It was a chilly night for high summer in Berlin 50 years ago, and it took East German Communists only about five hours to divide one of Europe's grandest cities neatly in two.
Starting around 1 a.m. on Aug. 13, 1961, thousands of work teams overseen by armed guards installed bollards, fencing and barbed wire, blocking every street and right of way that ran between the eastern sector of the old German capital and the three western zones occupied by the United States, the United Kingdom and France. Rail and subway links were cut; lines now stopped at the new "border" that the Communists had created. Anyone attempting to cross was to be stopped forcibly and, if necessary, lethally.
The aim was to halt the disastrous hemorrhaging of East Germany's discontented population into the haven of West Berlin. Over the previous 12 years, this exodus had cost the drab puppet state some 2 million of its best and brightest.
Within hours, the capitalist enclave was duly isolated and the flood of refugees reduced to a trickle. To that extent, the wall was a triumph. The construction of the almost 100-mile barrier that became known as the Berlin Wall was an impressive example of what a totalitarian command economy could achieve. However, it was also an admission of defeat. Why was this necessary, if the communist system was superior?
The summer of 1961 seems an odd moment for the Soviet Union and its European satellites to have had a crisis of confidence. Four months earlier, the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's epochal space flight had seemed to prove the superiority of Soviet science. The Bay of Pigs fiasco in April had shown that the United States couldn't prevent communism even in Cuba, its own back yard. Nikita Khrushchev had trounced John F. Kennedy, the inexperienced young American president, at their summit in Vienna in early June. Khrushchev's boast that communism would overtake capitalism seemed momentarily plausible. In this atmosphere, why would the government in Moscow sanction such a retrograde step as the Berlin Wall?
First, one has to remember that for the Russians, the occupation of "their" part of postwar Germany held enormous symbolic, as well as strategic, importance. The Red Army's long advance to Berlin during World War II cost at least 8 million military and as many as 15 million civilians dead.
The Soviet presence in Berlin and eastern Germany was a sacred reminder of that dearly bought victory over Nazism. The existence of a Soviet-controlled state on German territory was also a guarantee that Germany would never again menace the Russian people.
In any case, there was little downside to the provocation. Neither the Kennedy administration in Washington nor the governments of the other two main Western powers occupying West Berlin took any steps to roll back the wall.
Documents show that officials in both Paris and London almost welcomed its construction. It guaranteed the long-term division -- and therefore weakening -- of Germany, which both countries desired. Francois Mauriac, the Nobel laureate and biographer of President Charles de Gaulle, summed up French sentiment when he quipped that he loved Germany so dearly that he wanted two of them.
On the morning after the barrier went up, the British ambassador to West Germany, Christopher Steel, merely cabled London to express his surprise that the East Germans had "waited so long" to take this measure. He and his Foreign Office colleagues spent the rest of the crisis trying to ensure that the Americans didn't do anything "silly," like trying to tear the wall down.
The British need not have worried. Washington wasn't prepared to risk war (so long as the Communists didn't threaten West Berlin) and even hoped that the building of the wall, brutally immoral as it was, would usher in an era of increased European stability. The United States had other problems -- Cuba, Southeast Asia, Taiwan, Korea, the Congo -- crowding its agenda.
The only time the United States came close to an armed response was in October 1961, when the East German authorities tried to prevent American diplomats from traveling freely through both East and West Berlin, as they were permitted to under the Potsdam Agreement of 1945.
Tellingly, the genuinely tense "Checkpoint Charlie" confrontation had nothing to do with the existence of the wall. It was about national prestige. Tanks were called in, Kennedy and Khrushchev struck a deal -- the Soviet tanks would reverse first, and the United States would let the wall stand -- and any chance that the Berlin crisis would ignite World War III passed.
For 28 years, the wall gave the communist bloc a kind of sealed laboratory environment, inside which its leaders had their chance to fulfill Khrushchev's promises. As we know, they failed. Spectacularly. Capitalism may have seemed on the retreat in 1961, but the Berlin Wall, built to secure the communist system, planted the seeds of its own destruction.
It is true the Berlin Wall created a certain stability -- that of the deep freeze. When the wall fell in November 1989, it seemed as though Europe and the world had entered a new era of global possibility. Yet the thaw in the Cold War ice revealed other ancient, precarious fault lines -- religious, cultural and nationalist. As the wall recedes into history, we are still dealing with this uncomfortable fact.
Fifty years on from August 1961, we still have wall-like barriers in Baghdad, in divided Cyprus and Northern Ireland, between Mexico and the United States, and, most controversially, between Israel and the West Bank. The difference is, of course, that these exist to keep people out rather than to keep an unhappy population in.
If we look back to the Great Wall of China or to Hadrian's Wall, constructed almost two millennia ago in Roman Britain as protection from "barbarian" northern neighbors, as well as at their modern counterparts, we can see what formidable barriers have in common: They all stem from insecurity, if not desperation.
Border walls represent a last resort when a state either can't or won't deal with a problem that threatens its existence. As such, history seems to prove, they are temporary. Like the Berlin Wall, they are ultimately likely to be unsuccessful. They buy time, but time is a commodity that, notoriously, runs out. As it did for East Germany.
Frederick Taylor is the author of "Exorcising Hitler: The Occupation and Denazification of Germany."