When it comes to walls, I believe we can learn from Europe, which has done more than its share of wall building in the past. From Hadrian’s Wall (built by the ancient Romans to defend the northern boundary of Britannia) to the Maginot Line (built by the French in the 1930s to keep out the Germans), these walls were symbols of mistrust and insecurity. They were necessary back then — but in our age, society is advancing and dismantling walls as we move forward.
With the fall of the Iron Curtain and the rise of the European Union, walls and border checks have been replaced by free trade, free travel, and a well-funded government initiative (the Erasmus program) that subsidizes young people and teachers working and studying in neighboring countries. Europe’s keys to a wall-free world: weaving economies together, lots of travel, and empathy.
At one point or another, most of Europe’s great cities — Paris, London, Rome, Florence, Milan, Barcelona, Vienna, and many more — were all contained within walls, constructed during ancient and medieval times to defend against invaders. Most of these walls were torn down long ago to allow cities to expand beyond their historic centers and to clear land for grand circular boulevards. But some walls remain intact and well-preserved, such as in Dubrovnik (Croatia), Rothenburg (Germany), Lucca (Italy), and Carcassonne (France). In each case, these are people-friendly park-like spaces where people stroll, gather, and enjoy the views. And a few former walls are now museums and memorials, designed to inspire us to relate to our neighbors in ways where walls make no sense.
Belfast, in Northern Ireland, has a different kind of wall. During the Troubles, the 30-year conflict that wracked Ireland, so-called “peace walls” went up in Belfast to separate its sectarian communities — Catholic Nationalists and Protestant Unionists. But now, instead of helping to keep the peace by separating warring tribes, these walls are a tourist attraction. Visitors from around the world get out of their tour buses and decorate the walls with colorful messages of hope.
Of course, Europe’s most famous wall is the Berlin Wall. This 96-mile-long barrier, built in 1961, encircled West Berlin, making it an island of freedom in communist East Germany. With the fall of the Wall on November 9, 1989, Europe enjoyed its happiest day since the end of World War II. During the euphoria that followed, “wall-peckers” giddily chipped it to smithereens. A few bits still stand — including at the Berlin Wall Memorial, where a stretch has been preserved as a memorial to the victims of the Cold War.
The memorial features a museum and a long, narrow park that runs for nearly a mile alongside the most complete surviving stretch of the Wall. The park is dotted with memorials and information displays, and occupies what was once the notorious “death strip” — that no-man’s-land between East and West, where an obstacle course of barbed wire, tire-spike strips, soldiers in watchtowers, and other devices was designed to stop would-be escapees.
The memorial ends at the Mauerpark (Mauer is German for “wall”). Standing on a ridge next to a fragment of the Wall on a sunny Sunday, I surveyed the scene. The former death strip now hosts the world’s biggest karaoke party — and corralling that action is the long-hated Wall, now a canvas for graffiti artists.
Yes, these walls did work, and many were needed. But true success is finding a way beyond walls. Progress is not measured by new walls, but by overcoming the need for them. Progress is bridges. Euro banknotes feature bridges, not walls. Great statesmen dream of bridges, not walls. And smart governance means working creatively and diligently for economic justice and global stability, so we can live in a world where everyone — even people who have never traveled — recognize that a wall is not the winning solution.