On the night of August 13, 1961, a single structure was put in place overnight that changed Berlin, as well as greater Germany, for decades. The Berlin Wall, although a physical means of separating the Soviet-occupied East Berlin from the capitalist West Berlin, quickly became much more than just a wall.
Conflict between the American-led Capitalists and Soviet-led Communists caused the famed Cold War, an ideological contest based upon mistrust, misunderstanding, and misguided aggression on behalf of the two most powerful regimes following the end of the National Socialists in Germany. The Soviets occupied East Berlin and instituted socialism, while the capitalists allowed their occupied citizens in West Berlin to vote upon their form of government, which inevitably ended up being democratic in nature. As tensions rose between the two halves of the cities, and East Berliners began to see the West was living a better life, and many began to flee to live in East Berlin. Embarrassed by this weakness, the socialist party in East Berlin decided to halt all flow between East and West Berlin, building the Berlin Wall overnight.
The people of East Berlin, however, felt so oppressed and dissatisfied with their new Soviet lives that many of them tried to cross the Berlin Wall, risking death to do so. In fact, over the course of the Berlin Wall’s 28 years in existence, over 71,000 individuals were jailed by East Berlin for “deserting the Republic,” the sentence given to those who attempted to flee to West Berlin.
When I first read that number, I was absolutely astounded. I knew that people had attempted to cross the wall to flee to West Berlin and that there was a strong sentiment of dissatisfaction within East Berlin. But 71,000 people felt so strongly that West Berlin was a better place to be that they risked jailing and even death just to get there? And that’s just the number who were convicted. Surely there were many more who crossed, or at least made plans to and never followed through. I began to imagine what these people must have been feeling, and the mental state they must have been thrust into to attempt such a thing. And it doesn’t stop there.
While walking around a famous point in the Berlin Wall’s history, my group talked to a woman who was 13 years old in West Berlin when they built the wall. Because all of Berlin was in East Germany, which was Soviet-occupied, the Berlin Wall completely surrounded West Berlin, leaving the people literally trapped in their half of the city. Talking to this woman, she said that at first she didn’t realize the gravity of the situation, telling her family it was “just some stones.” However, as she grew up, she experienced first-hand the division that this wall caused, not only physically and ideologically. Much of her extended family lived in East Berlin, and between death and loss of contact caused by this wall between them, she said that to this day she has never met any of them.
We were all stunned when we heard this. I’d never considered the fact that the wall could have separated loved ones and families from one another, nor did I realize that a wall that only stood for 28 years could have such deep and lasting impacts on a people and a society. Even to this day, East versus West differences permeate Germany and Berlin, from architecture to ideology to perceptions of one another. In fact, as Dr. P informed us of today while he spent some time with our group, many Western Germans don’t trust current Chancellor Angela Merkel because she grew up in the East, therefore associating her with communism.
In a modern climate that can be so divisive, often opting for an us versus them, black and white image of the world, experiencing and learning about the Berlin Wall became highly salient to me, and I find that a great lesson is to be learned from it. Building walls is not a solution to one’s problem, be that a physical wall to keep immigrants out, a political wall to keep opposing viewpoints from being heard, or a human wall that keeps one person from understanding and relating to another. Walls can destroy families, societies, and lives, seemingly accomplishing the task it’s made for, and they’re almost always based upon mistrust, misunderstanding, and misguided anger, just as the Berlin Wall was. But, just as the Berlin Wall fell, in the end these walls cannot and will not keep humans from joining together as one, opting instead to revel in shared human experience than in disagreement. We, as a people, must realize that building walls between one another is not a solution to our problems, but only an exacerbator.
All this I learned from Berlin in one day, and I can’t wait to see what more this remarkable city has to share with me.