|It would get bigger.
The building of the Berlin Wall – which began not with an iron but rather a steel barbed wire curtain - ‘Stacheldraht’ in German – stretched across roads, parks, through buildings, even crossing rivers. The pompously named ‘anti-fascist protection rampart’ would not come to look like the Wall we all remember until the concrete version was put up in 1965, and improved in design in 1975.
14 foot tool. 96 miles long around West Berlin, with 302 watchtowers, the wall kept in a population in the East that at times was haemorrhaging 3,000 people a day to the West in search of a better life. The socialist East Germany was, as many a reader of spy fiction will know, not exactly an idyll.
In spy fiction and in spy movies, the Wall has provided one of the greatest of dramatic backdrops. It's been tunnelled under; crossed by foot (under cover of darkness), smashed through, crossed by improvised plane or balloon, driven through with hidden passengers, and been the source of swaps of the human currency of espionage - captured agents.
Funeral in Berlin, of course, captured the essence and absurdity of the Wall well, with the calm, quiet ceremony of the exchange signalling one of the many brief, temporary thaws in a 29 year period of deep freeze when Soviets and Allies exchanged their own. Plenty of other movies have featured the Berlin Wall as a backdrop, of course. 1965's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold with Richard Burton; Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three; Wings of Desire by Wim Wenders; 2003's sleeper hit Goodbye Lenin (my personal favourite) among others.
When reading any of Len Deighton’s novels espionage novels – in particular the Bernard Samson triple trilogy – the Berlin Wall – along with the city itself has always for me been almost an addiditional character, so impactful was its presence on the protagonists and on the possibilities it offers for the story's development as the Wall challenges, separates, kills, confuses and hardens the should. It is a marvellous metaphor for the author - the Wall is a physical metaphor for Bernard's marriage, the two lives he leads: agent/husband, Fiona/Gloria, Bernard/Stinnes, Freedom/Death.
"This side of Checkpoint Charlie had not changed. There never was much there; just one small hut and some signs warning you about leaving the Western Sector. But the East German side had grown far more elaborate. Walls and fences, gates and barriers, endless white lines to mark out the traffic lanes. Most recently they'd build a huge walled compound where the tourist buses were searched and tapped, and scrutinised by gloomy men who pushed wheeled mirrors under every vehicle lest one of their fellow-countrymen was clinging there.
The checkpoint is never silent. The great concentration of lights that illuminate the East German side produces a steady hum like a field of insects on a hot summer's day. [ ] Beyond the silhouette of Checkpoint Charlie, Friedrichstrasse in the East shone as bright as day."
There are a number of excellent books I’ve read on the Berlin Wall – its construction, its role in the Cold War, the view from the East. Two I'd encourage blog readers to check out: After the Berlin Wall by Christopher Hilton, uses personal perspectives of residents to understand the impact of the Wall on Germany as nation, as it tried to unify, and The Berlin Wall by Frederick Taylor, is a wonderful exposition on the political and military context behind the decision to build the Wall.
Berlin is united, but still, depending on who you talk to, divided. It works collectively, but has distinct characters still on either side. The two halves of the city are like two hemispheres of the brain. The Wall had incredible impacts on the minds certainly of individuals and families, as highlighted in these accounts in The Guardian.
The Wall - symbolically and materially - impacted the lives of everyone on the globe, from the residents of Wedding to the Bomber pilots stationed on Guam. Like a hair trigger, any breach of the Wall - any allied attempt to bring it down directly - would be a prelude to nuclear war. Other means would need to be found, and therein lay the basis for many great stories by a number of authors while the Wall stood.
Whenever the Berlin Wall appears on screen, for a moment I wistfully wallow in what memories it creates for me: my childhood; my frequent visits to the city; the great stories I've read set around the Wall. But it also forces me to imagine what life must have been like for the people living behind the wall, their horizons dominated by the drab grey concrete, watchtowers and the ever-present security lighting.
It was an awful experience for East Germans, but perhaps an inevitable consequence of the way the Allies were frozen in opposition to each other when the music stopped after World War Two. As Kennedy said when it was built:
"A wall is a hell of a lot better than a war."