The Berlin Wall: A Secret History
The Berlin Wall was a tangible symbol of the suppression of human rights by the Eastern bloc during the Cold War… was it more convenient to the Western democracies than their rhetoric suggested?
The building of the Berlin Wall in August 1961 divided families and neighbourhoods in what had been the capital of Germany. The Wall represents a uniquely squalid, violent, and ultimately futile, episode in the post-war world. And we know that the subsequent international crisis, which was especially intense during the summer and autumn of 1961, threatened the world with the risk of a military conflict, one that seemed as if it could escalate at any time into nuclear confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union.
But was all as it seemed, with the noble democracies vainly opposing yet another Communist atrocity? Did the leaders of the West genuinely loathe the Wall, or was it - whisper if you dare - actually rather convenient to all the powers concerned?
In 1945, the victors of the Second World War, the US, the Soviet Union, Britain and by special dispensation the French, had divided Germany into four zones of occupation and its capital, Berlin, into four sectors. To the wartime Allies, Germany had been a problem ever since its unification in 1871, a big, restless country in the heart of Europe. The over- mighty Germany of the Kaiser’s and Hitler’s time must never be allowed to re-emerge.
Then came the Cold War. From the late 1940s, Germany itself - what was left of it after the Poles and the Russians had carved chunks off its eastern territories - became a creature of the Communist-capitalist conflict. It divided into West Germany (the ‘Federal Republic of Germany’) and the smaller East Germany (the ‘German Democratic Republic’), the former a prosperous democracy of some 50 million anchored into what was to become the Western NATO alliance, the latter a struggling social experiment, a third as large, allied to the Communist Warsaw Pact. The Iron Curtain ran through Germany, with a fortified border between the two Cold War German states.
Until 1961, however, Berlin remained under joint occupation and kept a special status, still more or less one city in which fairly free movement was possible. It represented an ‘escape hatch’ through which East Germans could head to the now booming West in pursuit of political freedom and a higher standard of living than their Stalinist masters were prepared to allow them.