Last weekend marked the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall. For 28 years, the wall was the single most brutal and horrific reminder of the lengths to which the Soviet leadership would go to confine and restrict the citizens of the Eastern bloc under its control. Even in East Germany, the jewel of the Soviet imperium, ordinary people were ready to risk their lives for freedom.
Thankfully, that monstrosity is now a memory. Only a few short sections still stand in Berlin and other remnants are on display around the world as reminders of the evils of the era. Yet, memories are fading, and there is among some a weird nostalgia for the certainties of that time and a growing vogue for such constructions.
The Berlin Wall materialized Aug. 13, 1961, when the East German government without warning began construction of a guarded concrete barrier to physically separate and isolate West Berlin from the rest of East Germany (where it was located). The 155-km long structure was officially known as the Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart because it was supposedly intended to protect the East German people from the predations of the West; unofficially, it was the embodiment of the Iron Curtain that divided the capitalist and communist worlds.
In fact, the wall was built to stop the flood of humanity seeking to escape the constraints of communist leadership. It is estimated that 3.5 million people fled repression in the East by crossing from East Berlin to West Berlin before the wall went up. After its construction, that flow receded. It is believed that 100,000 people tried to cross from east to west from 1961 to 1989, with a little over 5,000 succeeding. More tragically, several hundred died trying to scale the barrier.
The wall effectively collapsed on Nov. 9, 1989, when it became clear that the Soviet Union, under reformist leader Mikhail Gorbachev, would no longer support East Germany’s efforts to separate the two Germanys by force. The East German government announced that it would allow its citizens to travel freely to the West. Citizens of other Soviet bloc countries used that gateway to flee their own repressive governments. The collapse of the Soviet imperium soon followed. The end of the Cold War that the wall’s fall ushered in radically transformed the world that Japan has to deal with.
The Berlin Wall has now been a memory longer than it was in existence. The German government marked the 30th anniversary last Saturday with a solemn ceremony at one of the remaining pieces of the Wall that still stands. German Chancellor Angela Merkel joined leaders of Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic to declare that the Berlin Wall “is history,” adding that “It teaches us: No wall that keeps people out and restricts freedom is so high or so wide that it can’t be broken down.” Another 100,000 people joined more festive celebrations elsewhere in the city to commemorate the occasion.
The world has been transformed in the three decades since the Wall was breached and we still struggle to absorb those changes. For some, that moment was “the end of history” and confirmation of the superiority of a “democratic capitalist” model, but populism is on the rise amid growing support for illiberal authoritarianism that offers quick and easy solutions to complex problems. The Berlin Wall can and should remind of us of the consequences of some choices and the immense cost of such answers.
In one of the great ironies of this age, some look back at the Cold War era and see — and perhaps yearn for — a simplicity in how the world worked. There was little difficulty discerning who was “good” and who was “bad.” No such simple division exists today, although it is revealing, and alarming, that some speak of “a new Cold War” with fervor and satisfaction. We must better prepare for and be accepting of complexity in international politics.
Finally, there is a growing tendency to see walls as solutions to problems. This reflects a belief that societies are destabilized by outside forces and that higher barriers to them will insulate us from unwelcome change. Whether the issue is immigrants, refugees, climate change or “bad thoughts,” walls have an increasingly seductive appeal.
The lessons of the Berlin Wall instruct otherwise. We cannot keep those forces out. They could not be blocked in an analog world and they cannot be contained in an increasingly interconnected planet. The flip side of that instinct is a dark impulse within ourselves that seeks control. The Berlin Wall sought to create a space for domination by a repressive and cruel government. It was not content to keep “foreign” ideas out but demanded rigid conformity to its ideology by those trapped within its confines. This is the most important lesson as we celebrate the destruction of the brutal monstrosity that was the Berlin Wall. Japan needs to do what it can to stop walls from being erected once again to divide the world.