The Berlin Wall: still dividing after all these years

You ever been talkin’ to some person in maybe a bar or somewhere…this is another American you’re talkin’ to…and somehow something about the Civil War comes up, and you realize they have a very different take on the same history, they remember different heroes, different historic battles, different dates?

Well…as I reported on Saturday, Germany this week remembered 50 years since August 13, 1961, the day when, in the wee hours of the morning, soldiers rolled out the first coils of barbed wire and masons lay the first bricks of what would become The Berlin Wall, Germany’s version of The Mason-Dixon Line. 

Germany’s civil war was a Cold one and between East and West. 

A moment of silence was held at noon Saturday across Germany to remember those who died trying to escape. The country’s prominent politicians spoke their nice words at an event at a preserved section of the wall in Berlin. Every newspaper in the country ran articles discussing the topic. The TV blinked with non-stop in-depth personal Wall stories. The overwhelming sentiment of most of this popular media, of course, being that The Berlin Wall was bad. Everyone knows that.

A brief look at Berlin’s local headlines on Saturday gives the general somber sentiment:

A shared wall: Brigette Grunert (West) and Lothar Heinke (East) remember their divided fate

The Bild Zeitung: The paper that let’s you feel the pain of the Wall’s construction.”

13 August 1961: And everything changed

Hurry! The Volks Police are coming.”

“The beginning of the End”

 “The day of truth”

“Life within Limits”

“Thank You”

WAIT! What? Read that again.

Now that's some rough sarcasmWe want to say at this point simply: Thank You,” the headline reads.

And it goes on:

“For 28 years of securing peace in Europe

For 28 years without German soldiers participating in military action

For 28 years without Welfare and Unemployment

For 28 years without homeless, soup kitchens and “Tables”

For 28 years of free pubic kindergardens and baby day care

For 28 years without Nazi posters that say “Give Gas!” in the German capital.

For 28 years of Historical Science rather than pop-star (hi)stories

For 28 years of Club Cola and Nudity Cults

For 28 years without hedge funds and private-equity-locusts

For 28 years without co-pays and Two Class medicine

For 28 years of Hohenschoenhausen without Hubertus Knabe

For 28 years of lively sex without the book “Wetlands” and without the Bild newspaper’s expert knowledge

For 28 years of Education for all”

You could almost hear the roar sweep across the land, “OH MY GOD, HONEY, they are praising the former commies! By Jove, they want the god damn Iron Curtain back, they do!”

And since Saturday, the media and majority sentiment has been outright condemning such opinion, with some even asking whether these people should even be allowed to say such things. The reaction to these statements has been swift and absolute: You are wrong, you are siding with an oppressive regime, and we have some sort of moral monopoly on how the Wall will be remembered. And by threatening to restrict your freedom of speech, we will show just how much we understand the point of what the GDR did wrong concerning freedom.

The condemned newspaper in question, of course, being the Junge Welt, or Youth World, a very very VERY left-leaning (self-described ‘Marxist’ and youth-oriented to boot) often very raw and sarcastic newspaper. A newspaper started in 1947 in the Soviet sector of Berlin, one with reportedly more readership than the communist party newspaper, Neues Deutschland, during the years of the GDR. And yes, despite the fall of the Wall, a newspaper that still has enough readers to keep publishing (more than many papers can say.)

Repent you wall-apologizing wall-lovers!

And this, following the refusal of a politician in the former Eastern state of Mecklemburg-Vorpommern, to stand with the moment of silence.

Silence wall denier!

And before that the head honcho of Die Linke, the Left political party, was popularly interpreted as saying Communism was still the goal (the south will rise again?), the point of her statement, however, wasn’t that another wall be built, she says, rather the social system was her goal.

Whatever, Gesine, we know you secretly want to build a wall. Burn her, she’s Stasi!

Yes, just like the US Civil War, The Cold War had winners and losers. East Germany, the German Democratic Republic, was in this case on the losing team.

And just like if a modern-day Southerner says anything critical about the US Civil War they are immediately labeled as ‘wanting to own slaves,’ so too any East German who doesn’t immediately and totally reject everything about their former government, they are obviously a closet trigger-happy border guard wishing they could have their wall back.

