We like to celebrate anniversaries. Anniversaries confirm communal memories and keep our stories alive for the next generation. This past week we celebrated the 25th anniversary of a singular event: the Fall of the Wall in Berlin. It is a tale of triumph. In many versions of the tale, the Fall of the Wall symbolizes the triumph of western values. In quieter versions, it is the validation of the action of Berliners to restore their city. Infrequently, it is the tale of a bureaucratic error on the part of an East Berlin official who accidentally let the wall fall.
Berlin was the great prize of 1945. The capture of Berlin meant the destruction of Hitler’s Third Reich. Adolf Hitler had seized control of the continent of Europe by 1941 and his grandiloquent plans now turned to the annihilation of the Soviet Union. Hitler never reached Moscow and it was Stalin’s Red Army which reached Berlin in the spring of 1945. The Great Patriotic War, as Stalin styled it, was a Soviet victory. In his version of World War II, D-Day in June of 1944 was a mere footnote.
What happened next is the story of a great social experiment under exceptional circumstances. The Allies had decided that Germany had to be occupied and created American, British, French and Soviet zones. Imagine two gigantic petri dishes. Each one has the substrate of a fully developed industrial state. True, it had been damaged by a horrific war, but each sector had Germans—a shared language and a shared culture.
In 1945, however, Stalin could take his part of Germany, the Eastern section—soon styled the German Democratic Republic—and demonstrate the values and virtues of Communism. His sector could be directly compared to the recovery of the “other” Germany, controlled by what he termed as the decadent, historically irrelevant capitalist economies. After all, reasoned Stalin, the Soviets had seized control of the backward economy of Russia to create a world historically progressive state. Now he had control over a fully developed state and could apply the system developed in the USSR to prove, once and for all, the superiority of collectivization, the virtue of the common factory worker, and the irrelevance of the bourgeoisie.
The experiment commenced. However, Stalin soon discovered that his “petri dish” contained an irritating contaminant, a serious flaw: the city of Berlin. The Allies had decided that not only would each of them have a section of Germany to de-Nazify, but they would also divide the capital, Berlin, into sections. It was symbolic and a piece of grand-standing. That is, until it became apparent that territories held by Stalin were not just occupied, but were the subject of immense social engineering.
The “free” sectors of Berlin became the bolt hole for those East Germans who wanted to leave the experiment. The iron curtain had been raised and travel into the rest of Germany, the rest of Europe, became impossible. However, in the capital city, all that was necessary to leave the new socialist state was to cross into a city sector held by the western allies. Berlin rapidly ossified into the symbol of the East/West confrontation. Tens of thousands Germans chose to slip out of Soviet zone. In 1961 a permanent solution was built: an actual, physical, bristling wall, filled with bricks and mortar, topped with barbed wire and patrolled by machine gun totting guards. Such radical solutions are used to keep enemies out. In Berlin, the wall was designed to isolate the body-politic from a canker, a sore, a contaminant, an irritant. The calcification of “Free Berlin” worked. East Germans were now no longer able to flee.
But did the wider experiment work? Between 1945 and 1989 Germans worked under the stringent guidelines of a Soviet client state. Like other countries behind the Iron Curtain, Germans experienced an inauthentic state. Elections produced no change, individual enterprises were suffocated by the regulations, the secret police kept immense files on the citizens, and policies were vetted by the USSR which cautiously kept the Red Army in place.
Whatever else we celebrate 25 years after the Fall of Wall in Berlin, we are also acknowledging that the Soviet experiment failed. The conditions appeared ideal. Stalin controlled half of the German state. He could show that life under communism was indeed the utopia implied by theory. More than 40 years of social engineering did not produce this ideal state. When the Berliners toppled the wall that separated them from West Berlin, they demonstrated that failure. An immense political sonic boom spread out from Berlin and within the next few years, the Iron Curtain crumbled and the Soviet system collapsed entirely.