Keeping account of what happened this week thirty years ago in Berlin is the easy task. But have we learnt enough lessons to prevent a new form of barriers erected in the name of nationalism and xenophobic division? Brendan McKee discusses.
While walking through the streets of Berlin’s trendy Friedrichshain neighbourhood, one can be forgiven for forgetting the history of the place. After all, who has time to remember such things while exploring the numerous stylish boutiques and interesting bars that are on offer? Make a turn on to Mühlenstrasse, however, and you will come face-to-face with the East Side Gallery, which runs along the Spree river and boasts some of the world’s most iconic mural paintings. Take a walk along the gallery and you will find the vibrant colours of the murals muted by the solemnity of the place. After all, this is more than a gallery. It is also what little remains of the once awe-inspiring Berlin Wall that divided the city and defined an era. Now it appears as little more than a relic of a bygone era, one which is easily circumvented by a short walk. The weight of the place nevertheless remains.
The scars of conflict are still easily visible
The story of the Berlin Wall is well known. After World War II, a defeated Germany was sectioned off between the victorious powers of the USA, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain as well as France. This division, however, was not necessarily meant to last, as Germany was technically governed as a whole by the joint authority of these four powers. As such, Berlin was selected as the seat of the Allied Control Council and, though falling within the Soviet quarter, it too was divided between the four powers. The setting in of the Cold War ultimately dashed any hope some may have had at reuniting Germany. The Soviet Union refused the Allied reconstruction plan and came to jealously guard its quarter of Germany from the influence of the other three. To be fair, this refusal was not entirely irrational, as memories of the war were still fresh and there was a genuine fear that a resurgent Germany may once again turn to aggression. Nonetheless, Stalin’s own grandiose schemes for extending Soviet power across Europe are also an important ingredient to understand what happened next.
By 1948, the US-led Marshall Plan was initiated and a concrete plan for rebuilding Germany was underway. This plan, orchestrated by the other three powers in what was now their shared portion of Germany, differed dramatically from the Soviets’. Stalin desired to control a weakened Germany, as he did with the satellite states of Poland and Hungary. This meant controlling the politics of the nation and ensuring the state’s economic and political dependence upon Moscow. This goal was impossible, however, as long as the Soviets had to share influence with the US, the UK, and France, and so in 1948 Stalin would blockade Berlin in an attempt to starve the city into submission and gain control of the entire capital. This plan would end in failure, as the Americans famously airlifted supplies into the city, and the result was the formal division of Germany into a Soviet-aligned East and an American-aligned West. The next decade would see the Marshall Plan succeed spectacularly and West Germany’s economy rebounded and grew exponentially, all while East Germany wallowed in comparative poverty and under-development. Many wanted to leave East Germany for the West and leave they did. Through the 1950s, the Soviets and the government of East Germany would take a number of actions, from requiring visas to travel to erecting systems of check points and barricades, to try and stem the flow of emigrants to the West. Ultimately these half measures were ineffective, and so it was in 1961 that the Berlin Wall was built. The ultimate barrier between East and West. More than this, it was the physical manifestation of Churchill’s “Iron Curtain”, a political and ideological cleavage that divided Europe. The erection of the Berlin Wall was perhaps not the birth of a new era, but certainly the coming of age of one. There was no longer any doubt at this stage: there were two Europes now.
Union grows from disunion
For nearly thirty years the Berlin Wall stood, dividing the city and symbolically dividing the continent. In the end, though, this arrangement would come crashing down when, in 1989, protests broke out demoing an end to the partition of Germany. By this point the Soviet Union was beginning to crack and, without the resources to maintain itself, could do little when on November 9th Germans from both the east and west began jumping upon the wall and attacking it with whatever tools they could get their hands on. No great war nor grand act of high politics had brought the wall down. It was the people themselves who accomplished this feat, both fairly spontaneously and without any real leadership. The Berlin Wall had finally fallen. Of course, even after November 9th the physical wall would continue to stand for some time, but the great ideological and mental barrier was gone. The iron curtain was lifted. The structure itself would no longer hold any political potency.
In the decades since then, European politics has turned sharply towards integration and union. Divided Germany had been a microcosm for a divided continent, one which was turned against itself and which was weak and dependent. The reunification of Germany similarly served as a symbol for a reborn Europe that was self-possessed and optimistic. The scars of division ran deep, but with time and considerable effort they would heal. In 1993 the Maastricht Treaty formally established the European Union, which would come to expand into and incorporate much of the formerly Soviet-controlled sections of Europe. The east-west distinctions remained of course, but differences between the two sides were understood as being less than the similarities. As in Berlin, this east-west divide was seen as a wall which separated two groups of fundamentally similar people, and any wall can be brought down. This time the tools for dismantling the wall would be political and economic in nature, done in the name of growing the European Union to ensure that the continent would not repeat the mistakes of the past. Such a union would guarantee that Europe would no longer be weak and at the behest of foreign powers, but instead it would be able to support its own agency in the name of those who call the continent home. Slowly but surely, the dark days of division faded in the light of a new day. The Berlin Wall was long gone and with it any sense that Europe ought to be divided.
As scars heal, lessons learned can be forgotten
These notions seem idealistic and naïve now. The last decade has seen a painful economic recession, an unprecedented refugee crisis, and a surge in xenophobic nativist movements bent on halting and reversing European integration. Though these movements may have largely failed to sweep the continent as they once thought they could, they have nonetheless won some important victories. Britain is leaving the EU and, given its size, its departure will be a painful one. Far-right parties have successfully advocated for a variety of anti-immigrant policies with the sole goal of excluding those they believe are different. EU expansion, once seen as vital to consolidating EU soft power, has come to a crashing halt with the recent refusal to advance accession talks with Macedonia and Albania. Europe also faces a host of antagonistic foreign entities: in the east lies a resurgent Russia led by a megalomaniac with goals of reasserting Russian dominance and to the west lies a failing America led by an equally megalomaniac leader with an irrational foreign policy and a stated love of walls. Indeed, it is at times like these that a love of walls seems like a perfectly rational way to block out a dangerous world and defend one’s home. What else is there to do?
The lesson learned in Berlin was that walls do not work. Dividing people and communities does not make them stronger, it weakens them. Moreover, the outside world cannot be kept separate forever and, eventually, it will need to be confronted. The Soviets’ desire to draw a line down the middle of Europe and create an insulated and separate sphere of influence was an impossible idea. Germans, east and west, recognised they were one people and ultimately acted upon this reality. Similarly, the west could not be excluded from the east forever, as without a system of rapprochement and cooperation there could be only conflict. The only major accomplishment of the Berlin Wall, and the ‘Iron Curtain’ as a whole, was the stunting of Europe’s political and economic growth for many years. If we therefore remember only one thing today, thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is that history remembers those who tear down barriers as the true heroes. Look at the images from November 9th, 1989, and you will see that the many nameless faces that populate images of the final hours of the Berlin Wall offer a challenge to us today to do the same as they did. The rhetoric offered up by the far-right, those self-styled defenders of Europe, is nothing more than the foundation for a new wall that will only weaken and divide us once again. It is impingement upon us now to tear out these foundations by challenging the nativist and exclusionary rhetoric and finding a way to ensure that the project of incorporation and integration can continue to grow.
Today the distinction between East and West Berlin is barely visible. Walk past the East Side Gallery, past what remains of the Berlin Wall, and over the elegant Oberbaum Bridge and you will see nothing of the checkpoint that was once there. There are no barricades, no barbed wire, no military personnel. All that is left is confined to museums, architectural relics, and memories. Let us hope it stays that way.