On November 9, 1989, two years after President Ronald Reagan’s historic speech imploring Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” the Berlin Wall came down slowly as “wall woodpeckers” used hammers and picks to knock away chunks of the wall. Over the course of the weekend, more than two million East Berliners visited West Berlin to celebrate.
For decades, German families had been separated from one another between East Germany and West Germany. Post-World War II, the East German government—the German Democratic Republic (GDR)—constructed this physical barrier to define their territory separately from the government of West Germany, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). The main distinguishing characteristic between the two governments? A generalized sense of freedom and liberty versus socialism and oppression.
The Berlin Wall served the GDR’s main purpose: “to permanently close off access to the West.” Between 1949 and 1961, West Germany provided East Germans with a pathway toward democracy and capitalism. By August 1961, some 2,000 East Germans were crossing into West Germany each day; most of these refugees were professionals and intellectuals.
In effect, the Berlin Wall became a real-world symbol of the “Iron Curtain” and the tragedy of communism.
Unsurprisingly, East Germany’s loss of talent took a toll on the economy. In an attempt to stringently control immigration and, hopefully, economic conditions, East German soldiers began to put up barbed wire and eventually constructed the “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart” in German Antifaschistischer Schutzwall, or as we know it, the Berlin Wall.
The GDR weaponized their side of the wall with watchtowers, barbed wire, and anti-vehicle trenches. Each government sought to portray their opposition as the other, with the GDR notoriously referring to their democratic, capitalist neighbor as emanating fascistic elements in preventing the spread of socialism and communism. In effect, the Berlin Wall became a real-world symbol of the “Iron Curtain” and the tragedy of communism; walls are ordinarily symbolic, acting as gatekeepers to keep individuals in and to keep the free flow of ideas out.
As socialist principles and doctrine continue to flourish in today’s dialogue, it serves us well to understand how West Germany triumphed over East Germany. There is a multitude of factors that play a role in a government’s success: natural resources and manufacturing, a skilled populace, an abundance of intellectuals, free and fair trade, education, infrastructure, and principles. Below is a list of facts that help us better understand the conditions that distinguish the former East German state from the former West German state:
- According to a newly published report, only 16 of Germany’s top 500 companies by revenue are based in what was East Germany. (Associated Press)
- Not one of these companies is on Germany’s flagship stock market index. (Associated Press)
- In his book Planning Ahead and Falling Behind, author Jaap Sleifer points out that East Germany was richer than West Germany prior to World War II. East Germany GDP per capita was 103 percent of West Germany.
- By 1990, West German GDP per capita was approximately $18,000, while East German GDP per capita was about $9,000.
- In 1990, the cost of a three-minute phone call from West Berlin to the United States was $6.50 ($12.77 in inflation-adjusted terms), while a three-minute phone call from East Germany to the United States was $28 ($55.01 in inflation-adjusted terms).
- East Germans had one choice for a car: the Trabant or, as they called it, “Trabbi.” For years, this vehicle remained largely unchanged. Dubbed by some as “the worst car ever,” the Trabant has come to symbolize East Germany’s stagnant economy.
- Only 21 of the richest 500 Germans lived in the east as of 2015. (The Guardian)
- At least 138 people were “shot dead, suffered fatal accidents or committed suicide after failed escape attempts across the Berlin Wall,” according to the Centre for Research on Contemporary History Potsdam and the Berlin Wall Memorial Site and Documentation Center.
- Twenty-five years after reunification, Germans in the east were still making “about two-thirds of the average wage in the west.” (The Guardian)
- In 1980, the fertility rate in East Germany was less than 1.5 percent, while that rate in West Germany was around 2.0 percent. (These numbers have largely converged now.) (The Telegraph)
- Twenty-five years after reunification, property in former East Germany was worth half as much as property in former West Germany. (The Guardian)
- More than 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, factory productivity in what was East Germany was only 73 percent of its western counterpart. (The Guardian)
- Twenty-five years after reunification, Germans in the east still spent 79 percent less on consumer goods than their counterparts in the west. (The Guardian)
- Since German reunification, the former West German state has transferred around $2 trillion in economic aid to help the struggling former East German state.
- According to the Director of the IWH economic think-tank in Halle, “the economic situation in eastern Germany is better than it has ever been. But the gap between East and West remains.” However, “GDP per capita is still around 20 percent lower than in the West — just as it was 15 years ago.”
- As of 2017, salaries in the eastern part of Germany were still 20 percent lower than in the western part, according to Tobias Buck at the Financial Times.
- As of October 2019, unemployment in former East Germany (6.4 percent) was still higher than Germany’s overall national average (5 percent). (Associated Press)
Thirty years later, many individuals in the former East German state continue to feel the consequences of the German Democratic Republic’s socialist policies. The Berlin Wall is a symbol of the not-so-distant past. A former GDR resident refers to a Berlin Wall watchtower as “a concrete symbol of the brutal barrier that physically and mentally trapped the people of East Berlin.”
Today, the Berlin Wall is mainly a tourist attraction. The wall is covered in graffiti art, and tourists can even purchase “real” pieces of the wall. But as former US Secretary of State and former professor at my Alma mater Dean Rusk proclaimed,
The Wall certainly ought not to be a permanent feature of the European landscape. I see no reason why the Soviet Union should think it is...to their advantage in any way to leave there that monument to communist failure.
While the remnants of the Berlin Wall may bode well for tourism in Berlin, the effects of past policy still linger. Adherents of socialism and collectivism are forewarned of the perils caused by their failed policies, namely coercion and the desecration of the individual spirit. However well-intentioned these activists may be, history indicates the true nature of this brutal economic system. Future generations must not ignore past failures in favor of their “enlightened” vision of utopia.