From 1961 until 1989 the Berlin Wall was a militarized concrete barrier that physically and ideologically divided East and West Berlin.
By doing so it did not just separate a city but also the USSR and the Western nations. It was an iron curtain, meant to keep populations in and enemies out during the Cold War. Begun on August 13th, 1961 by the GDR, the Wall cut off the Western part of Berlin from virtually all of surrounding East Germany. The Wall included the barrier itself along with guard towers placed along a wide area that would be dubbed the “death strip” because of the tragedies that befell it.
In addition armed patrols, dogs, landmines, and a trench were also used to deter people from crossing the border.
The Eastern Bloc portrayed the Wall as a necessity for protecting its population from Western elements conspiring to prevent the ‘will of the people’. In general, the Wall served to prevent the massive emigration and defection that had marked East Germany and the communist Eastern Bloc during the post-World War II period.
Throughout history walls have been put up between nations and people. Rarely have they worked and more often than not have they instead become a symbol, used to battle back against the cruelty of humans. The Berlin Wall was put up as an “Iron Curtain” meant to separate the USSR and the West. It destroyed lives and cast a dark shadow, but with it, there was also came hope and world motivation towards a more peaceful globe.
In this anthropological essay I will delve into the cultural impact and social life of the Berlin Wall, using interviews, witnessing reactions, and comparing it to modern times.
In Washington D.C. there are many places you can find segments of the Berlin Wall, imported to the U.S. in order to remind us of the horror and travesty that was endured. Some of these high profile places include the Capitol Building, Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies, Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, and the Newseum. During my research I focused on the Newseum wall exhibit, this exhibit includes a full guard tower, as well as the largest segment of the Berlin Wall outside of Germany. In order to accurately present the impact that the Berlin Wall had and still has on people in all sorts of ways I will be using several forms of anthropological study to educate the reader on the social life of the Berlin Wall.
Along with publications of several anthropologists I will also observe and interview people that have a chance to see a segment of the Wall at the Newseum, as well as interview two people who experienced the Wall first hand, at two different points in time. The anthropologist Arjun Appadurai states that when trying to study and break down an object, “we have to follow the things themselves, for their meanings are inscribed in their forms, their uses, their trajectories. It is only through the analysis of these trajectories that we can interpret the human transactions and calculations that enliven things. Thus, even though from a theoretical point of view human actors encode things with significance, from a methodological point of view it is the things-in-motion that illuminate their human and social context.
Using this method, I am going to break down the social life of the Berlin Wall, making it easier to understand the broad impact of the Wall. Some of the different social aspects that were a result of the Wall include, oppression, resistance, symbolism, art, music, friendship, and even tourism. In 1976, Annette Soelberg and her parents travelled to the Berlin Wall. Her family was one of many that would visit the Wall while it was still standing. In her interview, she describes the wall as a scary thing that loomed over the city. However, on the Western side of the Wall, she describes many of the social aspects that the Wall created. Covered in graffiti the concrete barricade that should have been grey and imposing was colorful and cheery. It bore messages of hope, peace, and happiness, as well as magnificent murals that she described as freeing.
Observing the Wall segment at the Newseum and the people that looked at it was interesting, many tended to immediately glance up, at the barbed wire and the watchtower behind it. The segment is presented first from the Western side, and then when walking to the back, the Eastern side. The display is powerful, in a short interview with museum-goer Samantha Cohen, she commented on how she saw each side of the wall as light and dark, comparing it to the idea of good and evil. When asked what can be learned from the Berlin Wall Samantha said this, “Looking at this wall in front of me, one of the first things that pops in my head is Trump’s border wall with Mexico. In my opinion we are all human and all connected. Why should we be trying to seperate ourselves?” A quote written on the Wall that has stayed with me since I visited Berlin many years ago was “Wall Free World”. This quote, written in a different time as a way to resist the oppression of the GDR, has equal weight in today’s day and age. Now we face a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, Israel and Palestine, as well as a wall between certain European countries and the East.The Wall impacted the lives of countless people, creating a barrier that separated families and friends as well as cutting many off from their jobs.
According to Professor Corey Ross in his publication in the Journal of Contemporary History, “approximately 60,000 people who lived in East Berlin or the GDR but worked in West Berlin — not only represented a loss of labour from the East German economy, but also were seen to take unfair advantage of state subsidies and feed the black currency market, since they could exchange their Western wages at very favourable unofficial rates yet still enjoy the subsidized rents and food prices in East Germany.” In order to strengthen their own position the GDR had to cut these workers off from the West, which caused tension within the East German working class. Because of these tensions and oppression, there was a push for “escape” to the West and its freedom. Many tried crossing the dangerous border by digging tunnels, running across it, or even in a hot air balloon. This dangerous task was worth it to live un-oppressed and reconnect with family. Kenneth Guest describes the traditional pulls for migration in the textbook by saying, “Family and friends who have already migrated provide encouragement and connections.
At the same time, media such as television, music, and film, along with powerful advertising, promote the desire to live a Western middle-class, consumer-oriented lifestyle.” In order to resist the Wall and push people to come over, the Western side not only used graffiti, but also held rallies, performed concerts, and transmitted audio and music through loudspeakers, pointed across the Wall. These actions were not just on account of the Western governments trying to destabilize the GDR, but also many ordinary people who saw an injustice. Guest defines a social movement as a “collective groups actions that seek to build institutional networks to transform cultural patterns and government policies.” As much as the Wall was used to oppress, it created communities and started social movements. In 1989, when the Wall fell my father, Allan Krebs, was 22. He and his friends visited right after the Wall had come down. Compared to my grandmother’s experience, his experience was not one of sadness and threat, but of celebration and freedom. After many weeks of civil unrest, the GDR announced on November 9th, 1989 that the border wall was obsolete. Crowds of East Germans crossed and climbed onto the Wall, joined by West Germans on the other side in a celebration.
Over the next few weeks, people chipped away at the Wall. Allan Krebs describes his experiences in Berlin as a sense of “freedom in the air”. He describes how many strangers from all over the world came together to celebrate this victory of freedom and how impactful that was on him and his career. In one instance, “a group hug occured after a segment of the Wall had been pulled down, nobody knew each other, but everyone just felt so much joy.”On New Year’s Eve 1989, David Hasselhoff performed his song ‘Looking for Freedom’ while standing atop the partly demolished wall. With crowds surrounding him, and fireworks exploding, that night would be a celebration of freedom that rarely is seen.With the fall of the Wall, there was dancing and celebration, but the wall’s toll could not be forgotten. During its existence, nearly 200 people died trying to cross and over 30,000 political prisoners were jailed. Today, the remaining parts of the Wall are a memorial to those people, and one of the world’s great symbols of victory over oppression.