Why and When

Berlin remembers August 13, 1961, the day when the construction of the wall that divided the city until 1989 began and whose remains are now the object of curiosity for the visitor or of reflection on the traumatic division. For more than 28 years, the 156.4 kilometres of wall constituted a physical representation of the “iron curtain” that divided Germany and Europe and were the scene of at least 140 deaths, but also at least 5,075 successful escapes. Almost 44 kilometres passed through the middle of the city, the remaining 112 kilometres around West Berlin like a corset from the north, west and south.

The Berlin Wall, also known as the Wall of Shame, was built at dawn and stood for more than 28 years, from August 13, 1961 to November 9, 1989. About twenty-nine million people lived the communist dictatorship in Germany. Historians consider that 3.5 million of them can be called victims – exiles, refugees, escapees, political prisoners, kidnapped, murdered, expropriated, spied on – among whom there are 1,722 dead and more than 42,000 wounded.

The Berlin Wall was erected in 1961, but its planning was outlined a decade earlier. Western powers have heard about Operation Chinese Wall since the early 1950s. The first plan dates from 1952 and is presented by Ulbricht, the top leader of the GDR, to Stalin because the massive flight of skilled workers of the eastern zone was being very pernicious for his government. Those plans reach the Western secret services, but they are ignored. Stalin died in ’53 and the Soviet party decided that it was not appropriate to build the wall for diplomatic reasons. People continue to flee and when the situation becomes untenable, especially after Kennedy’s arrival to power in the US, Ulbricht insists on building the wall and it is accepted.

The fact of needing a barrier to retain your own citizens denotes the weakness of the Soviet system. It was already said by a journalist in the 1960s and was collected by Jean-François Revel. The failure of communism is not evident when the wall falls but when you have to lift it. Being forced to prevent the free movement of your citizens is a great failure. 

All kinds of people fled, but above all workers, engineers, plumbers, electricians … people who all wanted to do was work freely, have access to a home, have the freedom to buy a car or decide where to live. When people crossed they left their whole lives behind, they passed with what they were wearing. They were fed up with how heavy the Communists were. They wanted to get into their brains and they constantly dictated slogans to them with loudspeakers at work, in the streets, in the newspapers … They could not take any more of the intrusion into private life.

We are talking about the victims of the wall, but we must give it the entity that it really has: it is a communist construction. Today, with the boom and confusion that many have with communism, it is convenient to clarify these things that are logical. For example, in the memorial on the wall, there is not a single mention of the murderers. The only mention of communism is due to the insistence of the victims’ associations

It is very difficult to accept that it is a dictatorship that is based on the extermination of dissent, it will always be a criminal and violent system. People do not want to see that. The cruelty of the system imposed by the GDR made fear stronger than any emotional bond. Ordinary citizens constantly denounced those who planned to flee. It is a very complex issue because the main executioners are the political leaders. The Berlin wall was not rise if before there had not been total extermination of the dissident. There was a population terrorized by the Soviet secret services because they knew that, if they opposed, they could be kidnapped, taken to Russia and executed,

Fortunately, the German Minister of Culture, Monika Grütters has underlined in a recent statement that the critical review of the dictatorship of the Unified Socialist Party (SED) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and the memory of their victims “will continue to be a central task in the future.” The memory of the victims of the wall should also serve to convey to those people who did not experience the horrors of a totalitarian regime “the value of fundamental democratic rights and the dangers of totalitarian ideologies,” she added.

The touristic side of the Berlin Wall

Today, sixty years after its construction and almost 32 since its fall, the history of the wall of shame continues to attract millions of tourists and onlookers every year. The remains of the wall, part of the urban landscape. The best-known remains that remain standing are among other places in the so-called East Side Gallery -1.3 kilometres of the wall with graffiti by various artists, including the famous “screw kiss” between the Soviet and East German leaders, Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker, by Dmitri Vrubel-, and in Potsdamer Platz square.

The section on Niederkirchner Straße street – near Checkpoint Charlie, the former border control between the east and the US sector – also attracts the curious, as well as the remains on Bernauer Strasse street, a symbol of the German division for having been divided by the wall and where the wall documentation centre is also located.

