So You Want to Build a Wall? History Offers Some Lessons - OZY | A Modern Media Company

So You Want to Build a Wall? History Offers Some Lessons

So You Want to Build a Wall? History Offers Some Lessons

By Michael Stürmer


As Ukraine sets about to build a wall along its border with Russia, it’s worth reflecting on the utility of these massive structures throughout history.

By Michael Stürmer

The Kiev government plans to erect a deep-seated boundary fortification along the border with Russia. Work started a few days ago, beginning in northeast Ukraine, where the border is undisputed. The closer construction gets to the sound of gunfire in the southeast, however, the more dangerous the situation will become.

But really. A wall? To keep out the Russians? Or Russian-trained and -armed rebels? History doesn’t offer much hope, as we approach the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall next month.

barb wires on the foreground of the Berlin Wall

Roman Limes

Source Ed Freeman/Getty

Walls throughout history have served many purposes — some over long periods and others barely outliving those who built them. Usually, they served to defend the status quo. And in all cases, they required a huge amount of strength, technology and material.

“Good fences make good neighbors” goes the saying. But this also applies the other way around: Good neighbors make fences merely symbols. Between the Ukraine and Russia, however, the new wall is becoming an explosive topic.

True for the Great Wall of China, which protected the Middle Kingdom for centuries against barbarians from the north, to the Roman limes, which protected the Roman Empire from wild hordes. Deep traces of the latter, whether between Scotland and England or along the Rhine-Main-Danube line, are still evident in landscapes, mentalities and ways of life. And it lives on in the names of modest villages and proud cities such as Augsburg, Regensburg, Mainz and Cologne.

historical photo of roman limes

The Great Wall of China

In the German Middle Ages, the saying “town air makes you free” applied. The walls provided the German city-republics in the Holy Roman Empire with pride and security, protected trade and transformation. They not only kept rival counts and robber barons away but also forced compromise among craftsmen, businessmen and patricians within the walls in order to retain a reliable defense.

The walls became obsolete when newly developed cannon fire broke them down, first those of the forts and then those of the cities. The Thirty Years’ War of the 17th century did the rest: Only a few city-republics, like Nuremberg, had the resources and weapons to defend themselves. The walls of the Middle Ages survived here and there, but the victors ensured that they were monuments and not centers of resistance.

Without the symmetrical security architecture of the Berlin Wall, the decline and fall of the Soviet Union could have ended badly.

However, walls did remain as a boundary between city and rural taxes: In the city map of Berlin, the tariff wall of Frederick the Great can still be seen today, and the Brandenburg Gate stands where country and city met. It’s no different in Paris. When it was stormed by revolutionaries and unemployed craftsmen in 1789, the old fortress of the Bastille had long since served as a state prison and part of the fiscal frontier.

No modern wall attracted such ill repute as the Berlin Wall, erected by the East German Communists beginning on Aug. 13, 1961, under the watchful eye of the Red Army. It was built right through the middle of Berlin, initially as a barbed-wire fence, not to defend against attack, but to stop the flow of people. It set the pattern for later barriers, like the wall between Israel and the Palestinian territories, and the fence on the United States’ southern border.

As it turned out, construction of the Berlin Wall was an emergency procedure to save the German Democratic Republic: From then on, the Germans in the east were blocked from crossing to the west through the Brandenburg Gate and via city train  by punishment of death. To an even greater extent than the “Iron Curtain” before it, the Berlin Wall epitomized the Cold War, which, from the North Sea to the Middle East and all the way to Vietnam and China, determined the international situation: war improbable, peace impossible. 

That, and the Cuban missile crisis, forced the superpowers to look into the abyss, in which they saw neither victors nor losers, only radioactive ash.

In this way, the construction of the Berlin Wall became the starting point of strategic arms control, of compromises with the status quo — which was the point of the talk about “coexistence” — and of measures to form trust and security, or boundaries and inspections. Without this symmetrical security architecture, the decline and fall of the Soviet Union could have ended badly. 

In hindsight, the wall forced the global powers to carefully consider every step to the nuclear end. The Federal Republic of Germany, whether represented by Chancellor Willy Brandt or Helmut Kohl, therefore did not conduct reunification politics but rather conflict management. 

And thus the wall forced the politics of compromise, which ultimately created conditions for communism’s demise, though hardly anyone likes to think of it that way.

Are walls good or bad? It depends, and this also applies to the Ukraine.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories