Great walls or great follies?


Donald Trump [archival]: I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will have Mexico pay for that wall.

Annabelle Quince: After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, many of us thought we'd seen the end of border walls. But over the last 27 years the number of walls and fortified borders has increased dramatically. And it's not just in the United States; every continent on the planet, except for Australia, now have walls.

Hello, this is Rear Vision on RN, via the web and your ABC Radio app, I'm Annabelle Quince.

So when and why did humans start to building walls and is there anything we can learn about the success or failure of past walls?

Elisabeth Vallet is a Research Fellow at University of Quebec in Montreal and she's the editor of Borders, Fences and Walls: State of Insecurity?

Elisabeth Vallet: We can go back in history as far as we can, you know, from the very time human societies got organised in prehistoric ages you can find already barriers or kind of barriers just to defend yourself from animals or nature really. So it's really part of human nature, and maybe part of the social contract of a human society to protect itself to start with.

Annabelle Quince: So what were some of the major walls through history? What are the ones that are the most significant?

Elisabeth Vallet: The Great Wall of China is definitely the one everybody is speaking about…I should say the ones, because there were many walls of China built over hundreds of years in different parts, sometimes two of them being built in parallel. But it's really the longest, the one that has stood for the longest time. So it is the most significant, historically speaking, and science wise it's the one we can study to see the long term impact of a border wall. So definitely I'd go with this one.

And then the Roman Empire has built border walls and many of them remain, like in Scotland the Hadrian's Wall and the Antonine Wall. You've got traces of the Fossatum Africae in North Africa, so there are significant remains of border walls in history.

Donald Trump [archival]: The Great Wall of China built 2,000 years ago is 13,000 miles, folks, and they didn't have Caterpillar tractors, because I only want to use Caterpillar, if you want to know the truth. They didn't have tractors, they didn't have cranes, they didn't have excavation equipment. The wall is 13,000 miles long. We need 1,000 miles, and we have all of the materials, we can do that so beautifully.

Annabelle Quince: So what do we really know about the history of the Great Wall or Walls of China, how were they built and how successful were they? Arthur Waldron is Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth.

Arthur Waldron: The truth of the matter is that since 3rd century BC the Chinese have been building walls of various sorts to protect themselves from the inner-Asian nomads. But the only one that would give us the idea of a Great Wall was built by the Ming dynasty 1368 to 1644, mostly in the 16th century. That's the only one that is masonry and cut stone and all the rest. The others you can rarely find traces of. But even that is constructed in bits and pieces. So the idea that there is this amazing thing several thousand miles long that has been on the northern border of China since the beginning of time, it's an incorrect idea.

Annabelle Quince: So the series of walls or the various walls that were created, what was the main purpose? Was it solely to keep people out or did they have other trade purposes as well?

Arthur Waldron: Their attempts to make up for the fact that there is no way that a Chinese farmer, whether he's growing millet or rice or whatever can possibly fight with an inner-Asian nomad who has grown up on horseback or dog-back initially, who can sleep while he is riding, who can fire his bow and arrow with complete precision and can form up in a group of 1,000 and overrun anybody, and of course that was the problem in the west as well as in the east.

And one way you stop horses is by building barriers. Horses will flinch at barriers. And some of the walls are just heaps of stone, some of them apparently wood. The ones outside of Peking are a very complicated and intricate protection system for the capital. One of the reasons they attacked was that the Chinese wouldn't take them seriously. So if they sent an envoy the Chinese would behead the envoy, and that irritated the nomads who would then invade. The other thing was the nomads need things that the Chinese have, such as grain, metal, fine cloth, luxury goods, princesses et cetera. And if the Chinese had been willing to trade horses and nomadic things for things the Chinese have, as they did actually at the end of the Ming dynasty, the military expenditures fall dramatically. So in part this is a product of a Chinese sense that they are insulted by having nomadic peoples come on their territory.

Annabelle Quince: So realistically, even at its peak, do we know how long or how vast this wall system was?

Arthur Waldron: Well, I think the answer to that is no because depending on what you include and whether you use archaeological sources or you use written sources, you can come up with all sorts of figures. But I would say we are probably talking something in the area of 1,000 miles I think of serious fortification.

Annabelle Quince: Do we have any idea what the financial cost of building the walls were?

Arthur Waldron: How much they cost is very, very hard to say. We have all kinds of records, but until we have a survey, which we don't have, archaeology and so forth, we won't know. They were an immense drain on the Imperial Treasury, and they were very hard to defend in fact because nearly any wall like that after say 10 miles there will be a section where it's broken down, so all the nomads have to do is ride along and they find a spot and then they zip through.

