Looking from West Berlin into East Berlin, 1986

It began in the wee hours of Sunday, August 13, 1961.

East German soldiers began unrolling barbed wire, and soon workers (with guns pointed at them) were digging foundations, pouring cement, and erecting the first pieces of the Berlin Wall.

If you lived here and wanted to go to church there, or shop there, or work there, you were out of luck. If you were on this side and your relatives were on that side . . .

Fifty years ago today, the Berlin Wall went up, and overnight, travel from one side to the other became illegal. Trying to cross anyway could — and did — result in death.

Der Spiegel has an incredible series of articles and photos on the construction of the Berlin Wall, all posted at their English-language site. The images in particular are stunning, as they convey the ordinariness of regular people caught in the midst of this monstrosity that divided families, communities, a city, and the world.

“The Wall” came down in 1989, amid much celebration in Berlin and around the world. Yet, as Der Spiegel notes in a powerful series of articles (with photos), we still have plenty of other “walls” like this one:

As Der Spiegel says:

Every one of these barriers is a monument to the failure of politics. When conflicting parties can’t make peace at the negotiating table, they simply build a wall. When the flow of refugees gets out of control and immigration exceeds the parameters a country is willing to accept, it builds a fence. This type of defense is an attempt to hang on to the status quo, a message that things must remain as they are, no matter what the cost.

It’s easy for Americans to look at walls like these — even the attempts at one on the Mexico/US border — and say “Gosh, isn’t it great that we don’t have walls like this here?”

Sorry, but we do. Instead of building them with barbed wire, concrete, minefields, and guntowers, we build invisible walls with money and guard them with lawyers. Gated communities. Shopping and entertainment areas with dress codes that seek to keep the “wrong people” out. Good schools, good health care, good housing for the wealthy but not for the poorer folks. Etc. Etc. Etc.

The bottom line is the same: If you have money, you’re in; if you don’t, you’re a threat. Fears get stoked and bogeymen get raised, all to keep the “need” for the walls visible and the riff-raff out.

But life is not set in concrete, and trying to hang on to the status quo is ultimately as futile as trying to hold back a river. Much of our current political gridlock is a fight between those who want to build walls (literal and metaphorical) to nail the status quo in place and those who want to live life as it flows.

Put me on the side of those who like life without walls. As John F. Kennedy said as he looked over that ugly wall in Berlin:

So let me ask you, as I close, to lift your eyes beyond the dangers of today, to the hopes of tomorrow, beyond the freedom merely of this city of Berlin, or your country of Germany, to the advance of freedom everywhere, beyond the wall to the day of peace with justice, beyond yourselves and ourselves to all mankind.

Peace with justice cannot come as long as we keep building walls.

photo h/t to siyublog for this image taken by Thierry Noir