The entire situation, influenced by the open border, hindered us from implementing adequate measures to eliminate the disproportions in the wage structure and to create a proper relationship between wages and performance. . . . Simply put, the open border forced us to raise the living standard faster than our economic capabilities allowed. . . . Of course we had similar difficulties with the transition to agricultural co-operatives as in other People’s Democracies. But one should not overlook the fact that some things are much more complicated here. . . . In all the other People’s Democracies, in the context of their closed borders, such political–economic issues could be tackled differently than was possible under our political circumstances.This was merely one in a series of urgent letters during 1960–61. As Ulbricht had been warning the Kremlin, the mass population drain to the West was costing the German Democratic Republic (GDR) billions: production losses alone were estimated at around 2.5 to 3 billion DM. As a result, not only was
the much-vaunted goal of surpassing West Germany’s economic performance completely unachievable, but the aim had essentially become one of damage limitation, not least in order to curb the further population flow westwards.
By summer 1961, Ulbricht was warning Moscow that the GDR was on the brink of collapse and could not survive the vicious circle of emigration and production loss for much longer.
Imagine this: If you were a researcher trying to determine how a political system affects people’s values, beliefs, and behavior, you would ideally want to take two identical populations, separate them for a generation or two, and subject them each to two totally different kinds of government. Then you’d want to measure the results, the same way a medical researcher might give two sets of patients two different pills and then track their progress.
Ethically, such a study would be unthinkable even to propose. But when the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, it created what London School of Economics associate professor Daniel Sturm calls a “perfect experiment.” While people in West Germany voted in free elections, read independent newspapers, and protested if they felt dissatisfied with their government, their Eastern counterparts lived inside a surveillance state ruled by a zealously doctrinaire communist party. Where “Ossis”—an unofficial term for those who lived in East Germany—drove famously shoddy Trabant cars, wore drab clothing, and drank off-brand soda, their “Wessi” counterparts enjoyed Pepsi and regularly saw BMWs in the street. The two halves of the country were like a pair of identical twins separated at birth and raised by two very different sets of parents.
Over the past decade, the Berlin Wall has emerged as a uniquely powerful tool for answering questions about politics, economics, and human nature. How well does state propaganda actually work? What role do friendships play in stimulating business and trade? How does living under a repressive regime affect people’s inclination to trust strangers and government institutions?
The results have proved exciting for researchers, but their value goes beyond the ivory tower: They’re also likely to be important in preparing for real-world situations we may see in the future, like the opening of North Korea and Iran. “Understanding how, say, propaganda created by such regimes affects people’s preferences is very important, particularly when these regimes sooner or later collapse,” said Alberto Alesina, an economist at Harvard University.
The insights that have piled up since the fall of the wall make it clear how long a single political event can continue to have social and economic effects on the people who lived through it. The marks it left are still being uncovered and measured, more than half a century after the architects of the wall unwittingly made it possible.