In 1961, the communists who controlled the Eastern side of Germany after WWII began building a wall to shield their people from the capitalist Western side of Germany. This resulted in families being separated and devastation across the whole country.
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Here’s a transcript of our conversation:
Brittany: Hi, Connor.
Connor: Hey, Brittany.
Brittany: So, a while ago we talked about how rock and roll music helped take down communism in Europe during the Cold War, which I’ll have us talk about again in a second. But we briefly mentioned something called The Berlin Wall, but we really didn’t get a chance to expand on what the Berlin Wall is. So I thought we could take a whole episode and kind of talk about, you know, what is this thing. So before we dive in, I want you guys to imagine for a second that the United States was divided into two parts, and everyone who supported individual liberty, like everyone listening to this show, obviously lived in the West, and everyone who, you know, believed in Bernie Sanders or socialism lived in the eastern part of the country, like where I live. So, like I was gonna say, the good guys, well, yeah, the good guys. So hey live, you know, Connor, where you are out west and you know, the others live out out east where I live. But let’s imagine instead of just people living in separate areas, they actually put up a wall so you couldn’t interact with the other people. That sounds ridiculous, right? That just sounds like, okay, like we all disagree, but we don’t need to go to that extreme. However, this is actually exactly what happened in Germany after World War II, during an era called the Cold War. Connor, I think I put you on the spot in the last episode. We talked about this in, but can you give just a very brief, very basic explanation of what the Cold War was?
Connor: Sure. So after World War II, there were basically two major superpowers, two countries that dominated the world. One was the United States and the other was the Soviet Union, or what today is Russia. And they became rivals. And each one was seeking to prevent the other one from gaining too much power. So there were these years and years and years of tension, very strong tension at times that existed between these countries. And even though the conflict did not result in actual war between the countries, it’s called a col Cold War, because there were some tiny, you know, there were some battles, there was a lot of political, like the tension between the countries. war almost happened, you know, more than once. but it’s called a Cold War cuz it was basically fighting without like this massive war happening.
Brittany: No, that’s exactly right. Yes, thank you.So the Cold War is the backdrop. It’s the setting for the Berlin Wall coming to be. So post World War II, Germany was divided. There was, you know, the east side and the west side. And like you talked about, there were two superpowers that emerged USSR, that Soviet Union or Russia as it is now, and America. So when Germany was divided, the USSR, Russia, Soviet Union, whatever call it, we’ll call it the USSR for this episode, they were heavily influenced influencing the eastern side. So they kind of had control over the eastern side and the US had control over the western side. So tensions were eventually, they, they got to a breaking point and the two sections of Germany were just so different and they were under two different rules that it was getting pretty, pretty chaotic. So the East side decided they needed to protect their people from what they called a fascist influence. And I say fascist in quotations because what they were really calling fascist was, was this kind of free market capitalism influence, which was actually helping Germany get out of their post-war, you know, economic depression. The economy was starting to boom because America came in and they were having, you know, these Western influences brought in. So eventually the eastern side decides to literally erect a wall that’s separating East Berlin Wall being the capital that is the capital of German. Or did I just say the wrong thing? It is Berlin. I was like, is it Munich? No, it’s Berlin. So it’s right in the center of Berlin and it’s separating East Berlin from West Berlin, but that’s also separating the country in tune.
Connor: Well, can I pause Brittany, because I think one thing’s important to, emphasize or clarify. So not only was Germany as a country divided between the two superpowers, but then Berlin was as well, but Berlin was inside, east Germany where the Soviets kind of controlled the east side of Germany. So they split up the country, but then the superpowers also split up the city of Berlin itself. And so it was split into four, right? I think it was split into four and Germany had the right, the east side of Berlin, and then on the west side it was split between America, Britain, and then the French. And eventually, those three countries all combined, together cuz they were all allies of, you know, capitalism and freedom and whatnot. And so it became West Berlin and East Berlin. And that wall you’re mentioning was just within the city, but the city itself was inside, eastern Germany, which the Soviets controlled. And so the Soviets then, shut down like the railways and the roads to get from West Germany to West Berlin. Right. Because think about it, let’s say you’re American troops and you’re kind of protecting West Berlin, but you’re surrounded by East Germany. You’re a little city in a bigger area controlled by the Soviets. And so the Soviets shut down the road, shut down the railway. So the only way to get people in and out and supplies in and out were by plane. And so they had to rely on air travel, to get into, west Berlin. But anyways, back to the wall, the wall was between the two parts of Berlin, which was again, surrounded by Soviet-controlled East Germany. It’s kind of a weird, interesting dynamic how they split up the country. But then they also split up the capital city of Berlin.
