Painting on the Wall

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The economy is bad. Work is rough. It’s been God knows how long since you’ve been out with your husband, and you’ve earned a night off. You decide that dinner and a show will be a nice break, and you arrange to leave the munchkins with Grandma and Grandpa for the night, because you know you and your husband will be out late. You go out to the restaurant, then to the show. The performance was wonderful. You stop for coffee and dessert before going home. You’re on your street, walking toward home, and, where before had been a guard post there’s – barbed wire and armed military, pointing guns at you and telling you to stay on that side.

And just like that, you live in West Berlin and need a visa, which you can only get rarely and at great expense, to see your children and parents.

After World War II, the Allied Powers decided that Germany was in too fragile a state to ignore. Ever since the end of World War I, Germany had been in a bad way. A dis proportionate amount of the war debt had been settled on Germany, and this, in conjunction with the ravaging effects of the war, left Germany in an economic crisis. It was this economic crisis that allowed for the meteoric rise of the Nazi party. They promised bread and jobs, and they were the only political party to deliver on that. The people had been hungry for so long that it was easy to refuse to see that manner in which the Nazis delivered on their promises. However, the rest of Europe was unable to turn their eyes away, and World War II started. After the Second World War, Germany was again saddled with the majority of the war debt – and they still hadn’t paid off the original debt. Seeing the similarities between that situation and the situation after the First World War, the Allied Powers decided to station troops in Germany to help the nation rebuild. Ultimately, this ended up being a full-scale occupation, with the nation of Germany being divided into two parts: West Germany, occupied by the Americans, British, and French, and East Germany, occupied by the Soviets. Berlin, being the capital city, was divided in the same manner, even though it was completely on the East German side of the line. West Berlin was equally divided between the Americans, British, and French, and East Berlin was under Soviet control.

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While West Germany was occupied by foreign forces, politics and economy were allowed to grow. Capitalism took hold, and the people were able to rebuild their lives after the trauma of World War II as best they could. West Berlin thrived in the same way. However, in East Germany and East Berlin, it was a different story.

The Soviets set up what Americans would call a puppet government, based wholly on communist ideals. Communism seemed like a good idea, especially for people who were as poor as East Germans were after the war. The idea of everyone working hard for the benefit of the nation sounded really good to a people who had been trampled by more than one massive war machine. Almost immediately, though, things took a turn for the worse. The economy in West Germany was improving, but the economy in East Germany was still in the gutter. Afraid of communism looking bad in comparison with capitalism, the government demanded ten percent more of the East Germans – ten percent more work, ten percent more effort, ten percent more output.

That sounds great! they said. What do we get in return for ten percent more of everything?

Nothing.

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Not only did they get nothing in return, the whole situation got worse. The communist regime started tightening its totalitarian grip. Very quickly, laborer’s rights were dispensed with, followed by political rights, and then human rights.

People cannot live in fear; human nature naturally rebels against it, and works to find a way out of a scary situation. People started moving en masse to West Germany, in particular, West Berlin (for many people, it was closer to get to West Berlin than to West Germany, and it still had all the trappings of a free and capitalist society). This was just as mortifying for the communist government as being economically worse off than West Germany; not only were their people performing at a lower economic level, but they were running away!

Overnight, the communist government reinforced and closed the border between East and West Berlin, stringing barbed wire and posting sentries, whose orders were to shoot to kill on sight. This was the first stage of the building of the Berlin Wall. As time went on, the barbed wire was replaced by an actual concrete wall, and that was reinforced a second wall and sentry posts. People who worked on the other side of the city, or who had family and friends on the other side of the city, needed a visa to go to see them. Only West Berliners could enter East Berlin; East Berliners were strictly prohibited from leaving.

Of course, that didn’t work quite as well as the communists thought it would. Nominally, they had put up the Wall to keep the Western ‘fascists’ out. Nobody was fooled. After all, why would they be prohibited from leaving if the point of the Wall was to keep things out?

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Despite the formidability of the Wall, people plotted escapes into West Berlin. One of my favorites occurred at Checkpoint Charlie, which was, toward the end of the life of the Wall, one of the only checkpoints between East and West Berlin left operational. A West Berlin man obtained a day visa to visit his mother, and got himself a sexy sports car for the occasion. After all, one should always visit Mom in style. While in East Berlin, he stuffed Mom into the trunk, then calmly drove back to the border. The guards were a bit suspicious about the car – after all, it had no windshield. When they started asking questions, he laid his seat back flat and floored it. The sports car was low enough to buzz right under the barricades, and he and his mom were safe in West Berlin.

According to the story, the Americans working at Checkpoint Charlie applauded, and the East German guards lowered the barricades the very next day.

Americans all hear about the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989; that did happen, but not completely. Parts of the Wall still stand in Berlin. One of those fragments is called the East Side Gallery, which is one of the coolest large-scale “up yours” monuments people have ever directed at totalitarian regimes.

After East and West Germany were reunited, a group of artists were called in to paint their representations of communism and the fall thereof on the East German side of the wall. There are some very creative interpretations of the regime and its removal on the Wall. In a way, through the East Side Gallery, the Berlin Wall bears witness to the demise of everything it helped to perpetuate.

Yet another wall that didn’t work quite the way the communists thought it should.

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For more about the history and construction of the Berlin Wall, click here.

For some stories of how people crossed the Berlin Wall, click here.

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