We won…get over it.

The Debate

Apparently these darn Wall-lovers think there was some gray area, between the Black and White, the Good and Evil, Communism and Capitalism.

The East, they say, had some positive aspects, for example, however sarcastically listed above by Junge Welt. The East was a decent place to live as a normal person, if you didn’t piss off the regime, and the average Jane or Joe was assured a job, a home and a whole list of social care throughout his or her life, such as free education and health. Sexual equality was much farther along in the communist countries…women had every right men had, although the leadership was mostly still men. Consumerism wasn’t the highest value in society…that was definitely good.

On the specifics of these points, it must be said, opinions among Easterners differ…but it is generally reported that people were happy with the role government institutions played in the areas of health and education. Housing wasn’t always adequate, in fact sometimes very inadequate, but at least rent was cheap. Bread was cheep. Old age was covered. Sickness. Maternity. Every person was entitled to vacation. Everyone could study for free if they qualified. Everyone was given a job…even a choice of a couple of jobs if you were competent…and if a party member. There were a lot of ‘ifs’ but life was ok, and there was more time for family.

Fuck me. Sounds mostly good.

But? Well…the ‘but’ of course was THE WALL and THE STASI. You could not travel freely, and you might be watched by the government for any suspicious behavior. Any.

And while most Germans regardless of where they hail condemn these totalitarian aspects of the GDR, even here opinions differ.

One positive point of the Wall, the only one as stated on the Junge Welt list (the only issue really having to do with the Berlin Wall itself), is the assertion that the Wall brought peace to Europe, a rather common assertion actually, that through it’s clearly settling the at-the-time vague and tense border between East and West, between Capitalism and Communism, the Wall stopped either side (‘infiltrators and agitators’ was the term both sides used) from provoking a World War III. An idea that, however cruel and Realpolitik, has actually been acknowledged by both the USSR and the US as having been a positive aspect of the Wall’s construction.

Yet, when the Ossi sites such an idea, the popular German reply is that “there is no excuse for The Wall. You are wrong and guilty for sympathizing.” Basically, in one fell swoop, dismissing and belittling any argument on the subject. The Wessi knows best, and has the moral highgroud. End of discussion.

You’re both right/wrong

The difficulty we have with discussing both the Cold War and the Civil War is popular culture (the winners of the wars) has helped define and simplify them for consumption using emotional symbols such as slavery and the Berlin Wall. Nice thought though. Different reality. The facts, as have been revealed to us by the same ‘winners,’ are that neither the injustice of slavery, nor the inhumanity of the Soviet system were actually the reason for the wars. Sad fact.

Both wars came down to two systems competing for power and dominance. The North didn’t say one day “by god, you have slaves…we must stop this inhumanity.” Nor did the Capitalist countries say “the reason we must stop the Reds is they have police and built a wall.” The police and wall came after the fact of capitalist hate for ‘Reds.’ The Communists want to redistribute the Capitalist’s wealth, control the economy: that’s what the war was about.

And what about the Berlin Wall? Obviously, barbed-wire walls dividing people from each other are horrible and sick-minded. Shooting someone for crossing a frontier is just about as sick and twisted as humanity has ever stooped. People do not leave their homes and cross borders for without a reason to do so. They are driven to leave and then some asshole shoots them for crossing. Mowing down the Israelites after they cross the desert. Horrible.

And I honestly think most people, even cold hardcore apologists of the former Soviet regimes, would say that the Berlin Wall was a human catastrophe of the highest order…it ripped families apart, ended dreams, drove individuals insane…even if they still babble something about preventing war.

AND SUCH INHUMANITY VERY WELL MIGHT BE THE REASON THE REGIMES FINALLY FELL: The people of the East, along with people all across the ex-soviet bloc, came out onto the street and forced a revolution on their governments primarily because of the oppressiveness of the respective regimes. True.

So in that respect the popular sentiment is correct: the Berlin Wall was evil.