Brittany: So Connor, would that have been the Eastern block, not just the part of Berlin, but the whole part that was controlled by the Soviet Union? I might be wrong on that, but remember that term being important.
Connor: Right. Yeah. So it, you had kind of this control of the eastern half of the country by the Soviets and then the eastern half of the Capitol city. Kinda weird how they broke it up.
Brittany: Thank you for explaining that. Cause I was a little bit confused. So tell me, Connor, about, you know, the families that lived on either side of the wall.
Connor: Oh, man. I mean, I think that’s one of the saddest parts about this. you know, you couldn’t really go pay a visit to people on the other side. I mean, it was basically impossible. There were guard towers to, make sure that no one from the eastern side could leave. They basically built the wall not just to keep, keep the capitol, the filthy capitalists out of East Berlin. It was to keep people in. I mean, there were people in East Berlin who would try and escape, right? They wanted to flee to go join their family or to, you know, find freedom and whatnot. And so of course, as we’ve talked about before, one of the important aspects of individual liberty is freedom of movement. Yes. And if you’re not free to like, go where you want and visit who you want and travel where you want, then you’re not really free. And this freedom in Eastern Germany, as I said, was, was nearly non-existent. I mean, there were secret spies, and people were being taught that you know, capitalism is evil and the west is evil. And, you know, they were cut off from the rest of the world. They couldn’t even really see for themselves, you know, what the West, what capitalism really had to offer. And as we said, like many families were separated, and without this freedom to visit, to travel, they remained separated and, you know, people were trying to escape the wall. Some people didn’t make it. There was barbed wire, there were snipers dogs, all these things. And, you know, there were people who lived in Eastern Germany but worked in the West. They were, I mean, almost immediately cut off from their source of income, even before the wall was fully built. There were guards preventing people from getting out. there were actually, I think four stages of this wall being, fully built. So the first is that they set up like this wire fence and a big like concrete block wall that was in.
Brittany: Which doesn’t take long as we saw during the, you know, Capitol Rio. It’s on the six. They can erect barricades pretty quickly.
Connor: Yeah. So that was in 1961. And then they spent a few years improving or tightening strengthening, making more thick, the wire fence. And then they spent about a decade improving the concrete wall all up and down Berlin. They’d make it more robust, they’d build it really strong and thick. And then, they had this period of time for a while where they had, it was called, I think Border Wall 75. And they had this zone in the middle. As we said before, there were like towers with snipers and dogs. They had this like zone, within which they would have the military their kind of policing, the border. And so this wasn’t a temporary thing. I mean, this was a multi-decade, experience for the people in Berlin.
Brittany: One thing that really interests me a lot is it reminds me a lot of North and South Korea, you know, an episode we did where you have two places right next to each other, but the difference is night and day. You know, people in North Korea have talked about, or people in, sorry, South Korea have talked about at nighttime there are no lights in North Korea there is no electricity, right? It’s literally night and day. When you look at the two countries, you wouldn’t think they were near each other at all. And it was very similar in Berlin because you had one country that was actually thriving. You know, there was economic growth, jobs were being created on the other side. It was as if time not only stood still but if society went back in time, you know, western clothes were, were frowned upon and not worn jeans, you know, you couldn’t really wear jeans, rock, and roll was illegal. You had to listen to, you know, old-school country folk music. So this was, you know, the war ended years ago. But for many people, especially those living in Germany, it kind of felt like an extension of this oppression they were already experiencing. And in the beginning, you know, no one was allowed to visit the other side. Now after a few years, Westerners, so Western Berlin, folks were allowed to come to visit the East for like a day or two at a time. But that was only if they were able to secure a visa. And as you can imagine, getting the visa, which is basically like a ticket or like a card that says, I’m allowed to travel into your country. Getting that was not easy. and with very few exceptions, Eastern Germans were, you know, never allowed to leave. Because imagine if they let you go for a day, are you gonna come back? Like, I think most people would probably go into hiding. And so that was too much of a risk for them. At least if Westerners were coming to visit a family member like they don’t wanna stay there. Nobody wants to stay there, which should tell you something about communism. But so many of the people in the West tried to help. Obviously, that wasn’t so easy. Rock and roll musicians would, would set up concerts right next to the wall. And so they would do like these, like, you know, cause remember they don’t have music like this in the east either. So they would do this as kind of a unifying like, let’s bring the country together, but also like, this is what you’re missing out on, listen to this music. So that was a big thing at the time. I think David Bowie was one of them. I might have that wrong. No, it was David Bowie. He did, a concert and so did what’s his name, Hasselhoff. He was like a star in the eighties who had won, like.
Connor: Baywatch guy.
