The fall of the Berlin Wall—and what it means for walls today | Column
Walls have sadly become tolerable again, writes a Duke professor of public policy.
In this Sunday, Nov. 12, 1989 file photo, an unidentified West Berliner swings a sledgehammer, trying to destroy the Berlin Wall near Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, where a new passage was opened nearby.
In this Sunday, Nov. 12, 1989 file photo, an unidentified West Berliner swings a sledgehammer, trying to destroy the Berlin Wall near Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, where a new passage was opened nearby. [ JOHN GAPS III | AP ]
Published Nov. 8, 2019

Thirty years ago this Nov. 9, one of history’s most iconic monuments to human folly tumbled.

The Berlin Wall was a physical manifestation of the iron curtain, a symbol of the Cold War, a constant reminder of the insurmountable barriers between communism and capitalism. Laying bare the wounds of violence and war, the wall sliced through the core of Berlin to mold two peoples out of one.

From right to left, East to West, leaders mustered rationalizations and excuses that, today, make people turn away in shame. Everyday people averted their eyes from the moral bankruptcy of a world divided into spheres of influence -- Soviet and U.S. -- separated by 12 feet of steel and concrete and barbed wire, enforced by guards ready to shoot and kill. We learned to justify, excuse, accept -- and, almost without fault, to blame the other side.

The fall of the Berlin Wall discredited walls as politically legitimate for a generation. Now, among regimes trying to exclude others from the spoils of their exploits, walls have emerged as tolerable again. At this very moment, they are fortified under the lame excuse of defense -- on the U.S. southern border against desperate migrants, in Kashmir against a Muslim minority, in Turkey against embattled refugees, in Israel against Palestinians. Nations across the world respond to the suffering of the displaced with what Pope Francis calls a “globalization of indifference.”

According to the United Nations, war, persecution and organized crime have displaced some 70 million people worldwide. Climate change is uprooting an additional tens of millions. What all have in common is simple and tragic: through no fault of their own, people no longer have a safe home to return to.

As inhabitants of the same small planet, it seems strange that people would carve it into nations, and then build walls to keep out people deemed undesirable. The philosopher Peter Singer argues that today’s big problems, from climate change to human rights and inequality, can only be solved on a global scale, in “one world.”

Those trained to look at the bigger picture have long argued for open borders. The Dutch thinker Anarcharsis Cloots, after being nominated to the new French National Assembly in 1792, contended that human rights only made sense as universal rights, functioning globally in an indivisible sovereign body. Why confine ourselves to being French or Dutch, he asked, when we can be glorious global citizens?

Imagine, for a moment, a world without borders. Giving everyday people the same kinds of freedoms that money and capital and goods already possess, and the wealthy have long enjoyed. Legal and social protections for everyone. A world that treasures people instead of concentrated privilege and power.

Open borders and universal rights may seem like pie in the sky. But daily we are learning that there is only one thing demonstrably crazy and unrealistic: to continue on the current path of endless and reckless expansion and exclusion. More is not better – it will simply drive us off the cliff. So why not try a potentially game-changing idea, one that builds on our collective strengths rather than our fears?

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It starts with open borders, universal rights, the planet as one. Shared responsibilities, where we protect people and environments. No longer do we outsource dangerous work, toxic production, conflict and war. Let’s join young people from around the world when they demand a future for themselves, and see each other as what all major religious traditions call for: brothers and sisters, working together.

No one predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall. Indeed, few thought it possible. Perhaps now it’s our time to reach for the seemingly impossible in order to make the necessary possible. The dangers of more walls, more extraction, more exclusion, are immense. But so are the opportunities of shifting course, of following some of the best minds in history and a growing movement of the planet’s young – tear down walls and barriers and borders, and do the one thing that makes humans unique among all species: consciously collaborate in solutions for a common prosperity.

Dirk Philipsen, who teaches public policy at Duke University, is author of “We Were the People – Voices from East Germany’s Revolutionary Autumn of 1989” (Duke University Press, 1993), among other books.