The other thing is that in the very remote areas, the Chinese soldiers who were sent and they said, well, you're going to spend the rest of your life guarding the wall up here in Mongolia or on the Mongolian border, the Chinese soldiers settled in and they made friends with the nomads and they intermarried with the nomads and they smuggled and they opened the gates for the nomads and things like that. Just like the national line, I mean it sounded good perhaps in the French parliament or in the Cabinet, but when you actually put it up, it doesn't in fact have any effect at all on the German attack. I think that the wall had some effect of channelling. They want to close off things like valleys or easy access routes, and it helps to defend if you've got a bunch of rocks across them.

Elisabeth Vallet: Most of the time you wanted the border wall to slow down an invasion, that's for sure, but also it was a way to harden your border and funnel flows of merchandise and people most of the time. Globalisation is not something new. The world has been global way before we began speaking about it, even before the 19th century. So the idea was really for nation states, mostly after the 16th century, 17th century, was really for nation states to gain control and sovereignty over their territory, which would allow you as an empire or a state, you could collect taxes at the very doors of the walls.

Annabelle Quince: One such wall was built by the British across India in the 1800s. Known as the Great Hedge of India, it was an inland customs line which incorporated a huge wall of prickly hedge. Roy Moxham is the author of The Great Hedge of India.

Roy Moxham: Well, the impetus for building it was in the late 18th century, 1788 actually. But the British only had enclaves in India at that stage. This enclave which is where Bombay is and around there, the governor there imposed a very high tax on salt, out of the blue really. But the thing was that they were surrounded by princely states where there was probably no tax on salt or a low tax on salt, so people started smuggling salt in to avoid this extremely high tax. I mean, the tax was massive. We are talking about for an ordinary labourer or something probably to buy enough salt for his family, two months wages.

Annabelle Quince: So, clearly with the smuggling, if there's a tax on salt people will bring it in from somewhere else. How did they begin the process of putting up this barrier to try and stop the smuggling in salt?

Roy Moxham: They started first of all by just putting some custom posts, completely at random, on roads where there was smuggling going on. But obviously these were very easy to circumvent or go around, especially at night. So somebody had the bright idea in 1823 that why not put these custom posts in a line? If we put them in a line that will be better because then we can perhaps spot people coming between the custom posts on the line. So they did that.

A bit later on in 1834, one of the commissioners of customs decided he was going to set up a barrier on this customs line. So between the custom posts, which were now in a line, the land was cleared, and they put a raised pass between the two, and then that was patrolled day and night. They also started then to cut thorn bush and drag it into position to put it on this line. This particular thorn tree they have in India has got a very vicious set of thorns on it. It's got one straight thorn which will severely prick you, and then it's got one curved thorn which will catch onto your clothing. So I have tried to get through a very small hedge made of this thorn bush, and I totally failed. We are talking about me trying to get through one which was one feet thick, but this thing was somewhere between six and 12 feet thick.

So, in 1869, for example, they dragged 150,000 tonnes of thorn bush and put them in position. And then heavy winds and things might blow some of this away, or indeed it might be set on fire. In fact it was set on fire deliberately by Indians during the Indian mutiny in 1857, because obviously people were not very happy with this hedge. Somewhere in the 1860s they started to experiment with maybe growing a live hedge because a live hedge, okay, was going to take a bit more effort to establish, but once it is established it would need very little maintenance.

When it was perfected, it was probably about 10 to 14 feet high, and 6 to 12 feet thick. So we are talking about a live thorn hedge here. It's a massive barrier which, to be honest, would be totally impossible to get through. Eventually they ended up with about 1,500 miles long.

Annabelle Quince: And I'm just wondering, what was the response of Indians? Did they continue to try and smuggle salt across this line?

Roy Moxham: Yes, they did, and for an example, in 1847, 6,000 people were convicted of smuggling salt. And of those 6,000, 3,500 didn't have enough money to pay the fine which was imposed, so they went to prison for an average of six weeks.

Annabelle Quince: You're with Rear Vision on RN and via your ABC radio app. I'm Annabelle Quince.

The Berlin Wall which went up after the end of World War II was unlike previous walls; it wasn't to collect taxes or to stop invaders. Fredrick Taylor is the author of The Berlin Wall: A World Divided.

Fredrick Taylor: At the end of the war, the allies decided to basically abolish the German government and divide the country up into four occupation zones; France, Britain, the USSR and the USA. But they also decided to turn the capital of the old Germany, Berlin, again into four zones known as sectors in the case of the city, again French, British, American, Russian, and have those ruled over by a military council which met and then tried to coordinate policy around it.

Of course, as we know, the allies pretty soon fell out after the war, and so things started happening. The Russians tried to blockade Berlin and drive the other allies out, they failed, so they stayed. But then the East German regime, which was basically the communist regime installed by the Russians after the war in eastern Germany where their zone was, started building a defended border along with the whole west border of their little state, running from the Baltic Sea in the north right down to Czechoslovakia in the south, about 1,400 kilometres long I think.