Brittany: Yes. The Baywatch guy also. Yeah. He did a concert. And again, this guy had one hit and he is like the biggest nerd ever. So that’s funny. Eventually, though shocking communism failed Eastern Germany was suffering from extreme economic problems. And, you know, when other countries also began to fall, it became obvious that the Berlin Wall was not gonna be sustained. So in 1989 is when it finally came down. So let’s think about this. It was erected in 1961. It finally comes down in 1989. And while that might seem like a very long time ago to our younger listeners, you know for Connor and I, we were alive when that happened. I don’t remember it. I was too young, but I was alive. But you know, people on both sides, when that happened, people were crying, they were celebrating, they were singing together. It was this really beautiful moment in history that also signaled that you know, the Cold War was finally coming to an end.
Connor: I think though for people in East Germany, it was still hard, you know, to get used to a new world that they’d been kept from for nearly 30 years. I mean, these people like North Korea, right? Yeah. Imagine North Korea. Poof. You know, you could travel wherever you want, talk to whoever you want. And they come out and they’re like, what has happened to the world? And when the wall went down, you know, capitalism really just flooded the eastern parts of the country. I mean, for many people, I think it was an easier adjustment. They craved that freedom and innovation, but many of the older people struggled.
Brittany: No, and that’s, I’m glad you brought that up because there’s a movie I love, it’s a German film, probably not for kids, maybe for older teens, but obviously I, think parents, you know, watch it. First, it’s called Goodbye Lennon. And I love it because it is a fictional story, but it talks about the final days of the Berlin Wall being up. And it’s about a family whose mother is a big communist, advocate. And she goes into a coma days before the wall comes down, and then she gets out of the coma and while she’s in the coma, she’s in the coma for months. The kids have completely westernized themselves and they’re doing great. The daughter has dropped out of college and is working at McDonald’s, but she’s actually making good money and buying stuff and dressing like the American kids. And, the kid is now installing cable TV in people’s houses. Like they’re the epitome of Westerners now. But their mom gets out of the hospital and because she’s so frail they have to convince her that the wall is still up. So they can’t let her out of the room. They have to record old, Eastern European. Like they have to record old TV shows somehow and like show her those. And I think it was videotaped were brand new, so they were able to do that. They have to go find food that they’re no longer selling in Germany and pretend that they’re buying it from like an Eastern Berlin store. So they have to go through all these things. But there’s a great moment where the kids leave and they had just put up a Coca-Cola billboard across the street from their house, and the mom looks out the window and she sees this giant, you know, a beacon of capitalism, this sign, this giant Coca-Cola sign and passes out and is freaking out. But, the movie is really great because even though Hollywood is generally, or even the film industry, whether it’s Hollywood or, you know, Germany tends to be pretty anti-capitalism. This film really shows what happened when Eastern Berlin was able to embrace the free market, how everyone’s life got better. so fascinating movie. Highly, highly recommend the parents give it a watch.
Connor: You mentioned, earlier, Britney, that, you know, you and I were alive when this happened. I think that’s what makes this story so crazy. I mean, this really wasn’t that long ago. And, you know, even though there are horror stories of people who lived on the eastern side of the wall, there’s still people today who think we should give socialism and communism a try. I’m like, people are crazy, you know? But we already know what happens when communism takes over. It never goes well. It’s always destruction. It’s always economic impoverishment. You know, this is such an important story to learn about because it’s in our recent past. This isn’t something from 200 years ago in a world long forgotten. This is in recent memory. There are people go ask your grandparents about what it was like for them, what they felt and thought when the Berlin Wall came down, what it meant to them and their friends, what you know, experiences they had. You know, you can watch YouTube videos of people who grew up right in the eastern side of Germany and East Berlin and the suffering they had. imagine again, like, it’s like North Korea today. you know, poof, the leadership, you know, goes away. They lift all the restrictions and, and imagine what we would think about all those people wanting to find ways to help, wanting companies wanting to go set up and sell to those people, create jobs, help them, you know, restore their lives and get their lives in order.
Brittany: Start their lives. Really, they’ve never had them. Yeah.
Connor: Right. And so it would be, I think, a similar equivalent of seeing these people suffer so much and be deprived and propagandized. but this, you know, story of the Berlin Walls in our recent past. Go look up some videos, you know, for the parents. Like, Brittany said you watched Goodbye, Lennon. There’s so many resources out there, but this didn’t happen long ago. And I think for that reason, it’s especially interesting for us to learn more about and see how this can happen in our day too. Cuz it didn’t happen that long ago. And there’s plenty of people today who want us to go back in that direction, which is just nuts. So to that end, you guys got homework to do. Hope you enjoy it. Thanks as always for listening, Brittany, great conversation. Until next time, we’ll talk to you later.
Brittany: Talk to you later.
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