On This Day In History the World Watched the Berlin Wall Crumble. Now Will They See Donald Trump’s Wall Rise?
- By Kavitha SuranaKavitha Surana is a fellow at Foreign Policy. She has reported from Italy, Germany, and Senegal and her stories have been published in the past by the Associated Press, Quartz, Al Jazeera, CNN, GlobalPost and OZY. She holds a joint master’s degree in journalism and European and Mediterranean studies from New York University.
Some 27 years ago today, the world was stunned: On the night of Nov. 9, the Berlin Wall, the living symbol of Cold War divisions, was suddenly breached. After an East German official vaguely announced that travel restrictions would be eased, border guards, confused by their orders, did nothing to stop excited East Germans from crossing over. Soon images of Germans ecstatically swarming the wall, chipping away at it with hammers, and hugging long-separated friends and strangers alike, flooded televisions around the world.
Few saw it coming. Yet the sudden implosion of the Communist bloc in eastern Europe and the fall of the wall marked what was widely heralded as a historic milestone in the spread of Western, democratic values.
Now, another surprise moment is playing out, thanks to the stunning victory early Wednesday of Donald Trump, a candidate who began his presidential campaign promising to build a wall on the border with Mexico.
Whether Trump manages to make good on his proposals to erect an unbreachable border fence and deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, of course, remains to be seen. More than a quarter of the 2,000 miles separating Mexico and the United States already has a fence, which cost American taxpayers $7 billion. A wall of concrete covering 1,000 miles, as Trump has proposed, would trespass private land and could cost $25 billion, according to a study by the Washington Post.
But this has been a year of walls in the West, underscoring the degree to which globalization and economic dislocation have bred resentment, anxiety, and xenophobia. Across Europe, checkpoints and new border security, like a formidable razor wire fence in Hungary, have risen of late, fueled by fears of immigration and terrorism ignited by the Syrian refugee crisis. In June, voters in the United Kingdom chose to leave the European Union rather than risk keeping their borders open. Right-wing parties are gaining steady steam in France, Germany, and elsewhere.
Those cheering Trump’s promises might recall another GOP president, one who was no fan of strict barriers. Two years before the Berlin Wall finally crumbled, Ronald Reagan threw down his historic challenge to the Soviet premier: “Mister Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” he said at Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.
During his campaign for president in 1980, Reagan promoted opening the border with Mexico both ways and issuing more work permits to immigrants so they could pay taxes. “Rather than talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems,” he said in a primary debate. He didn’t live up to that plan, but later signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which offered a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants in the country — a far cry from Trump’s plan to deport them.
On the other hand, another message emblazoned on the East Side Gallery, a remnant of the Berlin Wall that’s been preserved as a memorial to freedom, is also starkly prophetic in this year of global turmoil — though not, perhaps, in the way the authors may have intended at the time.
“Many small people, who in many small places do many small things, can alter the face of the world,” reads the famous slogan painted by artists Muriel Raoux and Kani Alavi on the gallery in 1990.
Photo credit: GERARD MALIE/AFP/Getty Images