The Berlin Wall 50 Years On: Symbol of Division, and of Hope

Philip White

This past weekend, German citizens turned out en masse to recognize the 50th anniversary of East German authorities putting up the Berlin Wall. Coming 15 years after Winston Churchill’s Sinews of Peace speech, this barrier was the embodiment of the Iron Curtain that the British Prime Minister (ex-PM at the time) had spoken of in March 1946. The Wall not only carved Berlin in twain, but also the political and philosophical world–with liberal democracies with capitalist economic models on the western side and the totalitarian Communist regimes on the eastern.

Many desperate souls from the east (at least 136 reported, with many other likely not counted) died trying to get over the wall and with each failed attempt, the dreams of families hoping for a different life in the west perished, too. The commemoration in Berlin was no celebration, but rather a somber affair marked by church bells pealing out and flags billowing in the breeze at half-mast on the Reichstag. In the spot where the wall stood is now a chapel, which held a memorial service for those who lost their lives during the Wall’s 28-year history.

Before the concrete monstrosity went up, more than 2.5 million Germans had gone to the Allied occupation zones in the west of the city, according to The Daily Telegraph. One of the reasons for constructing the wall was the fear that this flight would leave the eastern part of the city economically destitute. Yet it was also, in many ways, a barrier to keep things out, not least “dangerous” Western ideas about freedom of the ballot box, speech and expression. The 96 miles of guard-patrolled, barbed wire-topped fortification also served the purpose of keeping Western officials and journalists out of Communist Eastern Germany and the nations beyond, preventing them from exposing the continued abuses of power and suppression of individual rights there.

Though it seemed so intimidating and so permanent for so long, the Berlin Wall was only as strong as the Soviet Union and its puppet regimes that had conceived it. By the time Ronald Reagan famously issued his June 1987 plea at the Brandenburg to Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”, the bedrock of the U.S.S.R. was already cracking under the pressure of freedom movements in Eastern Europe, an unsustainable military budget, and a flagging economy, not to mention the flourishing of new political ideas within Moscow’s halls of power.

The fall of the Wall two and a half years later, on November 9, 1989, did not solve Germany’s problems, and, in fact, the convergence of two radically different populations presented many new challenges. However, its demise was the symbolic nail in the coffin of the U.S.S.R. and thus, half a century after its creation, the Berlin Wall invokes thoughts of hope, as much as sorrow.