To drive into the heart of West Berlin on a dark, snowy night in December 1988 was to descend on to the cinematic frontline of the cold war. Watchtowers manned by armed East German border guards, searchlights, barbed wire, the blackened facade of the gutted Reichstag by the frozen River Spree – it was all there, just like the movies. Yet it was only too real. Holding centre stage: the sinister Berlin Wall.
US president Ronald Reagan had made a similar sojourn the previous year. Standing before the Brandenburg Gate, he decried the “vast system of barriers that divides the entire continent of Europe”. If the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, really valued peace and freedom, he should act. Like the Hollywood actor he once was, Reagan dramatically declaimed: “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Reagan had his wish. In November 1989, under fierce pressure from both sides, the wall imploded. Its end foreshadowed Germany’s reunification and the Soviet Union’s collapse. It was one of those rarest of moments – a genuine historical watershed. Generations who had known only fear and separation felt liberated. Europe was once again made whole. There could be no going back.
Or could there? Thirty-plus years later, thousands of kilometres of new walls, security barriers, fences and barbed wire have sprung up in and around Europe. The EU/Schengen area is now surrounded or crisscrossed by 19 border or separation fences totalling 2,048km in length, up from 315km in 2014. Similar trends are discernible worldwide. Everywhere, it seems, new, higher walls are rising.
What is so-called “Fortress Europe” afraid of? Historically, walls were built to defend against enemies. Think the Great Wall of China, the Roman Wall, Offa’s Dyke or the Maginot Line. Yet all were eventually circumvented, some easily, some less so. The Theodosian walls of Constantinople were considered impregnable until Ottoman cannon got to work in 1453. The walls of Jericho were blown down by trumpets.
No one sensibly suggests a wall, ditch or berm could have stopped Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Governments claim barriers serve another purpose: deterring transnational terrorism and crime. Yet the real reason walls are back in vogue is primarily political, stemming specifically from Europe’s “irregular migration” problem. Migrant numbers are rising rapidly again – and EU states are in a panic. [Continue reading…]