President-elect Donald Trump says that his promises of a wall to keep out Mexicans from the land of the free may in fact not be a complete bricks and mortar effort. However, this is not a metaphor of mine to suggest he is not proceeding with a grand design, he has simply said that it may not be a complete wall, but may include sections made of fence. Well, I suppose it breaks up an otherwise boring wall and provides less opportunity for Banksy to strike.
Now, comparisons between this wall – if it ever comes to pass – and the Berlin Wall are, in truth, a stretch, yet they continue to be made. When Trump secured his big win on November 9, 2016, it was 27 years to the day since the Berlin Wall was essentially given its death sentence; a coincidence which heightened the comparisons in the public sphere. I feel this is part of a culture of the deep concern about Trump’s general stated intentions, which is understandable, but what happened in Berlin was very, very different.
The installation of the Berlin Wall was not something proposed as part of a foul-mouthed, erratic, celebrity hotelier’s election campaign, but something that materialised out of the Cold War tensions of the US and Soviet Union. It was not built to stop others coming in, it was built to stop its own citizens from leaving. Maybe this is Trump’s plan to stop half of a hugely divided nation from fleeing…? However, he would be better advised to build the wall on the Canadian border instead…
So, what was the Berlin Wall? And why was it so controversial?
At the end of World War 2, there existed a poisonous tension between the victorious Allies, principally the USA, Great Britain and France, with their Eastern partner, the Soviet Union. This tension existed because of diametrically-opposed political ideologies between the Soviets and its partners.
Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union was a communist, totalitarian regime, whilst its Western allies were capitalist democracies. Both sides of the left/right spectrum wanted to influence the rebuilding and reshaping of the new Europe according to their own philosophy, and following the German surrender and partition, this tension manifested itself in physical form in the German capital, Berlin.
Germany had been divided into four zones, one for each of the principal Allied victors. Berlin, the capital, was itself also divided into four zones. Following increasingly strained relations, the Soviet occupied part of Germany became East Germany in 1949, breaking away from the West. In 1961, the East German regime initiated one of modern history’s most notorious security installations, The Berlin Wall.
The Berlin Wall
There was a clearly defined, stated purpose of the Berlin Wall (der Antifaschistischer Schutzwall or Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart). The East German government contended that West Germany remained a fascist regime and was not free of its National Socialist (Nazi) past, and the wall was therefore protecting the East’s citizens from this supposed threat. The purpose was reinforced continually by the regime, with the East German public understanding the official purpose and their responsibilities in abiding by it.
The regime’s stated cause was never going to be as effective as the measures used to enforce it. This is because – perhaps with the exception of the most diehard members of the regime – it was obviously not commonly believed that West Berlin remained fascist and that such protection was needed. East Berliners knew well of the reality of life in the West, and were under no illusion that the wall actually stood to prevent East Germans leaving for the West, as so many had (and would continue to attempt to, with varying levels of success, many with tragic failure). The reality was that the Wall was, somewhat uniquely, protecting its citizens from the outside by locking them in.