The Berlin Wall, Fifty Years Later

Fifty years ago today, the government of the German Democratic Republic (the GDR, or simply East Germany) cut off its own citizens’ ability to move to the west. Before August 13, 1961, such a journey simply required crossing into West Berlin, then an enclave of the western Federal Republic, surrounded by the Communist GDR and Warsaw Pact forces but under the protection of NATO. But what began with makeshift barbed wire boundaries soon became the infamous Berlin Wall.

The Berlin Wall under construction
The Berlin Wall under construction later in 1961 - US National Archives

When I teach my course on Cold War history, I regularly use clips from the 1998 CNN documentary series, Cold War, which blends oral history interviews with sometimes astonishing archival film footage from the era. Nowhere is the approach more effective than in the episode on the Berlin Wall, which features several interviews with East Berliners who fled West and contemporary newsreel footage of such escapes. In some cases, you watch the escape while hearing the escapee being interviewed about it. Here’s a six-minute recap of that episode, featuring some astounding footage of escape attempts early on in the history of the Wall:

Not shown in that particular clip, but a memorable scene in the complete episode, is the story of one of the most famous refugees in mid-August 1961: Conrad Schumann. Two days after the GDR closed the border, Schumann was one of the East German soldiers assigned to help keep refugees from escaping. After a couple of hours spent thinking about his situation and listening to West Berliners shout, “Come over!”, Schumann abruptly decided to jump over the wire — all this as a West German camera crew filmed him. See his famous leap for yourself here:

A symbol of oppression and division for nearly thirty years, the Wall’s demolition in November 1989 released torrents of emotion from Berliners (whose city had been split), from Germans (whose nation and, in many cases, families, had been cut in two), from a world watching the remarkable scenes unfold with surreal immediacy (thanks to satellite-enabled news coverage), and from this historian: I still watch the footage with a lump in my throat, in part because it’s so easy to imagine a more violent end to Communism in Germany and Eastern Europe.

Looking back across the past half-century since the Wall began to go up, my thoughts turn in three directions:


Reagan in West Berlin, 1987
Ronald Reagan speaking in West Berlin, June 1987 - The White House

In some ways, the Berlin Wall was a boon to West Germany and its American and other NATO allies. Walter Ulbricht and the other leaders of East Germany handed the West the most powerful propaganda image in the history of the Cold War, its impossibly ugly concrete structure supplanting the “Iron Curtain” that Winston Churchill claimed had descended from Stettin to Trieste. By contrast, the “free” West — the profound inequities of its economic system notwithstanding — positively gleamed. Consider two of Ronald Reagan’s most famous flashes of rhetoric: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” during his June 1987 visit to West Berlin, then his farewell address a year and a half later, imaging the USA (as he often did) as a beacon to weary masses yearning for freedom, a “shining city upon a hill” — a phrase he somewhat misleadingly credited to John Winthrop, who, good Puritan that he was, had been cribbing from Scripture in his 1630 sermon.

It’s important, then, not to forget that the particular freedom largely denied to East Germans until 1989 was one that the United States had not done much to defend in the decades leading up to 1961: the freedom to migrate.

As Lutheran journalist-theologian Uwe Siemon-Netto (who covered the events of August 1961 for the Associated Press) pointed out in his recent reflection on the Wall’s anniversary, upwards of 2500 East Germans were heading west every day before access was finally cut off. Nearly 20% of the entire GDR population, over three million people, had fled the workers’ paradise. Worse yet for Ulbricht’s regime, the emigrés disproportionately represented the country’s professionals and skilled workers — a literal “brain drain” that gutted a GDR economy that would have looked weak compared to economies much less vibrant than that of West Germany during its “Miracle” years. (Siemon-Netto adds that these social strata also constituted the “mainstay” for the East German churches, whose membership declined from 95% of the population at the end of WWII to a mere 25% when the Wall came down.)

And, the primary cause of the Wall crumbling (first metaphorically, then literally) was a renewed attempt by East German would-be migrants to “vote with their feet,” as they flooded West German embassies in Eastern Europe in the summer of 1989. (In the deal worked out to save some small amount of face for the GDR’s doomed regime, many of these 1989 emigrés had to give back their identity papers before continuing on — meaning that they entered the West as, well, “undocumented workers.”)

So, as much as American propaganda decried the Wall as a symbol of a tyrannical government depriving its own people of their fundamental human rights, we should remember that, in 1961, the United States was no staunch defender of the right of migration. The system of national-origins quotas that kept immigration to America to a trickle had been in place for four decades, and exclusion of Asian immigrants went back even further (to the 1880s in the case of Chinese laborers).

Naturalization Ceremony
A naturalization ceremony in Washington, DC - Creative Commons (Prince Roy)

Then four years after the East Germans imposed their own control on migration (emigration not immigration, not that many people were clamoring to enter the GDR in 1961), the United States abolished the old quotas with a piece of legislation that has quietly remade American society: the Hart-Celler Act of 1965. From the passage of that reform through the remainder of the 20th century, some 23 million immigrants (increasingly from regions other than Europe) arrived on these shores, nearly triple the total number from 1921-1960. Three million of these immigrants were refugees from Communist countries like China, Vietnam, Cuba, and Eastern Europe.

I’m not aware of a direct linkage with the events of 1961, but it’s telling that Lyndon Johnson condemned the previous restrictions as being “un-American,” guilty of “[violating] the basic principle of American democracy, the principle that values and rewards each man on the basis of his merit as a man.” And, coincidentally (?), the next major step in ushering in America’s current era of high immigration came not long after the Wall came down — that is, the 1990 Immigration Act.


