In the summer of 1970, My husband Terry and I visited West Berlin during our honeymoon in Europe. At the time the city was surrounded by a wall which separated it from east Berlin and the rest of East Germany. Originally, in the early 1960’s in the midst of the Cold War, the East German government with the help of the rest of the countries of the Soviet Block built a wall which surrounded West Berlin and divided the city into the East and West. The East German government at first claimed the rationale for the wall was to keep fascists in the West from disrupting the goals of the communist government of the East. Gradually over the next 10 years the wall became a ten foot high barrier of concrete, topped with wire mesh and razor wire. There were towers with armed guards and search lights. It soon became obvious that the wall was not designed to keep people from the West out, but to keep East Germans in. In 1970 it was sometimes scary, but not extremely difficult to travel from West Berlin into East Berlin. On a Sunny Sunday afternoon, Terry and I decided we would cross the wall at Checkpoint Charlie and see what the world was like on the other side of the wall.
We passed the guards and presented our passports with an brief application for a day visa which cost us a few dollars. We were required to declare how much money we had with us, list anything of value In our possession, the reason for our visit. We had to exchange a few West German Marks into East German Marks and wait while our application and passports disappeared into a back room for processing. After ten minutes or so, we were given our passports, a short term visa and our East German marks. We spent a quiet afternoon in East Berlin and returned without incident back across the border through Checkpoint Charlie.
East Germans were not allowed to cross at Checkpoint Charlie. They tried to climb over the wall. They tunneled under it. They even jumped from windows overlooking the border. It is estimated that perhaps more than 200 people were killed trying to escape in the 30 years the wall existed.
Around the world similar kinds of walls still divide neighbors from neighbors, mothers and fathers from children and grandparents from their grandchildren.
We are being told our problems are caused by outsiders, people who are unlike us and who are sneaking across our borders. The solution proposed is for us to build a wall to keep the others out. Will building a wall along Mexican border successfully keep citizens of other countries out of our country? The wall we have already erected along the border has cost million to build, more millions to guard and additional million to maintain and is apparently not enough, we are told.
Just as the Berlin Wall was initially justified as a means to keep others out of East Germany, our wall on the border also will have two sides. Walls that are impenetrable from the outside also tend to keep those on the inside from crossing to the other side. It takes very little to have the guards look the other direction and keep people from leaving.
In the past, when we crossed the border into Canada, we were usually asked two questions on the way north. “Where are you going and when are you coming back?” The same two questions in reverse were the asked upon returning. Since 9/11 and because of increased security, we now have to present our passports or other appropriate proof of citizenship, are asked more questions and are more likely to have our car searched. Our increased security has made our own coming and going more difficult.
When we were in Germany in 1970, we also visited the World War II concentration camp at Dachau. It was unbelievable that such atrocities could have been carried out against so many at that and other camps across the German countryside without the knowledge of those who lived nearby. Possibly it was the result of of fear for their own families or the very effective propaganda of the Nazis. Perhaps ordinary farmers had come to believe the problems they were facing were caused by people who were different from them. Those who knew and didn’t stand up to fight for what was right were made less human by the crimes against other human beings. Eventually even those outside the wall were also held captive by their fear.
Fear, like walls, has two sides.