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.
Before the Wall could be constructed and its purpose announced to the world, the regime enforced a strict, need-to-know approach in its planning and installation. The strict use of confidentiality worked, as, despite a few rumours, the Wall took the world almost by complete surprise, initially on August 12, extending to August 13, 1961. All considerations were made ahead of time, including telephone wires being cut between East and West Berlin to prevent word getting out about the operation. This was a classic example of ruthlessly effective security planning.
This level of confidentiality was achieved by only informing East German officials, construction workers and soldiers, their specific instructions. When their combined instructions were enacted, the result was a success, as almost complete secrecy had been maintained. After all, had the West learned of the intentions of the East, then the entire project may have been scuppered before the first reel of barbed wire had been laid. The Berlin Wall went up almost overnight.
Physical security was paramount, and was nothing if not intimidating. Its features were vast, and included an inner and outer wall, a wire mesh fence, a control strip, floodlights, anti-vehicle trenches, patrol vehicles, dog patrols, observation towers, an electrified signal fence, anti-vehicle trenches, bunkers, trip flares and alarm equipment.
As large a structure as the wall was, there were still enough troops on hand to effectively protect it from fleeing citizens. The Wall was ardently policed by a plethora of Border Troops (Grenztruppen der DDR), who were given license to use deadly force against those attempting to escape to the West. This was a hugely effective deterrent. The troops, as noted by Peter Quint, would often receive state praise for their efforts should they use lethal force to thwart an attempted escape, and while the troops may not have always attempted to use deadly force, they fully understood that it was likely their actions could result in an escapee’s death. Quint notes that these troops, often from small towns, were somewhat naïve and were acting on the whims of their more learned superior officers within an effective command structure.
To gain further political currency from each successful prevention of an escape, the state-run press would highlight the valour of its troops and the treason of the attempted escapees. The press would also blast the West and its influence, and this was all part of the plan to keep East German citizens quite literally in their place. In the West, people referred to the border strip as the “death strip” due to the numerous fatalities that occurred following the engagement of border troops in escape attempts.
If any element rivals the Berlin Wall as a notorious remnant of the GDR’s security policy, then it is the Stasi. Der Staatssicherheit (State Security) was a world-renowned secret police organisation, which imprisoned enemies of the regime, engaged in torture and utilised trickery to obtain confessions and information.
The 91,000 strong Stasi force were supported by 170,000 informers, with a key component of the Stasi’s work – which was absolutely understood by the population at large – being the gathering of intelligence on escape plans. The presence of such a ruthless organisation, supported by the State and its considerable resources, was a frighteningly effective reminder to would-be escapees on the dangers of their plans being uncovered. The Stasi permeated a culture of mistrust, and it was not unknown for wives to spy on husbands. The Stasi’s psychologically intimidating methods were a perfect counterpart to the physically intimidating wall. Frederick Taylor has written of the immediate offensive by the Stasi following the Wall’s construction, with the Stasi detaining thousands of non-conforming citizens. The DDR had deployed an effective iron grip immediately, seizing the initiative from day one against its internal critics and those desiring a life on the other side of the wall.
With all ethical considerations aside, the Berlin Wall was a hugely successful security initiative. It crudely, but no doubt effectively, served to divide Europe for almost 30 years, and it should be remembered that its eventual fall was not a result of this particular security initiative being unable to function effectively, but because of the dramatic collapse of a political movement that rendered its existence irrelevant.
For its near 30 year lifetime, the Wall, in combination with the policy of the East German regime, all but crushed emigration from East Berlin to the West, and this was, after all, its purpose. In 1961, the last full year of the regime during which the wall did not exist, Dr. Matthias Judt notes that there were a staggering 207,000 defections to the West. In 1962, there were only 21,000. The wall did not end “illegal” border crossing into the West, but it was hugely successful in reducing it to a level that allowed East Germany to function as a somewhat effective nation.
The borders between East and West were effectively re-opened on November 9, 1989, as Soviet communism all but collapsed overnight. Germany was reunified on October 3, 1990, but the Wall, which only exists today in small sections preserved for posterity, continues to live on in infamy as a ruthlessly effective security installation.
Will Trump really build his wall? Clearly he is going to go to great lengths to stifle immigration from Mexico, but let us hope that it falls far short of barbed wire and death strips of the Cold War’s Berliner Mauer .
You can read my initial reactions to Trump’s election win right here.
Reading: F. Taylor, The Berlin Wall 13 August 1961 – 9 November 1989 (London: Bloomsbury, 2007)
Online: The Berlin Wall Memorial