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Remember the Wall, Forget "Bridge of Spies"

BRIDGE OF SPIES simply gets 1950s East Berlin wrong. It was not as desolate and ruined as depicted here. Unter den Linden in the historic city center had been quickly reconstructed, opera houses and state university included. A shiny new city center around Alexanderplatz and the new Stalinallee had also been created by 1957/1961 (the time BRIDGE is set in). For many, East Berlin was indeed a fragile, but hopeful place.

Then came the Wall. The first Berlin Wall was indeed erected overnight and came as a surprise to many in East and West (as correctly shown in the movie), but it took years to enlarge and upgrade it into the complex and inhuman barrier that has since become part of our public imaginary. Ironically, the Berlin Wall became the largest infrastructure project of the GDR, conceived by, built, paid for and maintained by East German taxes (and not by the Soviets).

In the Spielberg movie, however, it is shown to have come into life as a fully developed two-barrier system, complete with guard towers and "Schießbefehl", guards ordered to shoot to kill. It also wrongly implies that the GDR and the USSR somehow cooperated to build the Wall. Accordingly, the Tom Hanks character is morally appalled, and some of this feeling of disgust (and helplessness) can also be found in Lucius Clay's Foreign Affairs article.

But beyond the moral indignation we should remember that the division of Europe had already started much before August 13, 1961, and that the process that led to the impenetrable Iron Curtain was a lengthy one. The Cold War got a lot colder on August 13, but the erection of the Berlin Wall was (and still is) a symbol for East German paranoia as much as a rational last-ditch effort to contain the uncontrolled migration flows into the Western sectors of Germany.

For Berliners especially this was a harrowing experience, and (beyond the geopolitics) we should remember their panic and anger, their fear and frustration on that fateful day. But also, and this is an uncomfortable thought, how complicit the Western Powers became by not stepping in to prevent any of this. On this weekend of Berlin Wall remembrance, we say: Never again.

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