we also create classes of people, divided by privilege. Indeed, the privileges tend to rest on the separation.
Walls, it turns out, never solve the underlying problems. They also never last. But they do leave human wreckage and truncated ways of seeing.
When I asked Eastern European dissidents in July of 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.
When it comes to walls that protect privilege and narrow nationalist interests, perhaps we should join Ronald Reagan in his famous call to “tear down this wall!”
The memory of the Berlin wall is fading. And yet, Germans are still struggling to grow back together. Some three decades of segregated life have left deep marks.
“We had great restrictions on what we could say,” one East German dissident told me, “but what we said meant a lot. Now we can say anything we want, but it no longer means much.” Some commentators called reunification “annexation.”
On the surface, it is a success story. Germany is back. The world’s fourth largest economy, the country of Mercedes and Siemens and soccer world cup championship fame is proudly flying its unified black-red-gold flag.
Processing the tortured history of divided life will take longer. Nobody was able to escape the shadows of the wall. Above all, the demarcation between socialism and capitalism proved as facile as it was false. Neither provides good answers to the most pressing problems of today.
Creating segregated and insular experiences, walls that divide people inevitably distort and diminish. By shrinking the lives of those who endure in its shadows, walls promote simplistic ideologies. So here we are: still holding on to demarcations of nationality or religion or ideology while the world is catching a fever from our collective addiction to consumption and endless growth.
Walls exacerbate the problem. They stand in the way of collective solutions. Germany, for one, is much better off pooling resources and talent from both East and West. Freeing ourselves from the suffocating presence of walls, both physical and mental, we could renew our exploration of what really ails us as inhabitants of a common planet. In the words of a dissident, “We fought for a better alternative to both actually existing socialism and capitalism.” East Germany’s opposition movement was ahead of its time.
Dirk Philipsen, author of We Were the People – Voices From East Germany’s Revolutionary Autumn of 1989 and the forthcoming The Little Big Number – How GDP Came to Rule the World, is a Senior Fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University.