Reflections on the Berlin Wall from former U.S. Ambassador to Germany, John Kornblum

DoD Photo


Today marks a quiet milestone in Berlin’s history: the Berlin Wall has been gone for as long as it stood, or 28 years, 2 months and 26 days. In recognition of this, we are sharing the following text, an excerpt from former US Ambassador to Germany John Kornblum’s contribution to the catalogue for the German Pavilion at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale.


Unbuilding Walls


Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground- swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
Robert Frost


Since antiquity, walls have been a symbol of identity, power, security, conquest, but also of division. In the lawless days of old, entire cities and countries defined their territory within walls. China’s ancient wall remains intact to this day. Walls kept out invaders and kept in those who would escape. They were used as redoubts from which to defeat enemies. They made possible control boxes to collect taxes and control trade.

In the Middle Ages in Europe, walls were also a sign of power and glory. The great walls and moats surrounding cities such as Vienna or Paris or Rome were not only for protection against invaders, they also signified the great strength and influence of those who were in charge. Moscow’s Kremlin is a unique example which continues to fulfill its purpose today.

In some strange way, walls often kept the peace just by being there. An invader would think twice about attacking a prince who was able to build such a magnificent barrier. Dissatisfied citizens were intimidated by a ruling monarch who controlled such an impenetrable bastion. Historic etchings and paintings give us to this day a sense of the impressive fortresses which were built across the world. They were lasting monuments, and parts of them have survived to the modern day.

However, as Robert Frost put it in his immortal poem “Mending Wall,” there is also something subversive about a wall. A wall is an angry piece of construction. A wall possesses no beauty or aesthetic sense. It divides rather than unifies. Why is it there in the first place? Who is trying to keep who out or who is trying to defeat whom? Almost from the moment of its birth, a wall is an insult to human freedom, a challenge to those whom it excludes. It was somehow calling out to be “unbuilt.”

And this wish has most often been realized. Once the great city walls of the past were built, they rarely kept out the people or countries they were built against.  Instead, the opponents learned to innovate. From the Trojan Horse of Greek antiquity to the barbarians who sacked Rome – innovations such as the great systems of tunnels and fortifications built by invading armies 750 years ago – to the long bows of the English and the cannons invented by the Chinese.  All of this modern technology was aimed against one thing: the wall.

And in the end, technology won out. The walls of history are no longer with us. The internal ring roads of many European cities remind us of their past. Many of them follow exactly the course charted by the walls of old. The fact that they are today efficient means of moving automobiles and buses around crowded cities gives them a unique new role. The automobiles themselves represent the technology which made the walls first impractical and then unnecessary.

But there was something ironic about this mass destruction of feudal walls in the 19th century. At the moment they were being torn down, the world was entering a new, industrial revolution which undermined the legitimacy of the very leaders who were taking them apart. In Vienna, for example, the new “Ringstrasse,” which followed the route of the old wall, was decked out with magnificent new buildings meant to celebrate the Grandeur of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. 50 years later, that Empire also fell, a victim of the new industrial age.

As industrial society expanded, it too discovered the value of a new sort of wall. Their physical role was replaced by a symbolic, even ideological evolution. If walls could no longer stop cannons or airplanes, they could still divide humans from each other. They could establish laws and punishment for those who disobeyed them. They could draw lines. Their message: you may be able to destroy my bricks and mortar, but ideas can be just as dangerous.

In fact, the history of the first half of the twentieth century in Europe was characterized by the erection of ideological walls across the continent. Cultures withdrew into their national boundaries and told others to keep out. The old empires were replaced by dozens of sovereign states, each based on a single culture which wished to be separate from others.  Old fashioned stone walls were usually not necessary. The borders established in our minds were often just as efficient.

In fact, one way to define Europe in the twentieth century, is through the process of division and cultural wall building which replaced the great stone edifices of the past. European history came to be dominated by new ideological empires whose walls were just as thick and impenetrable as were those of the old feudal kings. Their soldiers were still there. But this time, they controlled freedom and ideas instead of fighting against other armies.

The new ideologies, Communism, Fascism, Maoism (the religion of national liberation) tore apart the tightly woven cultural carpet of the pre-industrial world. As the old world of feudal dukes was being torn apart, these new scientific, social and technological religions built complex systems of walls which divided societies more efficiently that the old leaders could ever have imagined.

