The Wall Of Peace

I took a trip to the Red Bloc, and I don’t mean Texas and the South, after I finished college. I mean the old Red Bloc, specifically the Soviet Union and East Germany. I was very curious to find out if my childhood memories of communist life were a figment of my imagination, or if that life was indeed as I remembered it. For the record, what I saw in the Soviet Union and East Germany, and particularly a very memorable trek across the Berlin Wall, more than reinforced my pre-existing impressions.

My wife and I are thinking of downsizing and while rummaging through old boxes and lots of old junk, I came across this tourist guide that I purchased in East Berlin back in the early 1970s. I thought the book had been lost long ago in one of my many moves, but somehow it survived all the way to today.

berlin-tourist-guide

I specifically remember this book because it was where I first found out that travel between East and West Berlin had not been restricted prior to the building of the Berlin Wall on August 13, 1961. I ended up using this very interesting fact in We Wanted Workers to illustrate the sizable “cost” that influences the migration decision. There was little reason for most East Germans to remain behind the Iron Curtain when all it took to escape the poverty and oppression was a cheap subway or train ride from East to West Berlin. And yet fewer than 15 percent of East Germans chose to move.

Rereading the brief socialist history of East Berlin (and the German Democratic Republic) in this tourist guide is very eye-opening. Unfortunately, the propagandist style seems faintly familiar and brings to mind how the mainstream media writes about many politically charged topics today. I thought this passage was particularly interesting, and I really like the reference to “experts” to quantify the costs and benefits.

wall-of-peace1

West Berlin became the cold war stronghold of the imperialists against the entire socialist camp…In West Berlin, more than 80 centres for agents and espionage were established which were intended to disturb the construction of socialism in the GDR. The American radio station RIAS and the western press poisoned the atmosphere, creating unrest against the population through hate propaganda and deliberately set out to entice scientists and specialists away from the GDR…

The hate campaigns of the press, the enticement and the acts of sabotage increased. The “Cold War” threatened to become a “hot war”–the third World War…On 13 August 1961 the GDR, through the action of the National People’s Army and the workers’ militia, overnight secured its borders also towards West Berlin…To make it quite clear to any aggressor that the border to West Berlin is a state frontier, the workers have made it well discernible by the anti-fascist protective wall…

According to expert estimates, the GDR lost 100,000 million marks through the open border, money which otherwise could have been used for construction work. The closing of the border brought an immediate and discernible easing. With new vigor, the Berlin working people started constructing their capital.

And that is how the “Wall of Peace” came about.

 

 

Author: George Borjas

I am a Professor of Economics and Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.