COMMENT: Building Walls - From Berlin To Trump

Forces Network has taken a look back at a special BFBS documentary made four years after the Wall's fall...

November 9 is a date of huge historical significance.

It marks both the confirmation of Donald Trump's victory in 2016's US presidential election, and the day - 27 years ago - when the Berlin Wall was breached and subsequently dismantled. 

On this anniversary, we've taken a look back at a special BFBS documentary made four years after the Wall's fall, and how that event is linked to the history made this week.

For the UK, the immediate concern after the border opened between East and West Germany was what would happen to military personnel stationed in the country. British troops were contemplating their future there and the fact that one day there would be a full withdrawal.

The Berlin Wall's 'death strip' in 1977 (Picture: George Garrigues).

Although Forces Network did not exist at the time, its parent organisation BFBS did. Its documentary, made in 1993, saw the late John Rudler-Doyle look at the changes a unified Germany might bring about. 

Railing Against The Wall

The Berlin Wall became a fixture of Western protest against communism during the Cold War. 

President Kennedy railed against it in the years after its construction, famously declaring “ich bin ein Berliner”, ‘I am a Berliner’, to highlight solidarity with West Germans.

Both Presidents Kennedy (left) and Reagan (right) made iconic speeches protesting against the Berlin Wall.

Later, President Reagan spoke directly to the leader of the USSR when he famously said "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" in 1986, calling for an end to the forced separation of Germans between East and West.

This protest against the wall was echoed by artists such as David Bowie in 1987, Bruce Springsteen in 1988, and David Hasselhoff in 1989.

Ronald Reagan's speech at the wall.

Origins Of The Wall

The Berlin Wall was not an isolated feature, but rather the most prominent aspect of a border enforcing the division between the communist east and the more liberal west.

The divide was a product of both World Wars, and was ideological as well as physical and geographical.

The early 20th Century witnessed the breakup of monarchies and empires in Europe and Russia, including by violent communist revolution in the latter. The First World War, its traumatic aftermath, the Great Depression, and then World War Two spawned two challenges to the liberal/libertarian-capitalist west and the appalling poverty wrought by the Great Depression. 

One, communism, came from the far left, and was situated largely in Russia and China. The logic behind it was a far-left Marxism calling for a dictatorship of the 'proletariat', or working-classes, to dismantle the 'oppressive' existing structures of society before a workers' utopia could come to be. Communism, though, never got beyond the dictator stage, and it was this new form of totalitarianism that the West opposed during the Cold War. 

Stalin (left; picture: Ephraim Stillberg), and Hitler (right; picture: JRa7 QaTar) led far-left and right-wing alternatives to capitalism and democracy.

The other, fascism, came from the far right, and its epicentre was in Italy and Germany (Japan, meanwhile, combined European fascism with its own Samurai 'Bushido' code). The logic of this system was to forge a nationalist collectivism in opposition to both the equality-driven, class-oriented socialism and communism on the left, and the 'moral decadence' of liberalism/libertarianism in the middle.

'Natural' hierarchies were to be respected, but the whole nation was to be bound together in an authoritarian corporatist economy. Meaning and purpose were to come from following an idealised masculine leader (an 'ubermensch' in Germany), as the whole nation engaged in a Darwinian struggle to defeat 'weaker' (and often racially 'inferior') opponents in war. 

Leadership in the West opted to deal with the fascist threat first, and because communism and fascism were as opposed to each other as they were to the liberal Western powers, it was only a matter of time before Russia and Germany were at war as well.

The result was an alliance between Russia and the West based on the logic of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend". 

But as the two sides encircled and then closed in on the Nazis in Germany, the war became a race to stamp lands taken from the Nazis with the social system of the victorious power. Stalin understood this well, and the British and Americans attempted to end the Second World War early so that all of Germany and Berlin would become liberal and capitalist after the war. They failed.

The Building Of The Wall

The exhaustion caused by the Second World War, and the fear induced by nuclear weapons, meant that following the war neither side of the communist-capitalist divide was willing to engage in direct conflict. Indeed, events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis very nearly resulted in a nuclear calamity as leaders on both sides tried desperately to prevent escalating events from spinning out of control.

The wall in the early 60s - President Kennedy is in the stand, fourth from right.

The result was that the next 45 years would instead be a war of ideas. 

Communism in Russia, however, proved to be an ineffective method of distributing goods and utilising human instincts. Many people in the East wanted to be in the West, and many tried to escape to it, with increasingly authoritarian measures necessary to stop them.

The next logical step was an impenetrable border with a solid wall as its focal point, and that's what Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev built right through Berlin in 1961. 

The Cold War continued, with the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of President Kennedy, and the Vietnam War raging in the years that followed.

But those in the East had not given up on getting to the West.

The Fall Of The Wall

By August 1989, Hungary could no longer hold people back and disabled its border defences. 13,000 'tourists' went through to Austria the following month and never came back. The embarrassment prompted the Hungarian authorities to stop anyone else.

The East German government also prevented its citizens from going to Hungary, lest they too try to escape that way. But the climate of control eventually provoked mass demonstrations that in turn became a non-violent revolution, with protesters chanting "Wir woollen raus!" ('We want out!').

