Berlin Wall celebrations mask reason it was built

The celebrations in commemoration of the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago have masked the events which propelled the construction of the wall and the reasons for the divisions of Germany and of Europe after the second World War. The wall defused a dispute that hung over from that war, a dispute that could have resulted in far worse consequences, possibly a nuclear conflict in the heart of Europe. The background to that is significant.

It was not the combined forces of the Allies that liberated Berlin in 1945 from Nazi rule; it was the Red Army of the Soviet Union. The devastation caused by the second World War was not borne equally between the Allied forces; it was borne massively by the Soviet Union and, were it not for the Soviet Union, all of Europe would have been under Nazi tyranny, possibly for decades.

France lost an estimated 567,000 of its people in the war. The UK lost an estimated 450,000 lives; the United States lost an estimated 418,500 lives. Poland suffered a greater loss of its population in percentage terms than any other country (about 16.5 per cent). And other countries also suffered massive losses: French Indo China (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) more than one million; India an estimated two million, Japan an estimated 2.5 million, Germany between 6.5 and 8.5 million.

But the Soviet Union lost 14 per cent of its population in the war – an estimated 24 million people – and had it not been for the heroic success of the Soviet Union in repelling the German attack on itself and then its brilliantly conducted campaign in eastern Europe against the Nazi regime, Germany very probably would have won the war.

It had been agreed among the Allies that Germany would be occupied by the Allied powers after the war, to prevent rearmament and the emergence of a resurgent Germany. It had been further agreed that Berlin would be controlled by the four powers and that a demilitarised and occupied Germany would be united, a Germany that would be required to pay massive reparations, predominately to the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union adhered to an accord to have Berlin occupied by the four powers, although initially it alone was in occupation of the city. It exacted punitive reparations from the eastern part of Germany, while, in what the Soviet Union saw as a breach of faith, the western powers remilitarised western Germany and gave it massive subsidies, through Marshall aid.

The impending descent of an Iron Curtain across Europe was not apparent for some years after the war. Stalin deferred to the western Allies in urging the communist movements in Italy and France to participate meekly in coalition governments. In many eastern European countries, occupied by the Red Army, right-wing parties shared government with communist parties. But the position was changed radically by the announcement from the new American president, Harry Truman, on March 12th, 1947, that the United States would support any nation resisting the rise of indigenous communist movements. The commitment arose from the civil war in Greece where a royalist government, massively backed by Britain, was unable to resist a communist insurgency. Truman would not “allow” Greece to succumb to communism.

The Soviet Union was alarmed by all this, alarmed particularly by developments in western Germany, and that was the background to what became the Berlin crisis. The spark for the first crisis was a divisive monetary regime imposed by the western powers on the western part of Germany, without the approval of the Soviet Union, which retaliated by imposing a blockade on Berlin in an attempt to take control of the whole city. The West responded with the Berlin airlift, which lifted the blockade and, for four decades afterwards, Berlin was at the centre of the cold war.

The repressive character of the East German regime, plus the disparity in living conditions between East and West Germany, caused thousands of highly qualified East Germans to flee to the West in the following years and, in response to this leakage, and in the midst of another cold war crisis over the city, the infamous Berlin Wall was constructed in August 1961. There is reason to suspect the then US president, John F Kennedy, may have agreed secretly with the construction of the wall as a way of defusing the crisis, which threatened confrontation between the Soviet Union and America. Kennedy remained curiously silent when the wall went up.

The wall became a symbol of the tyranny of communist eastern Europe, and its fall 20 years ago was seen as an emblem of victory for the “free world”. But residents of the eastern parts of Germany today are very much less euphoric about the triumph of that “freedom” than in 1989. They suffered greatly in economic and social terms from the massive dislocations caused by the liberalising of the economy, and the rapture for western “democracy” has faded as evidenced by the striking declines in voter turnout at elections.

The wall was the symbol of a tyranny, but its fall was not the liberation it promised.