Walls reaching all around the world

Dossier ~ Thursday 12th November 2009
The Secret of the Unicorn (1943) - Page 40]

The Berlin Wall has fallen! What wall? Why did it fall? Why are all these walls separating people? Get set for a trip back to last century, and get ready to learn all about an old and sinister story. Fasten your seatbelts!

Between 2 and 25 Germanies

In order to gain a better understanding of all the fuss that has been made about the Berlin Wall over the past few days, we have to go back a few years, even two centuries. What we call Germany is a relatively new country: a unified Germany has only been in existence since 1870. Beforehand, this territory was split into 25 kingdoms, duchies and principalities (including Prussia, Saxony, Oldenburg, Anhalt, etc.). It took the defeat of French Emperor Napoleon III by the Prussian army (18 January 1871) to usher in the unification of a German territory made up of lots of little bits. In 1933, following the tragic and bloody First World War (1914-1918), the Nazi party came to power under the leadership of Adolph Hitler. The aggressive character of the regime would bring about a new era of catastrophe in Europe, which would only come to an end with the defeat and division of Germany in 1945.

Berlin, symbol of division

From 1945 and the Potsdam agreement (2 May 1945), East Germany came under the control of the Soviet Union (a state born from the Russian Revolution in 1917 and originally governed by Lenin, who was succeeded by Stalin). This part of Germany was called the German Democratic Republic (GDR). West Germany was given over to Western countries, who pushed the Germans to found the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). The town of Berlin  -  the old capital city of unified Germany  -  held a unique position and played a special role: it was situated in the centre of the GDR but incorporated Russian, American, English and French districts!

A wall between East and West Germany

From 1945, it was relatively easy to travel from the Soviet-controlled area to the American, English and French districts. It was enough for an East German to seek asylum in any of the three Western areas to escape the "Vopos" (Volkspolizei  -  People's Police) and to try for a better life in the West. The East was a tough place in which to live. Unable to easily forget the millions of Russians who fell under German bullets, the Soviets imposed harsh laws in East Germany; in the West, people were a little more lenient. It is estimated that between 1948 and 1961, more than 2.7 million Germans left the East for the West. This was too much for the Communist rulers: on 13 August 1961, construction began on what would become the Berlin Wall, the twentieth anniversary of the fall of which we have just celebrated (9 November 1989, beginning at 6.53pm).

Forbidden to enter or forbidden to leave?

The Berlin Wall was not the first  -  and will not be the last  -  man-made structure aimed at separating human beings. Even today, 17 such divisions exist all over the world: on the border between Mexico and the United States; in Cyprus, which is partially occupied by Turkey; in Palestine; and in Northern Ireland between certain Catholic and Protestant communities, to give several examples. Walls seem to be doing very well! The difference between the Berlin Wall and all the others is that in Berlin, the wall was built to stop people from leaving a country, while the other barriers in existence worldwide have been built by countries trying to prevent people from entering their territories! In this sense, the latter walls are akin to the kind of fortifications which have surrounded castles and towns from the most ancient times. On the other hand, the Berlin Wall is more like a barbed wire fence surrounding an animal enclosure in a zoo.

Stories of walls

Walls were already a big feature as far back as biblical times. Joshua managed to destroy the Wall of Jericho with the sound of trumpets. Later, the Roman Empire built a wall to the north of its territory, a method of preventing Germanic tribes from invading. In England, the Romans erected what we call Hadrian's Wall, large sections of which still remain to this day. In the twentieth century, the French built the Maginot Line, a chain of military fortifications and bunkers linked by underground tunnels, designed to repel a German invasion. These walls all have something in common: none of them have managed to prevent an invasion. There have always been armies capable of getting around the so-called impenetrable barriers, which have incidentally cost taxpayers very dearly!

What if the walls were in our heads?

No wall has ever stopped a man dedicated enough to breaching it. People break out of prisons on a regular basis. Even kids at boarding schools seem to be able to escape with ease! Building these kinds of walls betrays a society that is not sure of itself; a society that feels fragile even if it proclaims itself to be strong. In Hergé's universe, walls don't have a good reputation: they are there to be ridiculed. One of the most memorable gags in Quick and Flupke shows Flupke sticking a large hand-painted sign reading "strictly no posters" onto a wall, covering a smaller "no poster" sign. Sometimes, walls evoke dramatic situations: people are executed by firing squad, typically standing against a wall. In any case, in Hergé's eyes walls exist to be knocked down or climbed over. Tintin helps us to transcend walls of all kinds, and to broaden our minds in doing so!

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