But let us be very clear. The West holds a thin high ground if any. Much of what countries do to coerce their people into staying happy citizens is evil, and no one should think or claim for one second that the Communists ‘evil’ tactics, or inhuman treatment, had anything whatsoever to do with the West’s decision to oppose the governments in question. The US right now has a wall on its border to Mexico where more people die in a few months, than the 130 that died on the Berlin wall in 28 years. Ever heard of Hiroshima, Grenada, Congo, Vietnam, Falluja? Interrogating people without reason and torturing them arbitrarily? Hmmm, tough one. Depends if they’re Muslim or African or Asia. Martin Luther King and millions of other Americans could tell you about government tapped phone lines, Intimidation, Torture, Planted Informants, Entrapment, etc.

And the Western Powers had actually been infiltrating the East, assassinating leaders, bombing markets, poisoning wells, sabotaging railroads, etc. to promote unrest and violence in these ‘evil’ regimes…until at some point the flood of refugees got unmanageable, and the west realized they could only handle it one coup at a time. And this is only what we admit. Google Edward Lansdale if you need specifics.

Interestingly enough the National Security Archive at George Washington University, just happened to facilitate the release of internal US documents, formerly top-secret, pertaining to this very Berlin Wall subject.

Apparently, the United States Government was actually pleased the soviets had built a wall, and thereby had mostly stemmed the tide of refugees into the West, the high numbers of which could hardly be maintained. Indeed the cold calculated look of the Americans speaks nothing of ‘good’ or ‘evil,’ but rather of worries of possible unrest (another 1952 couldn’t be managed, they complained) and hope that the situation now would stabilize…where it did mention ‘good’ and ‘evil’ is when the diplomats speak of how they can capitalise on the situation for winning over the public. Even there, however, they state the need for restraint, due to fears of stirring things up too much.

Indeed, at one point US officials callously say the Soviets are doing more damage to themselves, than they could ever dream of causing themselves. And then there’s the fact that in 1990, the English and American leaders didn’t want East and West Germany to reunify, for fears of Germany having too much power again. Again, the world was happy with the Wall because it made things geopolitically simple.

And then there is the recently put forth evidence that Konrad Adenauer tried secretly to negotiate with the Soviets a trade for Berlin, where West Germany would get a piece of land worth more than Berlin. Until everyone realized the value of Berlin as a SYMBOL, as a moral booster, and the Americans corrected Adenauer’s behavior because the Germans at the time did not control their country, the Allies controlled it.

That’s your own damn German leader, trying to sell out a city for some something more profitable. And the American’s answer was “No, Berlin’s worth more as propaganda.” The leaders weighing the value of each move, not in lives, but in monetary gain.

So much for the inhumanity being a factor on August 13th, 1961. Very different reality. The moral argument is after-the-fact, targeted propaganda, let’s call it: Bullshit.

(Well…not ‘bullshit’ actually. It’s the way the world should work if we were all nice and loving people. Again, I’m not disagreeing with the sentiment…I’m just saying this holier-than-thou arrogance of the Western politicians, the “we were the righteous West back in the 50s and 60s and ethics and morals guided us” line…is just horseshit. Anyone who nowadays states the actual reasons at the time, bringing up the fact the West was happy with the wall too, is immediately shunned and made feel like they are a third-world dictator that murdered thousands themselves, or something. “No excuse” for the wall? No there wasn’t morally and ethically. But actually everyone had a reason. Everyone. And the Wall got built. One of Humanity’s finest hours. We can all be proud of the Wall. Just remember the compelling words of the US president at the time John F. Kennedy when he slightly mispoke and said ‘I am A Berliner’ instead of ‘I am Berliner’ which in German would be correct, saying hilariously, not that he was a citizen of Berlin, but rather “Ich… bin… ein… Jelly donut” and he was right:  We all all Jelly donuts, baby.)