Soon the modern world was marked by this new sort of ideological wall. Especially after the collapse of the European order in 1918, symbolic ideological walls were being built everywhere. But they often signified national awakenings. and religious or ideological confrontations in the rest of the world as well. We need only think of the division of British India into Muslim and Hindu nations, or the confrontation in Israel and Palestine or even the walls built around Cuba in the Caribbean to understand how widespread and penetrating this trend had become.

By the middle of the twentieth century, these ideological walls sometimes were supported by real edifices. The most dramatic were walls separating three countries divided by the confrontations which emerged from World War II – Korea, Viet Nam and Germany. For many decades those three walls formed a strategic, ideological barrier which affected events in all parts of the world.

The wall built around the Western Sectors of Berlin and between the Western and Eastern parts of Europe was the most dramatic and the most important of these three barriers. But the wall in Viet Nam kept alive the legacy of French colonialism and led to one of the bloodiest “wars of national liberation” in modern history. The wall dividing the two parts of Korea exists until this day. Only recently have the tensions between the two parts of the country again erupted into a global confrontation.

Europe, however, was also the place where the most thorough and most dangerous divisions arose. By 1960, virtually the entire continent had been divided between Western democracies supported by the United States and so-called socialist republics who were in reality part of one of the largest empires ever built in Europe – that of the Soviet Union and the nations is subjugated in Central Europe.

Determined never to again be invaded by Germany or the West, Soviet leaders built a tightly controlled police state in all of their territories and stashed away a massive number of nuclear weapons with which to offset the West’s large military advantage.

Ground Zero of this stand-off was the former German capital of Berlin. It had been divided into four Sectors to be administered jointly by the British, French, American and Soviet victorious powers. Joint administration soon dissolved into confrontation. By 1961, the only way the Soviets could save its client state, the German Democratic Republic was by building two walls – one separating East and West Germany and one separating the Western Sectors of Berlin from East Berlin and from the surrounding parts of East Germany.

The ugly edifice remained standing for more than 28 years. The scar it tore across Berlin and the human suffering it caused were so dramatic that it rapidly came to symbolize the entirety of the confrontation which held the globe in check for nearly forty five years after the end of World War II.

This Cold War was in effect an extension of the two shooting wars which had destroyed the old European order during the first half of the 20th century. It was conducted as if it were a military campaign and its conclusion ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Europe was in other words on a war footing almost without interruption from August, 1914 to November, 1989. Massive Armies confronted each other, mostly at the center of Germany. Thousands of nuclear weapons were at the disposal of American and Soviet leaders.

At several flash points during the postwar period, the stand-off in Berlin threatened to dissolve into a military confrontation. The city has provided many symbolic images of this period, such as the Berlin Airlift, the building of the Wall on August 13, 1961, Checkpoint Charlie and the Glienicke Bridge. In 1985, this site connecting West Berlin with Potsdam in East German, hosted the largest spy exchange in modern history. It demonstrated that despite the absence of military confrontation, the Cold War had not been so “cold” after all.  To this day, the symbolism of the site site of the former Allied Crossing point through the Wall on Friedrichstrasse, known as Checkpoint Charlie, makes it one of the most popular tourist destinations in all of Germany.

But by 1972, the Western powers and the Soviet Union had concluded the so-called Quadripartite Agreement on Berlin which regulated both their competition and their cooperation in the divided city. Over the years, cooperation evolved into a mutual understanding by the Soviets and the West of the importance of maintaining balance in Berlin. As such, the bizarre division of the city became a point of communication between East and West and probably helped avoid broader confrontation.

The dramatic image of the Berlin Wall was so powerful that in 1987, Ronald Reagan was able to use a single sentence: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this Wall” to define America’s entire European strategy. And even today, nearly thirty years later, the end of the Cold War is most often defined with a reference to ”after the fall of the Wall.” Not the Berlin Wall, but simply “the Wall.”

On February 5, 2018, the Berlin Wall had been gone as long as it had stood – 28 years, two months and 26 days. One has to search long and hard to find an equally iconic historical image. There really isn’t one.


John Kornblum served as U.S. Ambassador to Germany from 1997 to 2001. Towards the end of the Berlin Wall era, he was the U.S. Minister and Deputy Commandant in Berlin, from 1985 to 1987. 

KCRW Berlin will regularly publish thought pieces and essays contributed by third parties. The opinions and ideas expressed by guest contributors do not necessarily reflect those of KCRW Berlin.