How Did We Go From “Tear Down This Wall” to “Build That Wall”?

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In the closing weeks of World War II, on Friday, April 20th, 1945, Adolf Hitler celebrated his 56th and last birthday. The only known gift he received that day was from the Soviet Union’s Red Army, who began an intense and sustained bombing of Berlin which would last that entire weekend. By the following Monday, the Red Army had successfully surrounded the city and sealed the fate of Hitler’s Third Reich. Two weeks later, the war would be ended and the Soviet Union would control the city while the other Allied nations, the United States, Great Britain and France controlled most of the country. Initially, Soviet leader, Josef Stalin wanted to keep Berlin as Russian territory gained through conquest. However, it was soon negotiated that Berlin, as well as the entire country of Germany separately, would be equally divided into four sectors, administered by the four Allies. Of course by 1949, the western sectors would stay intact and eventually be known as West Germany by the world at large and in the east, East Germany. However, Stalin and the subsequent Soviet leadership,  who were never really pleased with the arrangement, sought ways to change this dynamic. And the one thing that intensified this desire was the quality of life between the East and the West, and specifically the split of East and West Berlin.

But it was that very sort of quality of life dilemma that forced the issue between the two German states. As Communist Russia slowly begin to influence East Berlin and East Germany, economic opportunity for thousands of East Germans became restricted. They had no choice but to leave. And they did. Fast. Over the next 12 years, hundreds of thousands of East Germans immigrated to West Berlin for permanent relocation, but over that time, Berlin was effectively still one city. That changed practically overnight in the Summer of 1961. At the insistence of Communist Party leader Walter Ulbricht, East Germany quickly put together a barrier of cinder blocks and barbed wire around West Berlin, which Ulbricht insisted would be paid for by West Germany(I’m kidding… sorta). And day by day, month by month and year by year, the four foot cinder block barrier would morph into a 12 foot reinforced concrete wall with accompany guard towers, electric fencing, a bed of nails, trenches, automatic machine guns, mine fields and patrol dogs all with the purpose of keeping East Germans from immigrating to the economically prosperous West. Most modern prisons do have as much fortification.

This is the story of the Berlin Wall. And in case you can’t see the parallels of the border crisis between East and West German with the border crisis of the United States and Mexico, then it’s probably because there’s one significant difference: the situation between the German states could have lead to a third World War while the United States and Mexico are allies… or supposed to be.

But now, of course, the President of the United States, for the last three years has insisted on furthering the parallels in history and constructing a border wall, not unlike what was constructed in Berlin and ostensibly for very similar reasons. The President believes that constructing such a wall isn’t just the best way to stem the tide of illegal immigration to the United States, but he obviously believes it’s the only way. Mexico, along with other Latin American nations, which like East Germany, has faced economic hardship and decline is filled with citizens that are attempting to flee a desperate economic situation to a place with more economic opportunity and to improve the outlook of life for themselves and their families. But the President, like the Soviet Premier at the time, Nikita Khrushchev, has decided a wall is the best way to protect his nation and to stop border crossings.

Unfortunately, there’s just one small problem: It didn’t really work.

Within days of construction of the Berlin Wall, citizens were escaping. While the fortifications of the wall grew, so did the resolve of thousands of Germans who were willing to leave their families and all that they knew behind just to risk their lives to live a better life in the West. And the means of escape weren’t simply legal or overt. Over the 30 years that the Berlin Wall existed, hundreds of tunnels were built allowing for the immigration of hundreds of families. Some Germans were smuggled out by car or made mad dashes across a particular barrier. There are even stories of Germans using hot-air balloons, gliders, flagging down subway trains, tight-rope walking and ziplining via bow and arrow(not even kidding a little bit on this one) to get across the border. The results were not universal however. For every three that attempted escape, two would not make it and face arrest. But some preferred jail over the living conditions in East Germany.

This all ended 30 years ago this November. In 1989, after intense political pressure from within and outside of Germany, the East German government announced that they would implement a new regulation that would allow any East German citizen to travel through any of the border crossings immediately. This rather impromptu breaking news alert was reason enough for a flood of East Germans to join West Germans at the Berlin Wall and for the first time in decades cross without a guard or landmine, barbed wire, concrete barrier or attack dog in sight to stop them. And literally over night, just as it was initially constructed, the Berlin Wall would come down.

And that political pressure, which lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall, while it had been cooking for a while from within East Germany, outside the nation, it was a different story. The earliest perceptions of the Berlin Wall from U.S. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, they were anywhere from okay with the barrier to thankful that it was there. It was better a wall than a war, they thought.  Successive presidents did not think to challenge this dynamic mostly believing in the strength of the Soviet Union and the cloud of the Cold War. But by 1987, President reagan encouraged by reform-minded Soviet Union Premier, Mikhail Gorbachev, didn’t think the Cold War would last forever. And because ronald reagan was a Republican, he believed, like many in his party still believe, in the promotion of free enterprise and economic liberty. So in June of 1987, in front of the Brandenburg Gate, he decided to extend that same promotion and famously demanded to Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall”, which is probably one of the more famous declarations in World History.

And 30 years later, our current Republican president announces to a chanting crowd of supporters to “Build that wall” that has now lead to the shut down of our government, which he insist could last months, if not years. I, for one, can’t help but to wonder how the Republican Party can have such a swift shift in tone, policy and principle to believe a physical barrier can and should prevent someone from living their best economic life.

It’s slightly amazing when you stop and think about it. We are now living in a time where the Berlin Wall has been gone longer than the length of time it ever existed. The overall cost of construction and maintenance landed north of half a billion dollars a year. In today’s dollars such a construction would be astronomically expensive to undertake and maintain. And that was actually slightly less than 100 miles. Comparatively speaking, the U.S. border with Mexico stretches for nearly 2,000 miles. And while the Berlin Wall was constructed to prevent the flow of illegal immigration(emigration I guess to be technical), those who were determined to leave a desperate situation would not be denied. While Nikita Khrushchev and Walter Ulbricht desired a wall to end a brain drain of talent and skill from East Germany, it was their very own social shortcomings that caused such a situation to begin with. Likewise, today, the President doesn’t recognize the true root causes of immigration. He doesn’t realize the flow of migrants are to escape economic and social situations that we’ve done a lot to inspire with our own policies and shortcomings. We sign agreements to bypass economic hubs that wrecks small town job markets. We refuse to address and quite frankly allow for the demand of illicit drugs in our cities, which only intensifies Mexican and South American elements desire to supply our demand.  These are the type of root problems we hardly recognize on a policy level. If he thinks a wall will stop any of it, then he probably should look at where his predecessor was 30 years prior facing a similar circumstance. And if tens of thousands of East Germans decades ago could find their way across a far more guarded and fortified Berlin Wall to freedom, how could anyone seriously believe that his impossibly less fortified wall is in the position to stop anyone just as willing to live their best life today?


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