But Berlin, with its four military commanders supposedly running the place together, although actually the Russians hadn't spoken to anybody for years, was left in a peculiar position where it was separate but part of Germany. So you could move from one sector of Berlin to the other, from the Russian or French or British or American sector into other sectors pretty much unhindered in a way that you couldn't now in the rest of Germany. And this meant that actually by the end of the '50s many, many people from East Germany were coming out of there, using West Berlin as a refuge from where they could be flown to West Germany.

And by the late '50s, early '60s this had reached hundreds of thousands of people a year, often the most qualified, the youngest and the most talented members of East German society were fleeing, using Berlin as like an escape hatch from the communist state. And this is when the crisis started to occur in the early '60s.

Journalist [archival]: In a well prepared move which stunned the western allies in Berlin, East German soldiers, assisted by Soviet armoured troops, began to set up the strongest border fortification in the world on 13 August, 1961, built not keep people out but in.

Fredrick Taylor: They had to get permission from the Russians to do it. It's obvious now from the documents we can see as historians that the East German regime were considering doing something like this for quite some time. In fact as far back as 1953, eight years earlier. And basically what they did was to quietly organise all these army units to be on the outskirts of Berlin and come in very quickly when required. And the same was true of the materials. They needed thousands of metres of barbed wire. And so what they had to do was have this barbed wire being driven around East Germany in trucks in the hours before the wall was due to be built, and then suddenly brought all these trucks into Berlin, along with the military units and began building the wall, which wasn't of course initially a wall at all, it was made of concrete blocks with barbed wire strung out between them and a guard every few metres. It was very much improvised, and of course quite a lot of people did escape in the first few hours by being able to just nip over the barbed wire while somebody wasn't looking. The actual wall itself only started to be built some days later, and in fact took months to build completely.

Journalist [archival]: Escaping or attempting to escape is one of the major crimes in the German democratic republic, punished with many-year jail sentences.

Fredrick Taylor: The actual number of deaths at the wall was relatively small, probably only about 140 only over 28 years. Many more lives were ruined of course by people who made the attempt to escape and were captured and spent years in prison, often under very grim circumstances, whose lives were ruined because they were not allowed to have careers in East Germany when they were stuck there. But by and large it was the stifling aspect of the wall that really, really affected East German society and I suspect in many ways still does, this feeling of being cut off from the rest of the world, of limited possibilities, if you will. In a way in the longer term that was the very worst effect that the wall had on the people enclosed by it.

And then people went off and found other ways of going around it, as you do with walls. If the wall has a way around it you will find it. And if it's through another country, you will go there, and that's what a lot of East Germans did, they would go to Hungary or even maybe get permission to go on holiday to Yugoslavia, which was a semi-communist country, Bulgaria, places like that, Czechoslovakia. There was a whole healthy business of smuggling going on through those countries which were far less likely to have effective defences and effective ways of stopping people escaping, so that's what happened.

Annabelle Quince: The critical question is just how successful were these walls? Let's start with the Great Wall of China.

Arthur Waldron: I think there are some battles that people have tried to find in which the Chinese succeeded for a while. But on the other hand, the Mongols on several occasions reached Peking and other inland destinations because a wall of that length is impossible to make impermeable. And it's interesting, the traditional Chinese opinion until about 1905 was that the walls had been a complete waste of money, they had not been effective, and that their building had greatly oppressed the masses of Chinese.

There is an ancient, ancient ballad in Chinese. It's still sung and chanted, often by blind singers at festivals or funerals, and this is the story of a Chinese woman whose husband is sent to work on the wall, and it was basically slave labour. Come winter she says, well, my husband needs a padded jacket or he's going to get cold, so she gets a padded jacket and she goes up to the wall and she says, 'Well, what happens to my husband?' And they said, 'Oh God, he died during the summer, we just tossed him down in the rubble that's in between the faces of the wall.'

She is very upset, so she kneels down, so she kneels down in front of the wall and she begins to cry. And she cries and cries for several days, and then suddenly the wall cracks open and out comes her husband's skeleton, which she then takes back to his home place and gives a proper burial. And it's quite fascinating how a true folk ballad that is never written down gets passed on and carries this incredibly powerful political message because before the 20th century, the Chinese thought the wall was a symbol of their own oppression and the wastefulness and military inefficiency of their government.

Annabelle Quince: And what about the Great Hedge of India?

