Walls: A Brief History & Future Possibilities

By Trevor Klaus

Talking politics these days is always quite the sensitive issue, regardless of which country is being talked about or where exactly one falls on the political spectrum.  However, it always fascinates me to find parallels and differences in the causes and effects between similar political decisions made by different countries. One of these decisions I had never really known about until visiting Ireland, was the decision to build walls throughout the city of Belfast in order to try and limit religious violence between Catholics and Protestants within the city. While the reasons behind building the wall might be uniquely Irish, the decision to build a wall within a country is certainly not a new one.

The peace walls in Belfast are certainly not the first time a decision has been made to build walls within a country, nor are they perhaps the most notable. This honor, for better or for worse, likely goes to the decision to build a the Berlin Wall years after Germany was divided up after World War II. Although the German story regarding the wall has seemed to reach its conclusion while the Irish one rages on, there are still many parallels regarding their constructions and the reasoning behind them.

Lets begin with the construction of the Berlin Wall. Post World War II Germany sees the country split into East and West Germany as the competing ideologies of the Soviet Union’s communism and the more capitalist ideas of the United States, United Kingdom, and France could not coexist under a new united government. This ended up creating mass emigration from the Soviet backed East Germany into West Germany in the early years following the war. To combat an emigrating population in East Germany, the Soviets decided to close the border between the two countries. There was, however, one complication to doing this: Berlin.

The then former German capital had been split between the countries as part of the Potsdam Agreement. The geography of Berlin also complicated things further, as the city was entirely within the Soviet section of Germany. The city being united initially acted as a sort of loophole for East Germans looking to get across the border, which frustrated the Soviets. So, how did the Soviets handle the situation? They built a wall around the part of Berlin belonging to West Germany.

Its needless to say that history has shown us the wall was wildly unpopular within Germany during its time. The wall, which lasted up until 1989, was often seen as a symbol of division for the then two countries. The wall also separated families from one another, and it was seen as a great relief among the people of Germany when the wall finally fell some thirty years after it was first put up. While Germany was definitely ready to see their wall go down, it is safe to say Northern Ireland is not quite ready for theirs to bite the dust just yet.

The story of Northern Ireland’s wall does and does not have to do with external countries making a decision in their own best interests. The story of their wall traces back to the English colonizing the north of Ireland. As the English gained more of a population in the area, this created a religious divide on the island. Many British loyalist Protestants populated the north, while the Catholics still had majority on the rest of the island. Religious tension was inevitable.

And that was exactly what transpired over hundreds of years in Belfast. Catholics killing Protestants and Protestants killing Catholics for generation upon generation. The city government was tired of the religious killings, and thus, decided to build a wall. While certain segments of people where against the wall, the wall was significantly more popular upon its construction in comparison to its German counterpart. This was likely due to the fact that the wall acted as a safety barrier to protect non-violent Protestants and Catholics from the violent sectors of both religions. The wall however, has not entirely stopped problems between the two.

Religious tensions continued in the area despite the construction of the dubbed ‘Peace Wall’. The killings continued well into the 1990s, and the most recent death as a result of the violence occurred in 2004. The tensions have also been escalated by the difference in political ideologies among the people, with the Catholics wishing for Northern Ireland to return to the Republic of Ireland, while the Protestants wish for Northern Ireland to remain a part of Great Britain. This aspect of the conflict contrasts with that of Germany, where most citizens simply wanted the country as one again.

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Our tour guide suspects two more generations will have to come and go in Belfast before the wall does.

The wall in Belfast and the former wall in Berlin do share so similarities though. The biggest one has to do with the graffiti on each wall, and the similar messages that are portrayed on each wall. For example, on the Belfast wall, there were many messages (presumably by younger people), advocating for the tensions to stop and trying to explain that Protestants and Catholics can coexist (essentially calling for the city to unite). The messages on the Berlin Wall in its heyday shared a similar tone, mostly calling for a re-unified Germany. While Germany has seen these messages bear the fruit of their labor, the Northern Irish push for peace still seems a long ways away despite the violence between the two sides being halted at least temporarily.

I find the stories of these walls particularly fascinating considering the possible border wall that has been proposed at the southern border of my homeland, the United States. Would the wall see similar calls for it to be knocked down to Germany, or would it be seen as a divider between peoples who cannot coexist right now as in Northern Ireland. It is also important to note that the United States situation would not be a direct comparison to either situation, as the wall would separate two countries that have always been separate entities. Should the wall be built, time will tell what sort of effect it will have on the people of the southern United States and northern Mexico.

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