30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe is a continent of walls.
Thirty years ago, the Berlin Wall was brought down in a euphoric rush of hope and reunification.
I was born in the 90s. For my whole life, the joyful crowds swarming around and over the Wall have symbolized hope, resilience, and the chance to build something new. A world that had been closed off to thousands of East Germans suddenly opened up. The Wall had fallen. No more divisions – Europe could begin to heal.
But thirty years on, Europe is a continent of walls.
The Berlin Wall was 156 km long, slicing the German capital in half. It was a lasting symbol of oppression and division, separating family from family, friend from friend, and preventing East Germans from moving freely, accessing jobs or specialist medical care that wasn’t available in the East, and isolating the two halves of the city totally. Few would argue that the Berlin Wall brought peace or prosperity to either East or West Germany.
But since 1989, the EU has not just built the equivalent of a new Berlin Wall, but 13, with nearly half of EU countries having constructed border walls. Around the Schengen Area, 1,000 km of border walls have been constructed in the last 30 years, and wall building has accelerated rapidly over the last five years. And that’s not to mention the deadly blockades at sea, which cover still more of Europe’s borders, or, perhaps most dangerous, the invisible walls created by policies like the UK’s Hostile Environment, which build a thousand day-to-day barriers to prevent migrants living and thriving in Europe.
And it’s not just the EU. Across the world, we’re seeing walls spring up, and division and isolationism being preached as gospel. From the US-Mexico border to the new wall being built between Turkey and Syria, right-wing demagogues across the globe preach pre-emptive violence and hard borders.
Just like the Berlin Wall, these militarized borders not only create physical isolation and separation, but separation of the mind. We’re taught to ignore the humanity of the displaced people who are killed at the border, or turned back to face near-certain death at sea or in the countries they left.
The capitalist interests that to many in 1989 seemed like freedom are sustained by walls. The hard borders separating the global north from the global south feed their profit margins. To create border walls, police the seas, and build surveillance networks, Europe has paid out billions of euros to private corporations. Meanwhile, by segregating people in poor communities and keeping them from travelling, corporations keep a constantly exploitable workforce. In the 21st century, walls are big business, churning out profit at huge human cost.
But like the Berlin Wall, these walls must fall. If we want to build a future where we move past the inequality and exploitation that sits at the root of so much suffering, if we want to look forward to a world run in the interests of the people, not the rich, freedom of movement can’t be limited to the wealthy and the privileged.
Let’s take the right lesson from the fall of the Berlin Wall. There’s no justice when walls separate us.