The Berlin Wall was built 50 years ago this week, on 13 August 1961. For nearly 30 years, until its demolition in 1989, it served as a symbol of the division between the “free” West and the “Communist” East. The real story is a little more complicated.
In 1945 the Second World War ended in what the US historian Gabriel Kolko called “an ignoble maze of obvious intrigue and jockeying for advantage”.
The US and Russia, together with Britain, still clutching onto its status as a great power, divided up the world between them. Europe was split into Western and Russian “spheres of influence”. Nobody consulted the inhabitants as to what they wanted.
Defeated Germany was divided into four zones—US, Russian, French and British. In 1947 the US launched the Cold War to retain its dominance over much of the world.
The British, French and US zones became the Federal Republic (West Germany). Berlin, the capital city, was inside the Russian zone.
The Russian part became the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), which was supposedly “building socialism”.
In fact it was developing a state capitalist economy on the Russian model. Berlin was split in two.
As Communist states went, East Germany was far from the worst. There were no show trials, and the regime had various progressive policies, such as encouraging women to enter the workforce. But it was no model of socialist democracy.
In elections there was generally a single list of candidates. In the factories workers faced managers determined to impose politically determined targets. They then picked up the pieces when the so-called planned economy failed.
Above all there was the Stasi secret police. This maintained a level of surveillance and intrusion which News International could only envy.
It intimidated and persecuted those who showed oppositional attitudes.
There were 5.5 Stasi employees for every 1,000 inhabitants—proportionally three times more than in Russia. This made East Germany a deeply unpleasant place to live.
Socialists have always argued that socialism comes from the self-
emancipation of the working class.
But East German workers had not chosen socialism—the economic system, which was not socialist anyway, that had been imposed on them.
Hence East Germans had no particular loyalty to the regime—unless they held some position of privilege.
In 1953 a stoppage by building workers became a general strike. Russian troops had to put it down because the regime could not rely on its own police.
Revolt could be crushed, but migration was a more difficult problem. Between 1949 and 1961, 3.5 million East Germans moved to the West,
cutting the population by 10 percent.
Those who moved tended to be young, skilled and highly qualified. Emigration was made a criminal offence. But this was fairly futile, since those who moved West were beyond the reach of East German law.
Migration made it more difficult for the regime to control its population. Before 1961, East Germany could not impose compulsory military service for fear of accelerating emigration. The regime’s cultural policies did not help. East Germany condemned Western music. So young people tuned in to West German radio, which made Western life seem more appealing.
Often, however, the refugees were not motivated by political opposition. As a New Statesman correspondent put it, they were not so much political refugees as “refugees from politics”.
They were more interested in improving their personal circumstances. Many benefited from education in the East, then moved to the West to sell their skills for higher wages. West Germany was no utopia either, and nearly half a million later returned to the East.
The frontier between East and West Germany was closed, but Berlin was the loophole. About 60,000 Berliners crossed the dividing line between the states every day to go to work.
It was easy to cross the border in Berlin, then travel to West Germany.
Faced with economic disaster, the East German government (on instructions from Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev) built the wall.
Initially the “wall” consisted of barbed wire and concrete blocks—the real wall came later. Anyone who tried to cross risked being shot. In the short term this provoked an international crisis, with threats on both sides.
From the 1940s onwards, every couple of years there was a crisis where Russia and the US confronted each other, threatened nuclear war, then backed off. The last, and scariest, such crisis came a year later, over Cuba.
In fact, Western leaders understood the problem very well.
A few days before the wall went up, US president John F Kennedy remarked (in private), “East Germany is haemorrhaging to death. The entire East bloc is in danger. [Khrushchev] has to do something to stop this. Perhaps a wall? And there’s not a damn thing we can do about it.”
The East Germans had little choice, but in propaganda terms they had done themselves enormous harm.
For a self-styled “socialist” country to admit so blatantly that it needed force to keep its own inhabitants at home did not do much for the image of Communism.
Western politicians sought to exploit the situation for their own advantage, as in 1963 when Kennedy visited Berlin and addressed a million people.
His sympathetic biographer Robert Dallek describes his speech as stirring the crowd “to something resembling the communal outbursts at Nazi rallies”.
Western leaders were concerned above all with stability. They knew all too well that if the East German regime collapsed it could lead to popular
uprisings, which might spread.
Even in 1989 Margaret Thatcher told Russian leader Michail Gorbachev, “We don’t want a united Germany.”
The real victims were those East Germans who wanted to exercise the basic human right of living where they chose. Despite the wall, a few still chose to escape the tyranny of the East German regime.
Between 1961 and 1989 nearly 200 people were killed trying to cross the wall. And there was a wider discontent with the system, which finally exploded in 1989.
The Berlin Wall was an atrocity, committed in the name of “socialism”. Those who lapse into what the Germans now call “Ostalgie” (nostalgia for East Germany) should be reminded that there is a difference between socialism and a concentration camp.
Ian Birchall is the author of Tony Cliff: A Marxist for his time, available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848