Berlin was in a festive mood the weekend I arrived. The yearlong celebration of the seven-hundred-fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the city was coming to a climax with a giant fireworks display. Everywhere, colorful banners and posters heralded the anniversary. And the carnival, which occupied the famous Street of the Seventeenth of June, was thronged with visitors and residents, seeking to enjoy the final days of the Jahresfest. But the glitter of the festivities gave way to a sense of tragedy as I once again made a pilgrimage to Potsdam Square to view the Berlin Wall.

August 13, 1961, is etched in the memories of many people. On that bleak day East German police units shattered the early morning hours by unrolling barbed wire across the imaginary line that divided the Soviet occupied section of the city from the sections assigned to the Western powers. The one remaining hole in the Iron Curtain was now sealed. For over 26 years the wall has stood as a symbol of repression and of the apparent permanence of the partition of Germany into two competing states.

From the observation platform built by the West Berliners, I could see the wall in all its hideous strength. Actually the term wall is a misnomer. The wall is in fact a strip of mined no man’s land built on the entire 165-kilometer perimeter of West Berlin and flanked on both sides by a solid wall mass. There are guard towers at regular intervals. This cunningly designed structure has been fortified so as to make escape—over, under, or through it—virtually impossible. Although the communist government of the so-called German Democratic Republic (GDR) espouses the virtues of socialism, it finds the wall necessary in order to keep its political-economic ...

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