the berlin wall: an ironic symbol of freedom


By guest blogger Fabien Reynaud.

As far back as I can remember, I have always been fascinated by Berlin. Berlin is a cosmopolitan city of culture, politics, media, and science. Its economy is primarily based on the service sector, encompassing a diverse range of creative industries, media corporations, and convention venues. Berlin also serves as a continental hub for air and rail transport, and is quite a popular tourist destination. Significant industries include IT, pharmaceuticals, biomedical engineering, biotechnology, electronics, traffic engineering, and renewable energy. Even though Berlin is a European capital like many others, it is an intriguing and mysterious place due to the high and low points of its history and what human struggles the city has represented in different eras.

During World War II, large parts of Berlin were destroyed by the allied forces in the 1943–45 air raids and during the Battle of Berlin. The victorious powers divided the city into four sectors, analogous to the occupation zones into which Germany was divided. The sectors of the Western Allies [the United States, the United Kingdom and France] formed West Berlin, while the Soviet sector formed East Berlin.

The founding of the two German states increased Cold War tensions. West Berlin was surrounded by East German territory and East Germany proclaimed East Berlin [described simply as “Berlin”] as its capital, a move that was not recognized by the western powers. Although only half the size and population of West Berlin, East Berlin included most of what today we consider the historic center of the city.

As a result of the political and economic tensions brought on by the Cold War, on 13 August 1961, East Germany began building a wall between East and West Berlin and similar barriers around West Berlin, and events soon escalated to a tank standoff at Checkpoint Charlie on 27 October 1961. West Berlin was now de facto a part of West Germany with a unique legal status, while East Berlin was de facto a part of East Germany.

When construction began on the wall [soon to be known globally as the “Berlin Wall”] it consisted mainly of barbed wire and armed guards. It did not take much time for the wall to be fortified. At its completion the wall was 107 km long and 4 m high in most places. In a true measure of division, in total the wall cut through 192 streets. Any attempts to climb the wall were met with lighted control areas, attack dogs, bunkers, and guard towers. Most attempts ended in death by gunshot.

Even today, despite the demise of the wall more than twenty years ago, the attentive observer will notice that a geopolitical wall continues to divide the city. In the West, the scars of the Second World War, symbolized by the bombed-out Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church and the more recently reconstructed Reichstag – with its glass dome symbolizing transparent democracy, serve as a continual reminder of the stain of Nazism on German history. In the East, little trace remains of the Nazi influence, even though the past is now somewhat recalled in the recently rebuilt Rykestrasse synagogue in the city’s Jewish quarter.

I leaned against the wall and an “aha” learning moment began… I began to realize the importance of freedom, how we take for granted our choices and actions; how man’s inhumanity is cruel and dangerous if focused for the good of a few, rather than the good of the many.

When talking to different people back home [I am a French national living in London] about my Berlin experience, I received mixed responses. I was born in the late 1970’s [yes that’s right, the late 70’s!] and when mentioning Berlin to people my age, their attitudes were generally positive, seeing the German capital as a fascinating mix of old and new and a great place to visit.

On the other hand, the older the people I talked to, the more negative responses I got. My Nan, born in the late 1920’s, got so negative about the whole thing and quite frankly upset about it. I explained that my point of view included an understanding of the events of the war and an understanding that Berliners got badly hit twice by the effects of, first the war which destroyed the city, and secondly by the wall cutting the city in half, making it impossible for people to move freely [especially East Berliners]. I was saddened to think that my Nan will never make the difference between Nazi Germany and Germany.

The Berlin Wall was erected on August 13, 1961, and divided the city into East and West Berlin for 28 years. During that time, the two parts of the city separated families and friends. While West Berlin was rebuilt and began to prosper, East Berlin was under the domination of the communists. It could have been compared to the difference between living in colour and living in black and white.

I was 12 years old when the Wall went down in 1989 and I can still remember watching the events in the comforts of Western Europe, on the family colour television. No one at the time realized all of the changes that would come with it and how Europe would change significantly.

Twenty years on, the legacy of the East-West division can still be seen in the city’s architecture, economy and overall culture. Even though the wall is gone, the city continues a somewhat paradoxical existence. Despite the millions of Euros that flooded into the city since 1989 to help reunify Germany and its role as Germany’s capital, Berlin remains a city deeply affected by the moral and physical scars left by the wall. Even Reunification could not perform miracles.

The story of the Berlin Wall chronicles one of the pitfalls in the never ending human quest for freedom, and a rather important one. The wall that was built to limit freedom has ironically come to represent freedom. For this reason alone, one should be sure to visit Berlin.

Fabien is a French expat currently living in the United Kingdom.