Thirty years ago today, the Berlin Wall finally came down heralding the then approaching reunification of Germany.
In the final days of World War 2, Soviet troops had swept through eastern Germany before meeting eastward marching forces of the other allied powers leading to the final defeat of Germany. Italy had already fallen in 1943. Japan would continue a few months longer, finally surrendering in September of 1945.
Prior to the final defeat of Germany, in the Yalta conference, the major allied powers agreed to divide up the responsibility for occupying Germany into various sectors, each allied power having responsibility for a sector (or two, smaller sectors, in the case of France). The Soviet occupation zone would eventually become East Germany, with the others becoming West Germany.
Post war, the Soviet occupied areas of Europe cut off most contact with the West, closing their borders and sharply restricting visitation, immigration, emigration, and trade. this closing was described as an “iron curtain” across the border between Soviet occupied Europe and the West.
Berlin, the capital of Germany, lay deep within the Soviet occupation area. It, too, was divided, with railways and air travel providing access to the Western zones of the city. In 1948, in an effort to drive the Western occupation out of West Berlin, the Soviet Union blockaded the city and closed off the railways. All that was left was air for resupply. This lead to the famous Berlin Airlift, a prodigious logistic effort bringing necessary supplies into the city. In the end the Airlift was successful and the Soviets called off the blockade in 1949.
In the late 50’s and into the beginning of the 60’s the stream of refugees fleeing Soviet occupied Germany to the West through West Berlin reached epic proportions, with In June of 1961 some 19,000 people fled East Germany though Berlin. In July, that number was 30,000. In the first 11 days of August 16,000 people fled. And on August 12 alone 2400 people crossed from East to West Berlin never to return. All told, more than three million people fled East Germany, many of them skilled professionals such as doctors, teachers, and engineers.
This flow of emigrants, particularly among the educated and skilled portion of the populace, was unacceptable to Soviet Leadership. Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev instructed the East German government (nominally an independent nation, but truthfully under the control of the Soviet Union) to close off the border for good. They hastily set up a barbed wire and concrete block wall to close off East Berlin from the West.
Before the wall was built, travel between the two sections of the city was relatively free. People might reside in one and be citizens of East or West Germany but they could shop or work in the other.
The wall ended that. Once it went up, commerce between East and West Berlin almost completely halted. Crossing of the border between the two only occurred in special circumstances.
And thus things continued for nearly three decades. John F. Kennedy made his famous “I am a Berliner” speech but, in the end, proved to be impotent in forcing any change.
People still sought to flee from the deteriorating conditions in East Germany to the West, but now that flight was wrought with hazard. Some few made it–about 5000 from 1961 until the wall fell in 1989. Some died–at least 171 killed in the attempt. But many more were deterred by the hazards presented by the wall and its guards as witness that more than three times as many people who left East Germany in those first 11 days of August 1961 as in the entire 27 years of the wall’s existence.
In time, the struggle of the Soviet Union to compete with Western economies with their freer trade and the greater responsiveness to consumer demand, led the new Premier of the Soviet Union to institute Perestroika (“change”) and Glasnost (“openness”). Attempted to shore up the Soviet Union’s socialism, these programs, instead provided its death knell. The process of rolling back socialism could not, in the end, be stopped and led first to the various satellite nations shaking off Soviet control and finally in the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself.
One of the results of that breakup was East Germany divesting itself of ties to the Soviet Union–faced with more internal problems than dealing with a recalcitrant former satellite–and tying itself more closely with its sundered brother, West Germany. And this led, in the end, to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. The reunification of East and West Germany into a single state of Germany followed soon after.
A whole generation and more has grown up since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Many of this younger generation has seemingly forgotten, or never learned, of the horrors that drove people to flee the socialist state of East Germany in such numbers as to drive their political masters to build a wall to keep the people in. The guns guarding that wall were not pointed out to defend against invaders, but in, to defend against escape–a prison rather than a fortress.
And this younger generation seems bent on creating here, in the United States, not the wall itself but the conditions that led to its construction, with guns pointing in to keep people from escaping. They can tell themselves that this time they’ll “do socialism right” but that is no more than hubris, pure and simple. Because in the end The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return.