Afghanistan fell to the Taliban within a week, faster than a house of cards. As it happens, it’s the same week as the sixtieth anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s construction.
On August 13, 1961, the Communist government of the German Democratic Republic (GDR, or East Germany) began to build a barbed wire and concrete “Antifascistischer Schutzwall,” or “antifascist bulwark,” between East and West Berlin. The official purpose of this Berlin Wall was to keep so-called Western “fascists” from entering East Germany and undermining the socialist state, but it primarily served the objective of stemming mass defections from East to West. The Berlin Wall stood until November 9, 1989, when the head of the East German Communist Party announced that citizens of the GDR could cross the border whenever they pleased. That night, ecstatic crowds swarmed the wall. Some crossed freely into West Berlin, while others brought hammers and picks and began to chip away at the wall itself. To this day, the Berlin Wall remains one of the most powerful and enduring symbols of the Cold War.
The Berlin Wall: The Partitioning of Berlin
As World War II came to an end in 1945, a pair of Allied peace conferences at Yalta and Potsdam determined the fate of Germany’s territories. They split the defeated nation into four “allied occupation zones”: The eastern part of the country went to the Soviet Union, while the western part went to the United States, Great Britain and (eventually) France.
Even though Berlin was located entirely within the Soviet part of the country (it sat about 100 miles from the border between the eastern and western occupation zones), the Yalta and Potsdam agreements split the city into similar sectors. The Soviets took the eastern half, while the other Allies took the western. This four-way occupation of Berlin began in June 1945.
The existence of West Berlin, a conspicuously capitalist city deep within communist East Germany, “stuck like a bone in the Soviet throat,” as Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev put it. The Russians began maneuvering to drive the United States, Britain and France out of the city for good. In 1948, a Soviet blockade of West Berlin aimed to starve the western Allies out of the city. Instead of retreating, however, the United States and its allies supplied their sectors of the city from the air. This effort, known as the Berlin Airlift, lasted for more than a year and delivered more than 2.3 million tons of food, fuel and other goods to West Berlin. The Soviets called off the blockade in 1949.
Maybe the US should have spent the last few years building a wall around Kabul and the airport. Keeping the city a “free zone” would have been easier than trying to govern an ungovernable country. It’s not like the Taliban have an airforce to shoot down planes flying in and out. And I doubt they have any stinger missiles left.
Just before the construction of the Berlin Wall began 60 years ago, Walter Ulbricht, the former leader of East Germany, famously claimed: “nobody has any intention of building a wall”.
Rumours had spread that East Berlin would close its border, but Ulbricht played down the issued at a June 1961 press conference.
When a West German journalist asked whether he believed creating a “free city” required the construction of a state border, Ulbricht said no one planned to build a wall.
For some, his words became the most famous lie of the decade.
Two months later, on August 13, 1961, construction began on the infamous structure. Rail links to the West were cut in East Berlin, roads were torn up and barbed wire was rolled out.
The Berlin Wall started off as a simple barrier made from barbed wire and concrete blocks, but over time it was reinforced and encircled the whole of West Berlin. Its final version was built in 1975 and ran for 150 kilometres.
For decades, the wall kept families apart and became a symbol of German division.