50th anniversary of Berlin Wall: a deeper look

BERLIN ‑ This year Berlin’s public TV channel gripped our brain cells every day for a month in advance of the anniversary of the Berlin Wall. Every evening since late July offered an interview with someone, almost anyone, who could tell a moving Wall story. Every day we were shown the old, familiar photos of escapes, pictures of Wall remnants and a plethora of ceremonies.

Do I sound cynical? The Berlin Wall was a tragic structure, large numbers of people suffered and many died in connection with it. Every fatality was a bitter loss. There is no conceivable way of prettifying its memory, as anyone who lived at all close to it can offer poignant testimony.

For anyone probing more deeply, however, some questions still require answers. Why was it built? And why are such unusually strong spotlights being focused on it after so many years? The press here had largely forgotten tragedies connected with the Nazi era within very few years after 1945.

The Wall was built out of desperation, the only method East German leaders could find to end the hemorrhaging of people from East to West. I find several main explanations for this dramatic bloodletting.

Firstly, nearly all those in the eastern third of Germany implicated in war crimes or other Nazi brutality, correctly calculating that they would be far safer under western rule than Soviet rule, got out as fast as possible. So did many of those with the strongest, deepest hatred of Communists and Russians, which was fostered so intensely by Hitler and his gang, the men most guilty of systematically murdering Communists and Russians. In many ways East Germany was lucky to lose these people, but they included not just storm troopers and Gestapo agents but a large share of technicians, managers and professionals of all kinds.

Secondly, the war-ravaged East German economy was disadvantaged from the start. It had long been a weaker area economically; even where there was industry it was largely dependent on raw materials from areas lost to Poland or on West German sources of iron, coal and other basics. Even more important, the victorious powers had agreed that West Germany should pay reparations to western countries, eastern Germany to the Soviet Union and Poland. But the wealthier western countries had suffered far less damage. Reparations to them were soon halted while the USA, which suffered no damage, used its powerful economy to pump in investments at a rapid pace under the Marshall Plan, helping achieve what was known as the West German “economic miracle”.

Eastern Germany, on the other hand (and after 1949 the German Democratic Republic, or GDR), was not and could not be excused from reparations to Poland and the Soviet Union whose economies, less developed before the war and destroyed beyond belief by the Nazis, were in desperate need of German machinery and other products. Thus, for eight key years, East Germany was burdened with over 90 percent of reparations.

The GDR was forced to pull itself up by its own bootstraps – and that is exactly what it did, as impartial economists pointed out. It quickly attained pre-war levels, industrialized age-old feudally backward areas, built new industries and provided land for the rural poor and those from the lost eastern provinces.

In its 40 years it was able to offer full employment, completely free medical coverage and education from infancy to doctorate levels, free childcare and substantial advances toward the difficult goal of equality for women, like family planning and legal abortion. It greatly narrowed the gap between wealthy and poor and came close to eliminating poverty entirely. To me such achievements, amazing from today’s perspective, represented a memorable experiment on the road toward socialism.

But despite these achievements so many people tried to leave! And when their numbers kept growing that terrible Wall was built.

Basically it was a vicious circle. West Berlin was subsidized with billions so as to awe and win over GDR citizens. Extremely effective propaganda, based on all the goodies of American consumer culture, schooled in the highly refined methods of Madison Avenue hype, was combined with countless enticements to come over, aimed especially at a newly trained generation of East German experts.

My wife, working at a hospital, knew of a young West Berlin specialist who visited regularly and urged doctors to “escape to the west”. Training one doctor in the GDR meant investing up to almost half a million marks; such disappearances left vacancies, painful economically and sometimes very literally.

The Western media constantly appealed to German national feelings: “We are one folk, all brothers and sisters!” But every eastern attempt at some sort of neutralized unification or at least confederation was rejected, indeed ignored. The strategy was “All or nothing”. Only after West Germany built up a new army as part of NATO did the GDR give up its efforts.

This is where the vicious cycle came in. GDR party and government authorities could never find adequate antidotes to the growing magnetic attraction of western consumer goods and Americanized culture and the drain of well-trained doctors, engineers and skilled craftsmen. There were brave attempts: the best of opera, dance, fine theaters, cultural and sport opportunities for all ages and most interests.