And they meant it. Many, defying the ban on travel to Hungary, where the border was more porous, got around it by travelling first to Czechoslovakia and then on to the former.

But this was no trickle of forlorn, ragged refugees. It soon became a flood of people and overwhelmed the authorities, who in turn were forced to allow what they meant to be 'limited' travel through the border with the West (including the wall) to ease the congestion. News of this was soon received by people in East Germany and interpreted, either accidentally or deliberately, to mean free movement to the West.

People come through from the East, emerging out of 'Checkpoint Charlie' (Picture: Klaus Oberst).

German news website Spiegel Online reported in 2014 that no one in authority was willing to take responsibility for issuing the order to shoot people crossing illegally, and the border guards were swiftly overwhelmed and passed by. Throngs of people pushed their way through the border, not looking back.

The End Of The Wall

The Berlin Wall was later demolished, and less than two years later the USSR collapsed internally. Communism had failed and the Cold War was considered to be over.

In the years that followed, BFBS' John Rudler-Doyle joined a British couple who travelled to the newly-opened east side of the wall in September 1990. Sergeant Fred Taylor told him:

“As a Westerner, you tend to think that the East is very cold and… you can’t get in there… basically. But now it's all open, you find that the people are exactly the same as the west Germans, the economy is coming along quite well now, and [in] the shops… you can see more or less the same in the west."

Despite these hopeful early signs, reunification proved to be a laborious and frustrating process for those on both sides of the wall. Freelance journalist Alfred Schroder told Forces TV’s Rob Olver that:

“Here in the West, people say 'well, unification, alright and fine, but we are paying tremendous sums of money out of our own pockets', out of the pockets of Mr and Mrs Average German. In the East, the people are dissatisfied because they had believed that… this prosperity of the West will come overnight. Well, it is taking much much longer than anyone would have thought… basically, turning a communist state into a democratic state with a market economy and so on – it’s a very, very long process."

The process of reunification was eventually completed, though British troops remained for years afterwards, at Hohne Camp, and at Sennelager – though they are due to finally retire in 2019.

The End Of History?

In the end, despite the tensions of the Cold War, its peaceful end was considered a cause for celebration and a reason for optimism. Policymakers are surely hopeful today that the Demilitarized Zone dividing North and South Korea can at some point be similarly overcome. 

In the immediate wake of the USSR's demise, political philosopher Francis Fukuyama famously posited that the fall of communism marked "the end of history", leaving liberal democracy as the only viable political and economic system a state could choose to be.

But the term 'liberal' is misleading. Liberal was coined from liberty, and the term was used by industrialists during the Industrial Revolution to champion economic freedom in opposition to the old land-owning elites. In time they became the dominant members of society, what Marx called the 'bourgeois'. It was this class he urged the poor, 'proletariats', to overthrow. Marx's end point for history was envisioned as the day capitalism caused its own destruction and was replaced by communism.

So Fukuyama's use of the same phrase was meant to repudiate Marx's. But it was also somewhat at odds with the kind of liberalism that had come into existence after the war.

Francis Fukuyama (Picture: Fronteiras do Pensamento).

Under the leadership of FDR's Democrats in the US, and Clement Atlee's post-war Labour Party in Britain, a new economic centre-left consensus was born. Influenced by the economist John Maynard Keynes, the idea was for a balance between markets and government involvement in, or arbitration of, the economy. The idea was to provide personal freedom and the security of full employment. Even 'one-nation conservatives' of the time endorsed the need for some level of welfare. Nobody wanted a repeat of the turmoil that had caused the Second World War.

But, by the late 70s, neo-liberals, or libertarians, were championing a return to a 'free-market' system, where government controls would be lessened and the welfare state reduced. These ideas began to be put into effect under Ronald Reagan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in Britain. Perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, it's been argued that Francis Fukuyama was, effectively, both a neo-liberal and a neo-conservative. He endorsed this return to classical liberalism and 'free markets', as well as efforts to spread this form of democracy around the world by military force. This was the guiding philosophy of the Bush Administration in their war in Iraq - though he was later critical of the war.

The new consensus in the Anglo-American world (and much beyond) became one of classical liberal economics (championed by conservatives), coupled with a socially liberal outlook. Church mores became less influential over time, feminism more widespread, and sex lives more open. Popular culture made homosexuality more acceptable as well, resulting in the legalisation of gay marriage in recent years.

But this consensus was challenged by the 2008 financial crisis.

A bank run at Northern Rock, which was nationalised in 2008 due to its financial problems (Picture: Dominic Alves).

Debates about the reasons for Trump's victory will likely continue for some time, but many would argue that at least part of his rise is attributable to the economic insecurity that has resulted from the 2008 crash, as well as the huge inequality that proceeded it. 

In his book 'The Populist Explosion', John B Judis defines Donald Trump as a right-wing populist, critical of political elites whose policies have helped outside groups at the expense of Americans. Bernie Sanders' movement was also populist, but in the left-wing sense, pitting minorities and the poor against economic elites.

The new consensus has yet to emerge, but what is certain is that history has not 'ended'.

Cover image courtesy of Gage Skidmore.