PARIS – Walls designed to keep people in or out – whether they are in Berlin, Nicosia, Israel, or Korea – are always the product of fear: East German leaders’ fear of a mass exodus by their citizens seeking freedom and dignity; Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders’ fear of continued war; Israelis’ fear of terrorism; or the North Korean leadership’s fear of “abandonment” by their martyred people. To freeze a fragile status quo, to consolidate one’s position, or to remain separate from others perceived as temptations or threats (or both) – such have always been the goals of politicians who build walls.
Why is there such a difference between the fate of Berlin – now a capital city where the progress of the present is slowly covering the many scars of the past – and the fate of Nicosia, where time has been frozen, or that of Israel, whose “security wall” is expanding like a fresh scar, not to mention the North Korean regime’s unlikely consolidation behind its walls of paranoia and oppression?
To understand these different situations, one must consider the will of people to destroy their walls in the case of East Germany, to expand them in the case of Israel, and to freeze them in the case of Cyprus and the government of North Korea. Of course, the qualities – or lack of them – of the respective leaders are also an important factor.
The Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989 much more rapidly than most West Germans would have dreamed (or dreaded). They had underestimated the strength of “German national feeling” in the East. And they grossly overestimated the Soviet Union’s ability and will to keep its empire at all costs. Above all, Mikhail Gorbachev will remain the man who had the vision and the courage not to oppose the course of history. He may not have fully understood what was happening before his eyes and the forces that he had unleashed, but his restraint constitutes true greatness.