Joyce McMillan: Walls have no place in a free world

In 1989 we celebrated them coming down, now they are returning, to our shame, writes Joyce McMillan

West Berliners crowd in front of the Berlin Wall in 1989 as they watch East German border guards demolish a section of the wall. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
West Berliners crowd in front of the Berlin Wall in 1989 as they watch East German border guards demolish a section of the wall. Picture: AFP/Getty Images

To the Macrobert Arts Centre in Stirling, last weekend, to see Rapture Theatre’s production of Michael Frayn’s play Democracy, now on tour around Scotland. It’s not an easy play; it lasts a full three hours, and has its structural weaknesses. Yet it explores one of the most fascinating periods in recent European history with a fierce and thoughtful intelligence that is almost irresistible, at least to those who care about the story and fate of our continent.

Its subject is the government of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, who came to power in 1969 as the first social democratic chancellor since the Second World War, and began the process of rapprochement with the East which helped lay the ground work for the eventual fall of the Berlin Wall, 20 years later. The play’s main focus is on the close personal and political relationship between Brandt and his assistant Gunter Guillaume, who turned out to be an East German spy. What is perhaps most interesting to 21st century eyes, though, is the vision of a country setting out on the journey that led gradually towards that moment, in 1989, when all the great barriers created by the Cold War began to crash down; and when, for a few brief years, we could imagine a Europe without walls, in which citizens could travel freely across the whole continent, and the old tragedies of oppression, violence, and imprisonment would be over at last – not least in Berlin, the city divided by that ugly and iconic wall.

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In those days, of course, the governments of the west could plausibly argue that they were on the side of the angels, seeking the fundamental freedoms of the peoples of east, while the old authoritarian governments of the Warsaw Pact put up a stubborn but doomed resistance.

Somehow, though, in the last quarter century, the role of western governments has gradually reversed; until today, from the American presidential campaign of Donald Trump, to the great wall built against the Palestinians by the country that often calls itself the only western-style democracy in the Middle East, to the disgraceful behaviour of the Hungarian government in the current refugee crisis, building armed defences along its borders in flagrant breach of international law, the nations of the 21st century west have become the great builders of walls, indulging in that same futile effort to hold back the tide of history with barbed wire and concrete for which we once mocked the allegedly slow-witted apparatchiks of a crumbling Soviet system.

And when the British government this week announced its decision to join this 21st century wave of narrow and regressive thinking, by co-operating with the French in building a huge wall along the access roads to Calais port to stop refugees trying to jump aboard lorries, it was hard to resist the idea that this wall – also erected against human beings fleeing intolerable conditions in their own countries – will soon look exactly like the Berlin Wall we once viewed with such contempt, complete with watch towers, barbed wire, and guards armed with machine guns, to stop anyone trying to cross.

And about this truly lamentable development, there are three things worth saying. The first is that the building of such walls is functionally useless in achieving the change apparently desired by those who propose the measure. In Mexico, people traffickers are already said to be digging tunnels under the border, in anticipation of a Donald Trump presidency; in Calais, if the wall is built, those trying to reach the UK will simply move along the Channel coast, to other points of departure.

Secondly, our current policies towards migrants seeking refuge in the west from countries devastated by war represent a clear breach of our international obligations, as set down in the UN Convention on Refugees. There is, of course, a widespread belief among second-rate politicians that to spit on such agreements, and to pander to the knee-jerk xenophobia encouraged by some sections of the media, is both a clever and a popular move. Yet it is undoubtedly true that countries which, over long periods, try to present themselves as superior because of the values they hold, and then betray those values and commitments in their practical policies, end up losing all moral and political authority, not only in the international community, but in the eyes of their own people; the history of the last years of the Soviet system is particularly instructive in this respect.

And finally, we should consider exactly what these useless symbolic walls tell us about the state of mind of those who propose such measures, and those who support them. For the truth is that nothing worthwhile is ever achieved by building the kind of mental barriers against other human beings that are made visible in the physical walls that increasingly, once again, scar our political landscape. To believe in these solutions, we need to believe in the lie that we are somehow better than other people, more entitled, more precious, less evil; and once we wed ourselves to that lie, our capacity for learning, and for creative, flexible and realistic new thinking, diminishes by the hour, until there is nothing left but entrenched bigotry, and a familiar sullen resistance to inevitable change.

The decision we face now is therefore a stark one. Support those walls, and you commit yourself to live in a world of lies, and of ever-narrowing sympathies; to put yourself definitively on the wrong side of history. Oppose those walls, reach out to other human beings who aspire to the life you take for granted, and you have at least a chance of living in the truth, living well, and laying the foundations of what might one day be a better, more loving and more sustainable world.

And that decision, finally, must be made by nations as well as individuals. For either we turn towards the future with a smile of welcome, or we make ourselves its rigid and bitter enemies; fenced in by walls which will be built only to be torn down – with us, this time, on the receiving end of the world’s scorn, for ever having built them in the first place.