Wednesday 6 November 2019 4:26 am

The Berlin Wall is not just a piece of history – the manner of its crumbling contains lessons for the present

Thirty years ago this Saturday, on 9 November 1989, one of the greatest symbols of oppression the world has ever known began to be dismantled. 

The Berlin Wall had stood since 1961, built by its East German masters to encircle Allied-controlled West Berlin. 

But it was much more than simply a barricade. It became the very symbol of the struggle between the free and Communist worlds, its brooding, baleful presence providing an ever-present reminder to Europeans that their continent was divided by an ideology of oppression.

For uniquely among city walls in history, Berlin’s variant was built to keep people in, rather than out. 


By 1961, it had become evident to the rulers of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) that, left unchecked, emigration to West Germany posed an existential threat to their state. 

The main East German border had been closed in 1952, but Berlin – occupied as it was by all four Allied powers after the War – still offered an escape route from the misery of life under Communism. By 1961, anywhere between 2.7 and 3.5m East Germans had fled to the West. 

With their dreams of nirvana evaporating before their eyes, the Communists took the only course of action they felt could stem the tide: the erection of a barrier to physically restrain their population. 

With its foreboding watch towers and wide “death strip”, the Berlin Wall accomplished what it set out to do – but at a cost. Some 200 East Germans died trying in vain to cross it over the years, and what at first seemed an impregnable edifice proved a permanent reminder of the moral bankruptcy of the Communist system.

As if emboldened by the Berlin Wall’s cold embrace, the GDR became the archetypal police state, exerting firm ideological control. At the time of its collapse, nearly 100,000 East Germans worked directly for the country’s secret police, the Stasi, with hundreds of thousands more acting as unofficial informants decrying the “deviant” behaviour of their fellow citizens. 

So complete was Stasi control that it was not unknown for husbands to betray their wives, and vice versa.

Yet despite this wholesale suppression of liberty, when a wave of unrest swept across Communist Hungary and Poland in late 1989, the GDR could not remain immune from the mass yearning of brutalised populations to secure the freedoms others had. 


And once the Wall finally did come tumbling down, the collapse of the entire Communist world order was not far behind it.

This was not coincidental. The unique mythology of the Wall to the stories of both the West and East was twice recognised by US Presidents during the Cold War. 

First in 1963, when President Kennedy exclaimed “Ich bin ein Berliner”, then in 1987, when President Reagan admonished his Soviet opposite number with the cry of “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this Wall!”, the leaders of the free world recognised the particular and calculated menace that it embodied. 

These Presidents – and other leaders like them such as Margaret Thatcher – calculated correctly that attempting to undermine the Wall by extolling the virtues of freedom and choice would have repercussions far beyond Berlin itself.   

But for every leader looking to shine a light on Communist abuses, there were those fellow travellers who sought to excuse such excesses, and instead blame the West for threatening world peace. On the mass human rights abuses of the Soviets and their allies, they were of course silent. 

Had it not been for the determination of those western leaders who sought to promote freedom at every turn, these apologists may well have carried the day. And rather than being driven into economic and political ruin as a consequence of prioritising guns against the West rather than butter for its people, the spectre of the Communist world might still be haunting us today.

All this may seem to be a distant history lesson. But incredibly, British politics today is not immune to the charms of Communist nostalgia or revisionism. 

The Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn once suggested that Nato was set up to “promote a Cold War with the Soviet Union”. He has surrounded himself with individuals like Seumas Milne – who has praised the Communist world for having inspired “genuine idealism and commitment” and “social and women’s equality”– and Andrew Murray, a member of various British Communist institutions for some 40 years, leaving only in 2016. 

They are quiet about what they believe now. But what they believed then is a matter of historical record.

Let us be under no illusions. Communist life echoed the Hobbesian refrain: poor, nasty, and brutal. Those who dared to protest and assert their inalienable human rights could add “solitary” and “short” to complete their quintet of misery, such was the depth of repression. 

The world is far better for the expungement of Communist rule. But if the West does not remember Communism’s abuses and recall our own crucial role in hastening its demise, we open the door once more to its modern-day variants in their challenge to who we fundamentally are.

The author is writing it a personal capacity, and the views expressed here to not represent his organisation.

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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