Due to its location, other pieces of the wall go unnoticed by tourists and Berliners, such as the section at the intersection of Dolomitenstrasse and Maximilianstrasse streets in the Pankow district, in the north of the city, which lost 60 of its 70 meters last year still standing to make room for a new housing project.

Food for thought after the Berlin Wall

When the Berlin Wall was demolished, it was said that communism had its hours numbered, even the controversial Fukuyama wrote it shortly before in his famous article on “The End of History.” The free market and liberal democracy made people happier than the “communist paradise.” What’s more, all the Marxist scientism that prophesied the sure advent of communism turned out to be a hoax used by dictators. François Furet wrote a memorable work entitled “The End of an Illusion”, in which he reconstructed the mentality of the Western bourgeoisie, mostly young people, some intellectuals, who had seen in communism a great opportunity with which to turn around a world they disliked.

The Bulgarian philosopher Tzvetan Todorov studied in Paris in 1968 and 1969 with a scholarship from his communist state. Twenty years later he gave to the press a text in which he recounted how he laughed with his colleagues from the East at the young French people who, living with unthinkable comforts behind the Berlin Wall, idealized communism. However, Todorov, anti-communist and illiberal, claimed that after the fall of the USSR in 1991 the fascination for the ideas of communism had disappeared in the West. But it is clear that he was wrong in his prognosis.

The communist mentality is still installed in Europe and the United States more than is thought, not only in education but in culture and in the media. The Leninist spirit persists in the general suspicion of capitalism, the legitimacy granted to social movements –which, precisely, are believed to be more representative than any regulated institution–, the ability to sacrifice freedom in exchange for having a paternalistic state, channelling art through subsidies –no room for the counterculture – the new moral puritanism that has emerged in recent years, the acceptance of government arbitrariness, the growing statism to regulate private life, the repudiation of individualism for the common good defined by political leaders or the discourse that currently has been opened against inequality.

The success of communism has been in doing something other than what it preached. In this way, one generation after another has considered that some ideas that were not wrong could always be saved from communist failure. When Courtois’s “The Black Book of Communism” was published, counting more than a hundred million dead, the leftist intelligentsia jumped to say that it was a lie or that they were not true communists, but exploited dictators. Even Todorov himself, who had suffered through the Bulgarian hell, wrote that communists in the West were “good guys.”, despite the fact that they justified the end of democracy. Another example is the large number of books found in capitalist centres and websites vindicating Lenin, for example, by Slavoj Zizek, or by Minister Alberto Garzón (who dares to wear a GDR tracksuit), and nothing happens. Not even the European Union’s condemnation of communism has served to separate these totalitarians from among the “good people”.

Kristina Spohr, in her work «After the Wall. The reconstruction of the world after 1989 ”, adds an interesting element to this debate about the victory of democracy over communism and, therefore, about the end of the 20th century. Spohr alludes to the emergence of China as a capitalist power while maintaining the communist dictatorship. Thus, the world became tripolar, with the United States, Russia and China – a democracy, an authoritarian regime and a dictatorial one – focused on the dynamics of the globalized economy that exists. This has meant that liberal democracy did not win as a way of life, but economic globalization, and that the European Union is second to these three powers.

During the nineteenth century, it took several generations to bury the absolutism mentality that characterized the Old Regime. The same happened with religious sentiment, although with greater difficulty because, as Melvin Konner points out in his book “The Spiritual Species”, faith is natural in man and that is why it is more difficult to eradicate it. Perhaps that is what makes it difficult for communism, constituted as a secular religion, according to the French thinker Raymond Aron, to be so difficult to erase from minds. The totalitarian mentality is a “leprosy of the soul”, as Todorov christened it, that erodes democracy and, therefore, the freedom of the people. The European institutions cannot be expected to extinguish the totalitarian threat that stalks every democracy today, although they should not subsidize it or help to spread it. Meanwhile, it will be an individual task of the citizens who, when visiting Berlin, not only should see a monument but a memory of the consequences of communism.