Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Wall at 50

It was exactly 50 years ago today that the “Berlin Wall” went up. (The actual, physical “wall” itself took time to construct; but the armed barrier preventing Berliners from traveling from East to West Berlin was put in place on this day).
It was, as I recall, a Sunday morning that summer between grade school and high school, when the radio news announced what had happened overnight, in that far away place that had become the symbolic battleground of the Cold War.
At that time, the Cold War was in fact being fought as an actual war of sorts in places like Laos and Vietnam, but Berlin was always the symbolic centerpiece – a legacy of the Cold War’s origin in the division of Europe between the West and the Soviet-occupied East. (It seemed somehow fitting that the former capital of the Third Reich had become the principal point of confrontation between the once allied but now mutually antagonistic victors from that previous conflict). During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis the following year, there was a strong fear in Washington that the whole thing might be a prelude to a Soviet move on Berlin. In the Cold War’s concluding decade, it was to Berlin that President Reagan traveled to utter the most memorable challenge to the other side: “Mister Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” And, of course, it was the opening of that very same wall on November 9, 1989, that most dramatically signified the tremendous change that was happening in Europe and that would soon result in the reunification of Germany and the eventual end of the Soviet Union itself.
Before the Wall, a divided Berlin had nonetheless remained united in ways that the rest of divided Europe could barely imagine. East and West Berlin remained connected by subway lines and telephones, etc., and citizens commuted daily from one side to work in the other. What the East German pseudo-state could not accept, however, was the consequent ease with which its citizens (not just Berliners but anyone from anywhere else in East Germany who managed to travel to East Berlin) could simply cross into the American, British, or French zone in West Berlin and from there freely travel to West Germany and claim citizenship there. It has been estimated that some 16% of East Germany's population had fled in that fashion between 1949 (the end of Stalin's Berlin Blockade) and 1961.
That Blockade and the American Airlift that had saved West Berlin in 1948-1949 were already legendary in my childhood. Often, when my father and my uncles discussed politics, the conversation recalled that pivotal event. My father, for one, occasionally opined that Truman might have done better to insist on the American right (as one of the four occupying powers) to overland access to Berlin, rather than circumventing the blockade by flying over it. In fact, the famous Airlift, while heroically saving West Berlin, really did represent Western long-term acceptance of the de facto division of Europe. Thus, from 1958 (when Krushchev reignited Berlin as the pre-eminent crisis point of the Cold War) until 1961 when the Wall was built, de facto the conflict really concerned only the independence of West Berlin. Hence, however horrible the Wall turned out to be for Berliners, it solved East Germany's embarasing emigration problem without posing any real or long-term threat to the West. As a free city deep behind the Iron Curtain, West Berlin retained its symbolic resonance. But it was no longer a real political problem. (Meanwhile, in the late 60s and after, West Berlin became a center of the student counter-culture - only possible, of course because of the continued presence of the American military protecting the city's youthful population of leftist dissidents from the real thing, that was literally right across the street).
So the infamous Wall not only solved East Germany’s refugee problem but also in so doing relieved Krushchev from having to put any further pressure on West Berlin. While we in the West may have ceremonially raised our voices about Berlin (e.g., JFK’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech) the US was in fact quite content to live with this sealing of the one remaining hole in the Iron Curtain, in return for maintaining the status quo in divided Europe. And so the Wall went up, and life elsewhere went on.
The Cold War increasingly seems like ancient history. The world of the Cold War had much more in common with the world of the 19th and 20th centuries than today’s world has with that of the Cold War. Perhaps that may be a good thing. Writing about the formative influence of the 1938 Munich Conference and World War II on the Vietnam War generation of politicians, a famous historian coined the term “bewitchment by history.” The generation that led us through the Cold War was, for better or for worse, “bewitched,” it can be argued, by Munich and World War II (as indeed their predecessors had somewhat similarly been “bewitched” by World War I and Versailles). For today’s policymakers to interpret the world’s challenges through the prism of the Cold War would, to be sure, be problematic. To the extent, however, that today’s policymakers are not being “bewitched” by history primarily because they are ignorant of history may not be such a good thing.
I never got to see the Wall in its day. My only time in Europe while the Wall was still in place was in 1970, when as a college student I spent the summer in Austria studying German. I went to Bavaria, but never up as far as Berlin. (I considered it, but was actually a bit frightened about the prospect of flying over Communist territory to get there). I did finally make it Berlin many years later on my way to World Youth Day in 2005 – long after the Wall had come down. A Dutch friend whom I had gotten to know back in Berkeley in the mid-80s now lives and works in Berlin, and I took the occasion to visit him there and see the fabled city – now, of course, completely reunited again.
My 2005 visit to Berlin occurred, as it happened, on August 13!

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