BERLIN—The president of the United States is determined to build a massive barrier along the Mexican frontier. But it’s now clear his Great Wall will have a lot of not-so-great gaps in it. Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly announced last week that no, despite President Trump’s campaign promise of an impenetrable border wall, “it is unlikely that we will build a wall from sea to shining sea.” This week a prosecutor labeled the immigration plan laid out by Attorney General Jeff Sessions as "fucking horrifying."
Here in Germany we’ve been watching all this with a mixture of amusement and disgust. After all, we know a few things about walls from the days when Europe was divided by the Iron Curtain, which cut our country and our capital in half.
There used to be a section of particularly thick and grey concrete slabs next to the Brandenburg Gate in the heart of this city, and until one night in 1989 they jutted out of the ground like a giant middle finger, as if deliberately intending to freak the living daylights out of any East Berliner who just so happened to be passing by the city center.
We all know the pictures of overjoyed people dancing on top in this section of wall on the 9th of November, 1989.
Axel Klausmeier, who directs the Berlin Wall Foundation, still has a special sense of rage toward the “martial construct,” as he calls it. “It was a conscious show of force to signal the core task of the East German border troops: no one is coming through.”
So, why didn’t the East German government just put up a fence or barbed wire here, as it did in so much of the countryside outside Berlin and along the border between East and West Germany in order to prevent people from fleeing its socialist utopia? (Even back then, fences were frequently judged a more practical barrier, because they allowed guards to see who was coming at them.)
“Everyone understands a wall,” Klausmeier replies.
It seems ironic now to look back on the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Iron Curtain in 1989 and realize how much optimism that created about a world without borders, driven instead by free markets and opening up to the free movement of ideas. But that wasn’t quite meant to be: Borders are, in the cheerful words of Saar Koursh, the CEO of the Israeli security company Magal Security Systems Ltd., “coming back big-time.”
But even as today’s border security companies stand to make a killing from terrorism fears and migration anxieties, their experts generally acknowledge that the physical barrier itself is mainly used for symbolic purposes—and none is more symbolic and otherwise ineffective than a wall.
President Trump has argued that a wall is better than the 600-mile fence that is currently stretching along the U.S.-Mexico border, because, “It’s more secure. It’s taller.”
Back in 1961, it was East German Communist Leader Walter Ulbricht, a thin-lipped man once described by Stalin’s secret police chief as “the greatest idiot” he’d ever seen, who insisted on building a wall along the border to West Berlin.
Barbed wire or fences, Ulbricht declared, had only ever “tempted people and provoked them into more and more attempts to break through the barrier.”
It was during the very early morning hours of Aug. 13, 1961, that East German soldiers and police officers, having waited for the lights on Brandenburg Gate to go out, proceeded to roll barbed wire straight through the city. But, as the first bits of stone started being set in place a few days later, a general air of caution prevailed, and Ulbricht had to deal with two of his meanest and most hard line ministers expressing their doubts about whether building a wall would actually be the best way to stop people escaping.
Let’s just leave the barbed wire, Erich Mielke (the dreaded head of the East German security agency better known as the Stasi) recommended. He thought the barbed wire “more durable and suitable“ than a wall.
Mielke’s concerns were on a cold-hearted and purely technical level: that escapees would be able to hide under the wall’s shadows.
Defense Minister Heinz Hoffmann (who, around the same time issued the orders for border troops to shoot at fleeing refugees) was also worried. Hoffmann suggested adding concrete blocks and ditches as alternative additions to the wire.
Nothing less than a concrete wall locking people into his shitty state would do it for a self-regarding authoritarian like Ulbricht, who had already acquired a reputation for showing off by dishing out last-minute death sentences and orders to blow up world famous bits of holy architecture. (Most notoriously, he once ripped a delicate miniature of the Sophienkirche, or Saint Sophia’s Church, out of a model of the city of Dresden in a room full of people. “A socialist state doesn’t need gothic churches,” he declared.)
Sadly for Ulbricht, though, neither the Berlin Wall nor the Inner German Border (a 1,400-kilometer-long jumble of walls, barbed wire, and fences) would ever have their construction finished. Trapped citizens, desperate enough to risk it all, would try crashing through the wall with tanks, hijacking trains, or even attempt swimming through the lake in the depths of winter.
From 1961 onward, the East German regime quickly grasped the importance of layering the physical wall with other deterrents: They introduced anti-tank barriers, guard dogs, bright lights, and trip wires and other alarms. These fatal “improvements” were being made on a case-by-case basis, usually after hearing back of any incidents where someone managed to escape.
But when asked whether any of this would have been effective if border guards hadn’t had permission to shoot to kill at the escapees, Axel Klausmeier snorts: “Nö”—nah.
“The order to shoot (which was unofficially in effect from August 1961) was essential for the wall’s efficiency. It was the biggest possible deterrent. Everyone knew: if you tried to cross over to the West, you had to count on dying in a hail of bullets.”
One of the initial mistakes that the East German regime made was failing to recognize that building a wall doesn’t stop people from digging under it. In the early ’60s, hundreds of East Germans managed to escape through secret tunnels under the Berlin Wall, often ducking down into the earth right under the noses of the border guards.
The lesson learned then is still one that we see being applied to border controls today: The Department of Homeland Security is inquiring about underground walling for the U.S.-Mexico border, and in Israel, plans are being made to build an underground concrete wall that can stretch into the earth by dozens of meters and stop the Islamist group Hamas from tunnelling its way under.
Israel has, in fact, become one of the world’s modern greats at building fences and walls. Recently, the Jewish state set up high-tech fences along its borders to Egypt and the Golan Heights which are equipped with sensors that, if anyone touches them, will send warning signals to nearby operation centers.
“Smart fences” like these are being used and exported by companies like the previously mentioned Magal Security Systems (which provided detection systems for the barrier between Israel and the Gaza Strip and in the West Bank).
Magal Security Systems would probably agree with Secretary Kelly’s claim that various types of physical barriers should be built depending on the terrain. While the company’s CEO has, in the past, offered publicly to “join forces” and help Trump secure the U.S.-Mexico border, a spokesperson has advised that for many sections of the border, given the wide spaces, a wall may be unnecessary and even counterproductive—since you can’t really see through it.
So it would seem it’s all bad news for President Trump’s campaign promise and Walter Ulbricht’s legacy. Trump cited Israel’s border defenses as a role model on the campaign trail last year, apparently referring to the security barriers that Israel had set up along the West Bank and Jerusalem in the early noughties (Palestinians call it the separation or apartheid wall). But even here, walls were only built in the populated urban areas, while fences were used for the less populated areas.
Even the smartest, high-tech barrier needs to be part of a bigger strategy to work. In questions of border security, as Kelly has noted, such a strategy would usually entail increased aid for economic development or education. (Meanwhile in former East Germany, you had the surveillance state. By the 1980s, when the Stasi hit top form in espionage, people who were trying to escape were hardly being arrested by East German border guards anymore—instead, they were ambushed the second they left their front door.)
But technicalities aside, when asked what the countries who are building barriers to secure their borders may have learned from the East German regime’s wall building endeavours, geographer Elisabeth Vallet replies: “What obviously has not been learned is that walls will fall, walls will leave deep scars in the socio-economic fabric of both countries, and they are actually generating new problems without solving the initial issues.”