The Berlin Wall: The Symbolic End of Communism's Utopian Dream

From the moment the barbed wire first went up, the barrier was a monument to failure for the Soviet vision of a just society

Wikimedia Commons

Fifty years ago this week, the division of Germany into East and West was, literally, etched in stone with the erection of the infamous Berlin Wall. While the wall stood, there were any number of memorials to its brutality, cost, and tragedy -- crosses and flowers marking where loved ones had been shot by the guards on the Wall, attempting to cross from East to West. Nobody, of course, tried to flee across the other way.

But to me, the one image that always best epitomized the tragedy of the wall was a poster-sized photograph I bought at the Berlin Wall when I was an exchange student in Germany in 1978.  It was taken the day the "wall" -- which was only barbed wire, to start with -- made the political border between the two halves of Berlin something more ominous. It showed a very little boy at the barbed-wire barrier, reaching his arms up toward an East German soldier, who had put his rifle over his shoulder and was reaching down, across the barbed wire, to pick up the little boy. The soldier's eyes were frightened, and he was looking not at the boy, but over his shoulder, as if to see if anyone was looking. 

The story of the photo, related by the press photographer who took it, was that the boy's family had fled across the barbed wire, as many people did in those first, chaotic few days as the wall was being built. But the boy had gotten lost in the frenzy and inadvertently left on the wrong side of the wire. The soldier who chose to lift the boy over to join his family, instead of shooting him, as his orders required, was, in fact, seen by others and taken away. The boy got away safely. But the photographer was never able to find any trace of the soldier again. 

That gut-wrenching division of families, friends, a culture and a nation has had many long-lasting consequences. On the 20th anniversary of the Wall's demise, I wrote about some of them here, and about how slow and frustrating the process of healing and change can be. Germany was divided for less than 50 years. Two generations. And yet, even today, the people raised in East Germany are struggling for social and economic equality with their western German counterparts. Having been wrenched apart so brutally, it is now a bit like some of the countries declared by decree after World War I -- dissimilar cultures struggling painfully to find enough common ground to bridge the differences. 

The good news is, Germany actually does have a shared cultural and political history that dated at least from the time Otto Von Bismark unified the country in 1871 up until 1945. The bad news is, by 1990, when the country began to try to find its way back to that, there were very few people alive who had been old enough, back before the world wars, to remember that time. What's more, the DNA of East German society and culture actually did change, under its communist Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR) government.

And that's the aspect of the story that has struck me the most, the past few weeks, and as Germany solemnly marks the half-century anniversary of the Wall's construction.

Three weeks ago, I was in Vienna, where I spent a few hours at the famous Cafe Central -- an elegant coffee house with tall, marble columns, chandeliers, and impeccably dressed waiters. The great and radical writers and thinkers in Vienna used to congregate there at the beginning of the 20th century. Three of the "regulars" who patronized the cafe between 1907 and 1914 were a certain Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, Lev Davidovich Bronstein, and Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili -- later known to the world as the Marxist revolutionaries Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and Josef Stalin.

Sitting there, I could imagine the young revolutionaries, in exile from Russia and surrounded by the opulence of the Hapsburg Empire at its height, arguing vehemently about how to right the wrongs of class and economic disparity in the world. They must have seen the world in very black-and-white terms -- it's almost a prerequisite in order to pursue the extreme means of bloody revolution to achieve your goals. But somewhere in the midst of that certainty and radicalism, there was an idea that the vast gap between rich and poor, and the ostentatious spending and decadence of the rich (a trait stunningly obvious in the gilt halls of 1907 Vienna) was wrong. And that some kind of cooperative society, where equality reigned and people took care of each other, would be a better option.

The dream in its ideal form didn't last long, of course. The revolution was wrought by factions, burdened by bureaucracy and characterized more by brutality than any cooperative utopia from almost its first bloody days. But when I left Vienna, I discovered that the taxi driver taking me to the airport was a recent emigre from Berlin. East Berlin. I asked him about how reunification was going, and he told me about some of the same problems I'd heard before: East Germans being second-class citizens, economic resentment on the part of the West Germans who had to pay to upgrade East Germany, and the like. But then, he said:

"You know, everyone sees it as the West helping the East. But it could have been done better. We could have helped them, too. But nobody wanted what we had to offer."

Intrigued, I asked him to explain. There was a long pause. Then he answered:

"For all the problems of the system, in East Germany, it wasn't all about consumerism. It wasn't how much you could buy, how much ahead of your neighbor you could get. We really did have more of a sense of helping each other out. Community really mattered more to us than things."

A century after those discussions in the Cafe Central, and 50 years after the dream had become such a nightmare echo of its original vision that the government felt compelled to build a wall, top it with barbed wire and armed guards, and back it up with an ominous swath of anti-tank defenses and mine fields in order to force people to stay in the society once envisioned as such a utopia ... some little seed of the dream still existed.

The ideal -- the idea of a fair, egalitarian society where people cared more about each other than about the stuff they could buy -- was, and still is, a noble idea. That the vision went so wrong, in Lenin and Trotsky's world, that it required dogs, barbed wire and walls to try to keep the "vision" intact is itself a tragedy -- one of many tragedies the revolution and its aftermath spawned, over the years. (One could argue, of course, that the bloody methods they employed were almost guaranteed to end badly, or even that humans don't really want that kind of egalitarian utopia.)

On the one hand, the building of the Berlin Wall was an admission of sorts that the glorious revolution, meant to be so attractive that workers around the world would flock to its banner, was a failure. A failure that would lead, not even 30 years later, to the dismantling of that very wall.

And yet, East Berlin and East Germany, walled off from the west, really did change. The values of the two cultures are not identical. How long, I asked my Viennese taxi driver, until he thought Germany would really feel like a single country again?

"At least two generations," he said.

Two generations. The same amount of time it took to be torn apart. Long enough for those who remember the way it used to be to grow old and die. As I got on the plane, I thought about how nice it would be if more of that East German sense of community over consumerism could, in fact, be absorbed into that "new" Germany.

Utopian ideas, it seems, die hard. Even when they're buried beneath a Wall.