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At midnight on August 13, 1961 – fifty-five years ago this month – members of the East German army surprised the world when they closed the border between East and West Berlin.
Since the end of World War II, Germany had been occupied by both Allied and Soviet forces to aid in its demilitarization and reconstruction – Great Britain, France, and the United States in the West and the Soviet Union in the East.
By 1961, however, the East had lost approximately 20 percent of its population to the West, including many skilled workers, with more residents leaving each day. To prevent this mass emigration from collapsing the communist regime, something had to be done.
Hence, the Berlin Wall was erected.
At 97 miles long, the Berlin Wall stood for 28 years as one of the most menacing structures the world has ever known, dividing a major European capital and essentially trapping over a million people inside Soviet-controlled territory.
But the Berlin Wall divided more than just a city – it divided the world.
Here was the physical representation of two fundamentally different ways of life competing against each other for which would survive into the 21st century. Communism versus capitalism. Freedom versus authoritarian rule.
The wall went through many iterations and rebuilds, with the fourth (and last) generation proving to be a gift to West Berlin artists and activists with its smooth concrete finish.
Over time the political and ideological wars it represented were lost, and the Berlin Wall came down for good in 1989.
Today, it’s anniversaries like this that remind us why physical barriers are not only ineffective, but also deeply unimaginative solutions to global challenges.
We don’t need bigger fences, we need to fear each other less. And until we get to this conversation, we will always be treating symptoms versus addressing the root of our disease.
Fear is one problem a wall can’t solve.
Perhaps we should have learned that by now.