No one on Aug. 13, 1961, imagined that the Berlin Wall would still be imprisoning millions of the German people two decades later. But East Germany's well-described "wall of shame" has grown into 260 miles of sophisticated border fortifications. A world preoccupied with other things cannot in good conscience ignore the stark symbolism of what has followed the wall's barbed-wire beginnings on the grim day whose 20th anniversary is being marked this week. The longer the wall lasts the more it testifies to the lingering menace of communism -- and to its failure to win unforced allegiance.
At the same time, the Berlin Wall bears eloquent witness to the indomitable spirit of freedom, the courage and ingenuity of those who have escaped and those who have helped them.
Some five thousand East Germans are now escaping each year. Seventy have been killed in the attempt, more than three thousand arrested.
The record since 1961 has been extraordinary: groups of four persons smuggled inside a huge cable drum; 28 persons young and old making their way through a 145-meter tunnel dug with six months' hard work; a lone man escaping across the Baltic in his invention of a minisubmarine powered by a bicycle motor -- and being quickly hired by a West German company seeking to make a mass-produced model. The methods change, but the escapes go on.
Of course, the flight of more than three million people -- a sixth of the population of East Germany -- had begun as soon as Germany was divided after World War II. The wall was a crude attempt to stave off economic collapse by checking the drain of labor and talent.
East Germany has come up in economic terms, at least in relation to other communist states. But it remains far behind West Germany, whose example suggests how much better East Germany might be doing without the oppressive system represented by the wall.
Just two months before that infamous Aug. 13, East German leader Walter Ulbricht said: "Nobody has the intention to build a wall. The builders' laborers of our capital are principally engaged in housing schemes, and their working power is completely employed for that purpose."
If only he had stuck to his word.