30 Years After The Fall of the Berlin Wall, More Barriers Are Being Built Than Ever Before

But wherever you build a wall, people will always try to get over – or under it, journalist Helena Merriman writes.
Berlin Wall
Berlin Wall

Sixty-five countries around the world have some kind of wall or barrier along their borders. I knew about Trump’s proposed wall, and the barrier in the West Bank. But I didn’t know about the walls in Norway, India, Morocco, Cyprus, Slovenia... the list goes on. There’s been much debate about the political motivations for these walls, but I wanted to find out about something else: what happens when you build a wall? What effect does it have on people who live near it?

My research soon took me back to the wall of all walls: the Berlin Wall. It’s one of the only walls in history built to keep people in, not out. It was constructed with one purpose: to stop the flow of people in Communist East Berlin escaping into the West for a better life. They were fed up of the poor living standards, the controlling government, the soviet tanks that were sent in whenever people protested on the streets. And so on 13 August, 1961, tens of thousands of East German soldiers went out into the streets in the dead of night, and put up concrete barricades and barbed wire fences, cutting Berlin in half. When people woke up the next morning, they suddenly found themselves on one side of it. Brothers were separated from sisters, husbands from their wives. There were even stories of mothers who were now trapped on a different side of the wall to their newborn babies.

That very day, the escapes began. Some people were pretty brazen about it: they just jumped over the barbed wire. Others were more inventive: there’s the couple who swam across the river Spree, pushing their three year-old daughter in front of them in a bathtub; there’s the delivery guy who smashed his van through the wall; and then there were the people who sneaked into houses right next to the wall and would then throw themselves out of the windows, hoping that firemen on the other side, in the West, would catch them. Then there were the people who didn’t make it. The border guards were soon given orders to shoot anyone who tried to escape.

Over the past year, I’ve been going to Berlin, interviewing people whose lives were ripped apart by the wall. There were lots of people who’d found extraordinary ways of getting into the West, but there was one story above all that fascinated me. It was about a man called Joachim Rudolph. He was 22 years old when the wall went up, and a few weeks later, he’d crept through a field in the middle of the night, and escaped into the West. But it’s what Joachim did next that intrigued me. Instead of enjoying his new life in the West, he’d decided to help dig a tunnel straight back into the East to help get other people out.

He told me all about the tunnel: how it was so small that they had to lay flat on their backs to dig; the blisters on their hands after the 8 hour shifts digging; the constant leaks; the electric shocks from the lights they’d rigged up. He told me about the constant threat of the border guards who patrolled above their heads. If they heard the diggers, they would rip open the tunnel and throw in dynamite.

As the years went on and the wall grew bigger, people who lived close to it started showing signs of stress and anxiety. A psychologist even coined a new word to describe it: Mauerkrankeit, which means wall sickness. Thirty years on, as the world marks thirty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, that mauerkrankeit lives on. Some of those who lived behind the wall in the East say they still feel wall sickness and they avoid narrow spaces or anywhere they feel confined.

My research led me to make a podcast series – Tunnel 29 – and when I finished making it, I phoned Joachim Rudolph to ask him what he thought about the other walls being built around the world right now. His answer was simple: “the politics for building them might be different,” he told me. “But they have one thing in common: wherever you build a wall, people will try to get over it – or under it.”

Helena Merriman is the presenter and producer of BBC Radio 4 podcast Tunnel 29, available on BBC Sounds now.