Berlin History

The Berlin Wall at 50

Today is an anniversary. The Berlin Wall went up 50 years ago.

Imagine a family arriving at Friedrichstraße station in the Soviet sector, at 5 am on 13 August 1961, bound for new lives in the West. They have their most important belongings with them,  they’ve handed over the keys to their house, the kids said goodbye to friends, the parents, sick with worry, did not sleep at all. At the station, the family, and hundreds like them, are told there will be no more trains going West. They must return to lives they thought they abandoned. Encircled by a near-impenetrable menace, many Berliners will spend the coming days jumping from windows and swimming through canals rimmed with barbed wire, trying to reach loved ones from whom they are separated. If they fail, at best they will remain physically trapped, subject to material deprival and political brutality, and lack of choice. At worst, they will be shot. If only this family had travelled one day earlier.

Intellectually one is also captive, as Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz so elegantly observed: the intellectual dishonesty of living in the regime twists psychologies. Speaking one’s mind leads to imprisonment, but outwardly displayed loyalty wears down internal convictions, and causes uneasiness, suffering, apathy, but also intellectual agility and self-satisfaction, and the zeal and comfort of a quasi-religious truth. These are not advantages. Even the artist in late capitalism, struggling against the populist market, finds it difficult to be nostalgic for the perks of such State sponsorship.

Theorists about the Wall generate and fetishize countless contradictions. The Wall was this, but it was also that. The Wall was a local catastrophe, but it was also an international blessing that probably prevented a world war over Soviet demands that Berlin become a “free city”. The Wall was what divided Germans and led them to develop separate histories and cultures, but it was also the symbol of division that convinced them they belonged together (an idea eventually tested with the trauma of reunification). The regime first built the Wall to keep people from leaving, then the Wall was taken down paradoxically to prevent people from leaving. For many, staring at the remains of the Wall is like staring at physical evidence of the first steps of a Hegelian argument. One looks around at the tour groups and trashy souvenir stands and wonders if this could possibly be the synthesis.

For many, the Wall remains something of an experiment. Imagine building one around Manhattan or certain arrondissements of Paris. Isolate the population from its neighbours for a period of thirty years, provide them with a different ideological system, terrorise and deprive them. Tell each side that the other is the inheritor of the crimes of a terrible war: on one side are the Stalinists and on the other the sons of Hitler. Now open the gates. What happens?

At first, a big party. An acquaintance of mine, Thomas, who grew up near Rosenthaler Platz in East Berlin, was seventeen when the Wall came down in 1989. His relatives in the West owned an apartment lying empty in the punk neighborhood of Kreuzberg SO36. He and his friends occupied the place and enjoyed a summer of legendary debauchery in the West.

When asked, he replies,  “It was amazing. Everything was new. Not just the pornography, the girls and the drugs. Everything! The summer of 1990 was the summer of love!” And then what? He looks at me. Most of his old neighbours have moved away, but he still lives in his flat on Ackerstraße in the East, “I came back home”.

He looks out his window, at the Communist-era apartment blocks being knocked down to make way for a French hotel concern. The local baker has been replaced by a chain.

“I always thought we would go there. I didn’t count on them wanting to come here”.

I examine him closely, and expect a flicker of nostalgia, but he pulls back.

“You want me to tell you it was better back then? Anyone who says that is lying. I was there, so I know–”

He looks outside at the confusion of tour buses, hostels, take-away joints and franchises, the unemployed man on the street, and nods his head, “No, I’m absolutely delighted”.

Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer and historian based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. His second book, My Grandfather's Knife, was published by HarperCollins and the History Press in 2022. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.