This article was originally published in U.S. News & World Report on Nov. 13, 2008.
Big walls are back in the news. There's now one separating Israel from the Palestinian West Bank, justified as a way of excluding suicide bombers and terrorists from the Jewish state's threatened cities. There's another being built to keep illegal immigrants from Mexico out of the United States.A West Berliner swings at the wall on Nov. 12, 1989.
More on the Berlin Wall:
One thing is clear: Such controversial emergency barriers signal problems that governments can't (or won't) solve by other means. The notorious Berlin Wall was no different—except it was built not to shut people out but to keep them in.
Shortly before midnight on Aug. 12, 1961, thousands of East German workers, guarded by troops, began to construct concrete-block and wood barriers and barbed wire fences blocking boulevards, parks, streets, and alleys in the heart of the city of Berlin, as well as the perimeter adjoining the surrounding Communist state of East Germany.
By dawn on August 13, the labor gangs' work was done. Berlin had been physically divided into a western, capitalist part, connected to democratic West Germany by a handful of transit highways and air routes, and an eastern, impoverished, Communist part whose citizens were now effectively imprisoned. This "Berlin Wall" survived for 28 years, 2 months, and 26 days.
At the end of World War II, defeated Germany was divided by the victors into four zones—American, British, French, and Soviet Russian. The German capital, a city of 4 million that was 105 miles inside the Russian zone, was likewise divided into four parts or "sectors."
The future of Germany, and especially of Berlin, became a bone of contention in the Cold War that followed as relations between the Western powers and their erstwhile Communist ally deteriorated.
In this contest, the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin had one great advantage. He possessed a reserve of trusted German Communist agents. Walter Ulbricht, a dour fanatic with a goatee, was flown to Berlin within hours of its fall in May 1945 at the head of a group of these activists. His task: to take command not just of the zone but of the entire city. His cynical motto: "It must look democratic, but we must have everything in our hands."
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