On the other side, anyone who somehow because they offended by the West’s arrogance, trys to defend the brutal behavior of the GDR is absurd. The very idea of a Brotherhood of the Worker and Communism and Socialism and all that, is instantly negated when you resort to Oppressive Police and a Fucking Wall to coerce people into participation. The East may have had good points, but the oppressive shit did not count among them. And many of the good points, it should be remembered were very slow in coming. In 1961 life in the East sucked. The fact is the Russians were sucking billions in reparations out of East Germany, while the Americans were pumping billions into Western Germany under the Marshall Plan. The people began moving where the money was. Stalin fucked the German economy for revenge…and the West was giving away free shoes and cigarettes trying to hook 60 million new consumers so they could start charging later when they were hooked.

The west, however underhanded and unsustainably, won the hearts and minds of the people. The Warsaw Pact was freaking people out…focusing on only military and not the ‘socialist’ ideals. It was because the Soviets fucked up the economy, in fact, that the GDR ‘had to’ build the Wall.

You are right to be cynical of capitalism and Western respect for Human Rights…but in reaction you overlook the fact that the Soviet system ruined everything when it became paranoid and vindictive. The Communists took the Imperial/Fascist police idea and made it something altogether an evil of its own. Sure, it was all in retaliation for the treatment of the left…but that is ‘reactionary’ thinking and not ‘revolutionary.’ Again: Bullshit.

And the proof of the pudding is that the oppressive tactics became the very reason the people went out on the street to press for reforms, and quit this ‘lie’ about freedom, which eventually ended in the governments collapsing. Regardless that after they did that, they had to learn how all our propaganda is a ‘lie’ in the West. That’s another story.

Welcome to reality

So yes…Dear Germany, you are both wrong, and at the same time, you both have the best intentions, so in that, you are both right. Welcome to the dark side, the gray area, life.

Germans, come now, you know all about this basic civil war stuff.  You’ve been through this many times before. Why do Bavarians and Prussians still poke fun at that other? It’s sounds like a joke now, what once was a war. And that’s what this Cold War Geschichte must become if you want to heal the wounds: lighten up and realize you both have flaws, you both were forced to do ugly things…most of the perpetrators of the injustices have already been tried in court for any crimes….it’s time to start laughing about it.

The US Civil War was 150 some odd years back now…and some say we still haven’t gotten over it. Some even say the Mason-Dixon line still exists…and still defines our politics, adapting for demographic changes, of course. And slavery is long out of the picture. But if at a bar together, a ‘Northerner’ and a ‘Southerner’ can have a good time and not fight, if they laugh about the tragedy their forefathers went through together, and one doesn’t pretend to have a monopoly on ethics and morality over the other…because we all know, War is Hell, and both sides lose wars, neither side emerges from a war honorable and righteous. Right, Germany? You know that better than most.

Anyway…Dear Germany, the Wall was not even your conflict, it was a conflict between US Capitalism and Soviet Russia. You Germans, like the Vietnamese, Korean, Nicaraguan, Colombian, Angolan, Ethiopian and Eritrean, and people from countries all around the planet, had to live with the consequences of that conflict, but you should remember whose soldiers were lining both sides of that wall, and you will know who you should blame for any atrocities. You were just pawns in that war. Sure, Walter Ullbricht ‘came up’ with the idea…but only insofar as Moscow told him to submit an idea…and even the CIA had theorized a wall would be the only solution to the number of refugees pouring out of the East. Wally was just doing his job…he wasn’t in charge of shit. Just like Adenauer had to have everything he did approved by Washington.

Oh, and don’t forget to remember who fucked everything up in the first place, too, because without old one-nut him the US and USSR wouldn’t have grown to be such assholes, and you wouldn’t have been on your knees and begging for handouts.

And then there’s the fact that the US and USSR both prepared to nuke Germany as fodder in the next war…we had thousands of warheads aimed your way…and at that point the GDR and BRD and their little Wall would have shared a common fate, annihilated in atomic Armageddon together. You actually share a lot more than you realize.

In summary: You have so much to be guilty for, Dear Germany, don’t take on more guilt that is rightfully due. Let the rest of us share some when we earn it.


Your Ami


About Andrew Flohr-Spence

Something about the sound and the word. Was a singer/bassist for five years, a German major for five, an English teacher in Germany for another five, then a journalism major in Denver for 5 more, and now I'm back in Berlin (for a while, I intend).
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