The Berlin Wall Offers Lessons on Why Trump’s Wall Won’t Work
East Germany built a barrier that was only strong for its time and place.
A few weeks ago, I published a piece on some of the great walls of history — and why many of them failed to hold back invasion and infiltration. I received some comments about how the Berlin Wall, which divided Berlin from 1961 to 1989, was an exception, that it worked, and that Trump’s proposed border wall should follow that model.
So let’s explore that particular barrier, which I didn’t cover in my initial piece. For those who need a brief refresher on recent European history: The Berlin Wall was a concrete barrier built by the German Democratic Republic (i.e., East Germany) in order to cut it off from West Germany. In addition to the wall element, its builders included guard towers, barbed wire, and a so-called “death strip” with trenches and other defenses. It was amply manned, with guards more than happy to fill any wall-climbers with generous amounts of lead.
The socialist Eastern Bloc positioned the wall as keeping the decadent imperialists out; but it was also meant to keep East Germans in. If you, an ordinary citizen, decided you wanted a Big Mac and a new life as a capitalist, you needed to either sneak through a checkpoint, or somehow scale the wall. The death toll of those who failed to climb the wall varies, depending on which sources you consult; the Website for the Berlin Memorial places the number at “at least 140,”and that includes people shot by guards, guards shot by other guards, and people who decided to commit suicide rather than endure recapture and punishment. Other estimates have drifted toward 250 casualties.
If the goal of the Berlin Wall was to prevent a mass migration from East to West Germany, it achieved that purpose. True, some folks did manage to escape, but they represented a small fraction of the overall East German population (which fluctuated between 16 million and 18 million, depending on the decade).
But the Berlin Wall can’t be treated as a good model for a barrier wall, especially the one that Trump has proposed for the Mexican border. First, the German Democratic Republic was a restrictive surveillance society, which made it difficult for people to plot any sort of escape without someone in authority finding out; contrast that with most border walls, where the country maintaining the wall has no control over who might approach it from the other side.
Second, the Berlin Wall ran largely through urban areas, which made it difficult to approach and climb the wall without being seen. And never mind the guards and checkpoints; socialist societies have a way of indoctrinating their people to “snitch” on anyone who isn’t complying with the general directives. A relative of mine, traveling through the Eastern Bloc in the late 1970s, was surprised to hear citizens on the streets whistling for the cops whenever he tried jaywalking across a busy intersection. Even today, if you travel to restrictive countries such as Cuba and China, you find a pervasive atmosphere of absolute paranoia: eyes are everywhere, and they’ll phone the authorities if you start behaving funny.
Third, those men guarding the wall had orders to apply the most lethal degree of force to anyone trying to escape. East Germany (and the broader Eastern Bloc) had mostly ironclad control over the information shared by its citizens, as well as (to a certain degree) the news that leaked out. Citizens either didn’t learn of escape attempts, or were told that those trying to escape were traitors with bad motives, worthy of death.
Large parts of Trump’s border wall (if it’s ever built) won’t run through an urban area, which will make it that much harder to monitor, even with drones and sensors. The total length of the Mexico-United States border is almost 2,000 miles; imagine the effort and expense of overwatch, especially since anyone who wants to slip into the U.S. will figure out the patterns necessary to do so. (Now Trump is insisting on “smart walls,” saying that “we never proposed” 2,000 miles of concrete wall; next he’ll roll back on his claims that walls are overwhelmingly effective.)
Nor will the United States permit the use of lethal force against hordes of unarmed people attempting to cross the border. The threat of machine-gun death is an incredible deterrent; it gave the Berlin Wall a totemic power; and it was only sustainable because of the unique political circumstances of East Germany and European Communism. Without that threat in place, people will continue to try to cross, especially if they feel they’re fleeing the threat of death in their home countries.
The Berlin Wall was effective in its time and place; but as a model for barrier walls, it cannot — and should not — be reproduced. To hold it up as a positive model of anything is quite glib.