But the leaders were offspring of their own political upbringing, largely in the anti-Nazi political actions of the 1920’s, 1930’s and 1940’s. Threatened by the effects of the western offensive, they felt it necessary to crack down.

Virtually every country cracks down on opposition it considers menacing. Today’s USA offers examples enough. But in the GDR, partly due to the proximity of a menace with no protective oceans or mountains in between, partly because of the aging leaders’ unbridled views of themselves as omniscient and unfailing, and of opportunist, careerist strata reinforcing such views, their “cracking down” did far more harm than good.

As a result, the not unusual flow of people toward an economy seen as more prosperous was augmented by those who could not accept the pressures of a leadership losing rapport with its population. Noting that the West German Lutheran Church often aided GDR dissidents, the government often cracked down on seemingly troublesome church leaders and members, even while subsidizing the church in many ways.

While magnanimously supporting the arts, theater and film, it was often suspicious and restrictive of what it saw there as opposition allied with West Germany, thus swelling the ranks of those wanting to leave. The Wall was the desperate response to this truly vicious circle. Perhaps surprisingly, for some years it permitted great progress and even growing satisfaction for many of those less directly affected.

Toward the end, these often contradictory trends were affected by the GDR’s struggle not to fall too far behind in the electronic revolution transforming advanced capitalist economies. But with no assistance even from its Soviet or eastern allies, and barred from most western development, it was forced to invest billions into vain competition with Sony or IBM, as well as into a gigantic housing program, and its military defense apparatus. In the end all this proved too much for it.

Just before the Wall was built, the floods of those leaving, fearing it might be their final chance, threatened to bring down the GDR. The West German government, headquartered in Bonn, was waiting for such a chance. But any spark in this tense situation might easily have led to conflict; with US and Soviet forces both armed with atomic weapons, a catastrophic turn of events was far from pure fantasy. President Kennedy has been quoted as saying that the Wall “is not a nice solution but is a thousand times better than war”.

But why is it that when anniversaries offer themselves, flaws and misdeeds of the old GDR, like the Wall, are neither forgiven nor forgotten, but the reminders are hammered into people’s heads so ceaselessly, every day and every evening?

For me, the answer seems clear. With the GDR out of the way, the rulers of an enlarged Federal Republic no longer needed a social network and living standards attractive enough to match all comparisons with the GDR. The last 21 years have seen constant deterioration. Medical and dental care are increasingly expensive, financing education is a constant source of struggle, pension age has been upped to 67, sales taxes and rents have been climbing alarmingly.

While Germany has rather less unemployment than most countries, thanks to its commanding position in exporting high-quality goods, more and more people are forced into precarious, temporary, miserably underpaid jobs. A feeling of security, permitting decisions on marriage, children, housing and the like, is a rare quality. Business has no rivalry with the GDR to worry about. And that lack of a rival GDR constantly praising peace has permitted Germany to send troops, warships and warplanes to Serbia, Lebanon and Afghanistan.

Today’s rotten situation prompts people to recall the better aspects of the GDR, especially in the fields of rent control, childcare, medical and dental care and above all security in one’s job and future. With the present economy facing many menacing developments in the years ahead, the economic and political rulers fear just such dangerous thinking. And this explains their constant, distorted message that the GDR was only the Wall and nothing else, that awful socialism was not only a failure, it was as bad as, perhaps even worse than fascist dictatorship under Hitler. And this is what we in Germany are served up with every day, with triple or more intensity at anniversary time.

Photo: German trade unionists demonstrate against a government austerity plans aimed at cutting deficits, Berlin. (Markus Schreiber/AP)



Victor Grossman
Victor Grossman

Victor Grossman is a journalist from the U.S. now living in Berlin. He fled his U.S. Army post in the 1950s in danger of reprisals for his left-wing activities at Harvard and in Buffalo, New York. He landed in the former German Democratic Republic (Socialist East Germany), studied journalism, founded a Paul Robeson Archive, and became a freelance journalist and author. His latest book,  A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee, is about his life in the German Democratic Republic from 1949 – 1990, the tremendous improvements for the people under socialism, the reasons for the fall of socialism, and the importance of today's struggles.