In one of the less inspiring but too-true moments in the Cold War episode on the Berlin Wall, Martha Mautner, a U.S. State Department official in 1961, acknowledges that the East German government’s action actually helped to defuse East-West tensions and so preserved the peace. (There were three separate crises over access to Berlin — 1948-49, 1958-59, and 1961 — each involving the threat, from one side or both, of nuclear response.) The full transcript of her interview reveals a more complicated assessment, but whether asked for her “personal reaction” or the implications for her government, Mautner declined to cast the situation in terms of injustice (unlike the rhetoric discussed above).

Simply put, the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961 made it much less likely that there would be a Third World War in Europe. (Though the rash actions of Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro the following year did create an even more dangerous nuclear crisis that indirectly involved Berlin.) And ultimately, it helped to make the story of the Cold War into the story of the war that didn’t happen.

But is that “peace”? In the sense that there was an absence of military conflict between Great Powers, it would seem that the answer is “Yes.” But as a Christian historian who believes that a biblical model of peace (shalom) requires justice and righteousness… Well, the story of the Berlin Wall is just another example of how the “long peace” of the Cold War was made possible through injustices done to ordinary people. I’ve already noted how German families and the German nation were kept apart to avert open conflict along the likely battleline in Europe. Billions and billions of dollars were spent on militaries around the world, funds (public and private) that could have been invested to redress the social problems facing even the highly developed First and Second worlds.

But mostly it was the people of the “Third World” who bore the costs. The supposedly “Cold” War, after all, featured several proxy wars that may have served as “pressure valves” for Great Power tensions, but killed millions of Koreans, Vietnamese, and Cambodians in the process. And for the sake of maintaining global alliances, the superpowers (China included) cultivated friendships with dictatorships in Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, regimes that could imprison and murder their own people with virtual impunity. Cuba, Guatemala, Chile, North Korea, the Philippines, Kampuchea, Iraq, Iran, Ethiopia, and South Africa quickly come to mind, though there were many more.


In the main textbook for my Cold War course, John Lewis Gaddis frames that period in history in a surprising fashion: “It began with a return of fear and ended in a triumph of hope, an unusual trajectory for great historical upheavals” (The Cold War, p. 266). As he acknowledges in the preface, hope is not a quality or virtue often associated with Cold War studies. Yet the way the “war” ended, in particular, leaves him optimistic: it could have been so much worse. That it wasn’t was no accident; it required human choice and, I’m certain, God’s grace.

Demonstration in Leipzig, October 1989
Demonstration in Leipzig on October 9, 1989 - National Security Archive

For example, in October 1989 the East German authorities could have decided to emulate the Chinese authorities and respond to a planned pro-democracy march in Leipzig the way their comrades in Beijing had crushed the pro-democracy rally in Tiananmen Square four months before. That a “Chinese solution” did not transpire was due in no small part to the efforts of Christian clergy in East Germany. The demonstrations in Leipzig began that fall in the city’s famous Nikolaikirche. Then, as Uwe Siemon-Nietto recalls on his blog entry mentioned earlier, Catholic priests and Protestant pastors (many of whose names were on a list of activists the regime was ready to imprison) exhorted the protestors of October 9th to behave peacefully, not to give any provocation to the police or army. Many preached on Proverbs 25:15, and the tens of thousands in the crowd sang hymns as they marched.

There was no violence. And exactly one month later, to the night, the Berlin border suddenly opened and the GDR effectively became defunct.

All of which convinces me — despite the ease with which any Christian historian can rattle off stories that bring to any thoughtful mind the problem of evil —  that the Covenant historian Karl Olsson was right:

Those of us who confess Christ as Lord believe that in him in a special way history has become hope. Because of the character of God as revealed in Jesus, we have hope that both history and what lies beyond it will be stamped by the character of God. Hence even when we mourn about our own mortality or the frailty of the institutions and societies of which we are a part, we do not sorrow as those who have no hope. (in a 1977 column in The Covenant Companion)

None of which is to say that the history of the Berlin Wall lacks for tragedy. At least 125 people were killed attempting to go over, through, or under the Wall during its twenty-eight years. (Other estimates put the number at twice that high, or even greater, and tens of thousands more were arrested for trying to escape). Even the year the Wall fell, one would-be emigré was machine-gunned to death in February and another died that March when his balloon crashed on the other side.

Conrad Schumann, the former East German border guard who had made his impulsive, iconic leap for freedom on August 15, 1961, later battled depression. Ultimately, he committed suicide in 1998, the same year that the CNN Cold War series aired his story.

Uwe Siemon-Netto
Uwe Siemon-Netto

And despite the crucial role played by East German Christians in bringing down the Wall and the GDR, Siemon-Netto laments that, in 2011, “the Christian movement in eastern Germany seems to have collapsed,” leaving one of the former cradles of the Protestant Reformation one of the most secular regions in Europe.

“What happened?”, he asks. “A manifest expression of Original Sin in the sense of man’s innate inability to believe and trust in God; but at the same time a confirmation of Martin Luther’s brilliant insight about cloudbursts of the Holy Spirit that suddenly soak one area richly, and then inexplicably move on. This is what we have witnessed here.”

Yet even this latest report of the death of a church does not leave Siemon-Netto without hope. And his benediction will serve as ours as well, on this 50th anniversary of the Berlin Wall:

As for me, this amazing story still gives me huge hope. For it has reinforced my faith by confirming, on a secular level, the maxim that history is always open to the future and the theological truth God is the ultimate Lord of history that the Spirit always good for surprises.

Verbum Dei manet in aeternum.

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