The Cold War – Chapter 1: The Berlin Wall

East and West German police faceoff before the Wall went up. The Berlin Wall effectively separated the two German states between August 1961 and November 1989.

The Soviets did not lose the Cold War in 1989, in 1990 or even in 1991. They lost the war on 13 August 1961. That was the day when First Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party and GDR State Council chairman Walter Ulbricht signed the order to close the East German Berlin Border and build the Wall. By doing so, he inadvertently proved the capitalist camp right. Ulbricht thus single handedly dealt the Eastern Bloc a death blow that would slowly seep into the people’s psyches convincing them that hope lay to the West.

Let me explain.

The historical record shows that Nikita Khrushchev told Walter Ulbricht to close the Berlin ‘loophole’ allowing East Germans to flee the ‘wonders’ of Communism. The Soviets and the East Germans were both convinced that if nothing was done, the brain drain that saw hundreds of thousands of East Germans find asylum in West Germany, would undo East Germany and by extension the whole Communist Bloc.

East German Combat Groups of the Working Class close the border on 13 August 1961 in preparation for the Berlin Wall construction. One wonders how many of the men in this photograph were old enough to have served in the armed forces of the Third Reich. And if you think my math is way off, you may need to look at these faces again. And then perhaps you may stare the ugly truth in its hideous face and call it by its name: Hitler Jugend. Funny how fast National Socialism can turn to Communism with the ‘right incentives’. Not to worry, this also happened everywhere else in the Eastern Bloc. For starters, thousands of right wing psychopaths Legionnaires found their way into the bosom of the Romanian Communist Party and Securitate after WW2.

In reality it was John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the famous POTUS who would later stir up the imagination of Berliners with his famous Ich bin ein Berliner speech in June 1963, who made the Berlin Wall possible. Wikipedia dixit that Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the U.S.S.R., was emboldened by an apparently young and inexperienced JFK. In other words, some historians decided (who knows why?) that JFK was inexperienced because he was younger than Khrushchev. Nothing more distant from the truth.

In reality, Kennedy was playing the fool’s card because he wanted his opponent to commit his first blunder. And of course, the Soviets obliged. But first, JFK needed to set the trap for the Soviet fly. At the 1961 Vienna summit, Wikipedia again tells us that “Kennedy made the error of admitting that the US wouldn’t actively oppose the building of a barrier in East Berlin.” In addition to this ‘faux pas‘, Kennedy revealed that he had made this particular error in an interview with the New York Times.

To any outsider worth its salt, this was clearly a false flag operation to be even remotely considered as a green light for the Soviets to start building the Wall. But to the gullible Nikita who desperately wanted to believe the myth of the young and unwise US President, this was just what he needed to go ahead with his plans. You see, the Soviets were happily rubbing their hands together thinking that the Americans had just given them the go ahead to build their Berlin Wall unopposed.

In fact, JFK had just made the Soviets fall for the oldest gag in the book. You see, the Cold War was truly a Sum Zero Game. Meaning that any and all errors made by one of the players would immediately be speculated by the other party to its advantage. My loss was your win. In this case, JFK had just made the Soviets spend lots of money, build up military forces, and remind the whole Eastern Camp that they were basically a concentration camp. And to think that it was all for nought.

America had just won the hearts and minds of the entire world, by putting the moral advantage of righteousness on their side. The Russians had just lost the Game. It would take another 30 years before it sunk in, but it all started on that day in August 1961.

Kennedy giving his Berlin Speech to an enraptured crowd on the 26 June 1963. JFK (1917-1963) has always been an icon of the Progressive Left, the American Dream, Pax Americana, and yes of the American Good in its fight against the Soviet Evil. Few people know that he was also much more than that. An outstanding soldier, a fine gentleman and scholar, a good friend and buddy who would put his life on the line for his fellow man, a ladies’ guy, but also a very but very devious politician and one of America’s smartest statesmen. A truly Machiavellian politico, he became a liability to the American military-industrial complex, which arranged a meet with an assassin’s bullet on that fateful 22 November 1963.

I don’t think anyone alive today can honestly claim that the Cold War would have played out the same if the Soviets had not told Ulbricht to build the Wall. You cannot really prove the superiority of your cause by making your people into inmates.

What might have happened if the Wall did not go up?! No JFK speech, for one. The East German economy and society would have had to compete harder with West Germany, which in turn would have given rise to a better, more resilient, and perhaps even less brutal and more human East Germany. Stasi would have had to curb down its enthusiasm. Perhaps, without a Berlin Wall, East Germany would have stood a chance against West Germany’s economic prowess. Who knows what might have happened?!

And yet counterfactual history is not real history. One cannot deal in might have beens if one is honest with oneself. But if one is true to self, one must also admit that with every choice one makes, some doors open and some close. And with every closed door, a path to the future disappears. But as one path dissolves into the mist of its unrealized potentiality, another takes shape and opens up to a string of choices, which in turn lead on to many other opportunities. Welcome to string theory.

String theory stock photo.

The Berlin Wall was the scene of countless tragedies and of many success stories. I will stop blathering for once and let images speak instead.

Oct. 7, 1961. Four-year-old Michael Finder of East Germany is tossed by his father into a net held by residents across the border in West Berlin. The father, Willy Finder, then prepares to make the jump himself.

Yet for every happy ending, the Wall enacted a heavy blood toll on East Berliners trying to flee to the West. Such was the case of 18-year old Peter Fechter, who was caught fleeing and shot to death.

Portrait of Peter Fechter around 1961, taken from his passport for a memorial in Berlin.
Fechter’s body lying next to the Berlin Wall after being shot in 1962 while trying to escape to the West.

Such is the price of freedom. And many were ready to pay it, for Freedom is a priceless thing worth dying for. So next time you hear someone tell you that Socialism or Communism weren’t really tried and that we must give it another shot, you show them these images. And you tell them how good human beings lived and died at the hands of people who tried to impose Socialism and Communism on them. You tell them that and look them straight in their face. Perhaps, you may reach out to them this way.

They say you cannot force someone to love you. And they are right. You cannot and you should not make someone love you by force or guile. And yet, the Eastern Bloc was all about convincing people that the best is yet to come, all the while shooting the disbelievers when they decided to exercise some of that beautiful Free Will we are endowed with.

That is why Communism and Socialism or any ism is destined to fail. Because it assumes that people are just means to an end to its higher cause. But they are all wrong. You see, People should always be in the front centre when it comes to politics or policy. No higher good may come from putting the good of society ahead of the good of individual people. An any cause that tells you otherwise is heading in the wrong direction. Eventually, all such ideas seeking to protect the people in general, end up shooting them in the back. It would be ironic if it wasn’t deadly.

When will we learn our Lesson?! When will we start afresh?! When will we create a new Path and avoid the Traps of so many Past Times? The Berlin Wall claimed the lives of 200 East Berliners. How many people have to die across the world before we change our ways?!

In the end, the truth is that where there’s a will, there’s a way. Nobody can stop you from leaving if you’re really keen on splitting. No regime can ever make a country an open sky prison. Not even North Korea. As it happens, the call of Freedom is too strong and many will try to reach it, or die in the process.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way!

Personally, I once met a distant relative who decided one day to leave Communist Romania in its rear mirror. So, in the middle of a freezing January, he crossed the semi-frozen Danube to neighbouring Yugoslavia. All it took for him was the realization that a better life awaited him in the West, and he was gone. Just like that. No ifs, no buts, no nothing. He wanted to split. He split. End of the story.

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