The recent media coverage of the anniversary of the fall of the Wall is strangely incomplete. In describing the history of the Wall, most commentators (see examples here and here) never mention capitalism as a driving force. They refer to communism as though it was the sole reason for the Wall’s existence, leaving us with the impression that the Soviets and the East Germans built the Wall in 1961 because that’s what Communists do: annex lands, imprison populations. This bothers me. For one thing, this approach disregards events and conflicts of the post war years that led up to the building of the Wall. For another, it suggests that there was only one actor – the Communist Soviet Union. In fact, the capitalist, liberal democratic United States played an equally important role in structuring politics in post-war Germany. Mentioning only communism when you talk about the Wall is like narrating a football game by only describing one team. When we expunge the word capitalism from a historical analysis, we lose sight of the fact that the Wall was a consequence of a contest between communism and capitalism known as the Cold War.
When the Soviets and the East German authorities built the Wall in 1961, the division of Germany was a fact and the political, economic and ideological differences between East and West Germany were firmly anchored in each country’s constitutions and institutions.
Who remembers that the United States, the Soviet Union, France and England fought on the same side in World War Two? Together, these countries made up the anti-Hitler alliance that defeated Germany. Together, they divided Germany into four occupation zones so that it would never again rise as a military power. The Allies also partitioned the capital city Berlin that was located in the Soviet Zone. Each sector was to be administered by its occupation power. Germany’s division pre-dated the Wall by sixteen years. It was an Allied decree and a direct consequence of Hitler’s defeat in World War II.
Once the common enemy was defeated, the anti-Hitler alliance fell apart because of the fundamental political and economic differences between the Soviet Union and the Western Powers. Already in the spring of 1946, English Prime Minister Winston Churchill coined the phrase “Iron Curtain” to describe the ideological division between Eastern and Western Europe. The Cold War era began taking shape before the two Germany’s had formally proclaimed themselves as separate states.
At a time when it seemed like life could and should never be normal again for the Germans who had unleashed such vast destruction, the Cold War shifted the political focus away from recent German history. A new battle was being waged, between Capitalism and Communism. Its front line ran through Germany and divided Berlin was the hot spot, with American, French and British troops stationed in the West and Soviet troops in the East.
In 1947, the Americans initiated the Marshall Plan, a 13 billion dollar aid package for Western Europe and specifically Western Germany. Many Americans were opposed to financing German reconstruction with tax dollars. Why jumpstart the broken economy of the enemy? Just two years earlier, Hitler-loving Germans were waging war against us, indeed, against humanity. But by 1947, Germany had become the frontier country where Communism had to be stopped. It was also a great market for American-made goods.
Fueled by Marshall Plan funds, the Western sectors of Germany quickly prospered. Meanwhile, the Eastern zone remained impoverished and not just because of its Soviet-style planned economy. Hitler’s armies had ravaged the Russian cities and the countryside and killed an estimated 25 million Russian people. Even if they’d wanted to, the Soviets were not in a position to give aid to the country they had helped to defeat with such great sacrifice. As victors, they demanded reparations and began dismantling industrial plants and railways as soon as WWII ended. For years to come, they claimed a share of East Germany’s industrial production. Even in the seventies and eighties, my East German friends would bring up these unequal starting positions when someone compared the lumbering East German economy to the Economic Miracle in West Germany. “Here in the DDR, we paid the price for Hitler’s war and we’re still paying the price. You West Germans were bailed out by the Americans and you got fat on Marshall Plan money. There was no way we could ever catch up.”
In 1949, the two German states were officially proclaimed. Even though the Cold War had generated hostility and distrust among leaders, people could still move fairly freely across the East/West border. Motivated by the prosperity and the liberal democratic politics in West Germany, more than two million East Germans moved there between 1949 and 1961. This exodus led the East German authorities to seal the border. The Wall was built to keep East Germans in and also to keep capitalism out.
When the rolls of barbed wire appeared in Berlin on the night of August 13, 1961, Western leaders actually expressed relief because they were tired of the German border conflicts that threatened to escalate into another war. The British ambassador to West Germany, Sir Christopher Steel, commented in a dispatch to London: “I personally have always wondered that the East Germans have waited so long to seal this border.” President John F. Kennedy told his advisers “it’s not a very nice solution, but a Wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.”
Of course, the Wall confined and restricted East Germans. It quickly became a symbol of tyranny and a convenient way to discredit ideas of socialism and communism. But it was not simply a communist scheme for oppression. Rather, it was the result of communism and capitalism - at Cold War with each other.
When we drop the term capitalism from the conversation (and from our thinking), we lose sight of the ways it shaped, not only the history of divided Germany, but the history of the 20th century. And we might forget that it continues to play a crucial role in contemporary events, conflicts and wars.