An important anniversary happened this week. The Berlin Wall which had divided East and West Germany has now been down longer than the 10,316 days it was up.
Construction of the wall began in August 1961 by the German Democratic Republic, a state that was neither German nor Democratic; nor, indeed, a Republic. It was erected to stop the flood of East Germans fleeing to the free and prosperous West. The GDR and the Soviets called it “the anti-fascist wall,” equating Western countries with fascism, and saying it was to keep their peoples out. In reality it was a prison wall designed to keep East Germans entrapped under a brutal communist tyranny.
Many did manage to escape over the years that the wall stood, and up to 200 people were killed in the attempt. The wall had watch-towers, barbed wire and mines to thwart anyone trying to cross, and East German guards were ordered to shoot to kill anyone seen trying to escape.
The wall was the setting for many famous historic incidents, including John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” and Ronald Reagan’s “Tear down this wall.” I went through it myself via Checkpoint Charlie, and found it was like entering a drab and shabby prison. Where West Berlin was alive with evening and night life, East Berlin was a police state that discouraged revelry.
The wall was a potent symbol of a communist world on one side that needed to keep its people imprisoned, and a free world on the other side. It divided a rich West from an impoverished East. It was finally brought down when there was a mass exodus of East Germans to the West via Czechoslovakia and Hungary, which refused to close their borders. East Germans did the unthinkable and demonstrated in the streets. The GDR government wanted Soviet troops to suppress them, but Gorbachev refused and the authorities caved in. On a jubilant November night East and West Germans scaled the wall and mingled, and began taking it down.
This week’s anniversary serves to remind us how brutal and repressive were the socialist regimes that dominated Eastern Europe. It is a timely reminder of what should never be repeated, of a road that the world should not travel again.