Roy Moxham: Yes, it was very efficient, as I pointed out. They collected loads of tax on the line, 10 times the cost of the line. So yes, from that point of view it was very efficient. Of course it upset a lot of people and, as I say, a lot of people died, particularly in famines actually. For example, if you get severe diarrhoea, you've got to try and reconstitute yourself. Normally you take a mixture of salt and sugar, which will then save you from the loss of fluid during the diarrhoea. Well, they didn't have any salt, so they gradually would lose lots and lots of fluid and they would die. I doubt whether so many people really realise this was from a lack of salt, because there was a lot of cholera around and that kind of thing. So it's very difficult to quantify, but it certainly would have resulted in the death of many thousands of Indians. So it depends what you mean by success I suppose.

Fredrick Taylor: When one talks about whether the wall was a success, there is always this problem with hindsight, isn't there. One of the most famous remarks that Erich Honecker, who was the last really important general secretary of the East German Socialist Unity Party, Communist Party, said even in January 1989 the wall could be there for 100 years. 11 months later it was gone. Yes, it was successful in the short term. It stopped the haemorrhage, it bound the wound, if you will, but it didn't deal with any of the underlying sicknesses in that society.

It's a peculiar phenomenon, the Berlin Wall of course because it was meant to keep people in rather than out. Most walls are meant to keep people out. For a while in the '60s and '70s a great many East Germans just resigned themselves to…that this was going to be the way it was and they had better just live in the little rather narrow society and just live with it and have a private life, which people did.

But when things started to move in the '70s, late '70s after the Helsinki agreements and the clear crisis that the Soviet bloc was finding itself in, the pressure started to build up again. And that was what eventually lead to the fall of the wall, the way that this pressure resumed really in the '80s. So in the longer term it didn't. I don't think walls ever really do. The Great Wall of China didn't, in the end, protect China. The great Wall of Hadrian in Britain didn't protect Roman rule in Britain. Events happen, things happen elsewhere that mess up your intentions that you had when building this wall and trying to stabilise the situation.

You build walls because you've got what you see as a crisis, and you have no way that you can solve it or indeed want to solve it. There may be a way to solve it but you don't want to follow that way, and that was the case with the Berlin Wall, and it did last a remarkably long time when you think about it, 28 years, this thing sitting there which, as I said, the weird thing was when you lived in West Berlin in the '70s, which I did, you got used to it.

Journalist [archival]: It's not so much history repeating but being recalled, as a wall in Berlin tumbles once more. And just as that moment 20 years ago provoked jubilation, so did the toppling of 1,000 dominoes through the heart of the Berlin, reminding how change swept through the city and far beyond.

Annabelle Quince: It was assumed in 1989—when the Berlin Wall come down and the Cold War ended—that this was the end of walls and fortified borders. But we couldn't have been more wrong.

Elisabeth Vallet: If you look at the data, the rise of the number of walls has two different phases. So one is the post 9/11 decade and then the Arab Spring. And the acceleration with the Arab Spring is very striking. We had 15 walls up in the middle of the 1990s. We have 70 today being built or already built. So there is a significant rise which has been triggered not by 9/11 per se but really by the…it's kind of a contrary effect of globalisation. In a world of identity politics, the border wall, as you can tell in the US, is presented as a solution for the crisis that nation states are going through.

Annabelle Quince: So give us a quick rundown. If you said there are 70, well, that's an increase of 55 walls. Where are they going up?

Elisabeth Vallet: Just about everywhere. You will see some of them of course in North America between Mexico and the US, that's the one we hear about. You'll see some in Africa between Botswana and Zimbabwe. One is being built between Kenya and Somalia, in North Africa you will see some of course, a lot of them. In the Middle East, around Israel, all the borders of Israel, all the borders of Saudi Arabia. Then you'll see them around Bangladesh. One has just been announced by Pakistan between Pakistan and Afghanistan. You will see some in Southeast Asia. And so the only continent that is spared is actually yours so far.

Annabelle Quince: And I'm wondering, what would be the monetary cost of this? If we've got an extra 55 walls being built around the world, I'm imagining the cost must be staggering.

Elisabeth Vallet: It is. The border security market in the world is around $17-$18 billion per year, US dollars. It is a very good market for those companies that used to be part of the defence industrial complex, and they've morphed themselves into a security industrial complex. You will see Elbit Systems from Israel, Boeing, Thales, EADS, all those big, big companies, multinational companies are really drawing on that. So it is a huge market, and per kilometre in the US where we have the most data it can be around $8 million per kilometre. And we are expecting that figure to go up to $15 million per kilometre in some specific places because you have to…you know, it's private land and it's a deserted land, so the cost is horrendous for public finances, and actually not worth the benefits really.

Annabelle Quince: Elisabeth Vallet, the editor of Borders, Fences and Walls: State of Insecurity? My other guests: Professor Arthur Waldron, author of The Great Wall of China; Roy Moxham who wrote The Great Hedge of India; and Fredrick Taylor, the author of The Berlin Wall.

And anyone who is interested in trying to see what's left of the Great Hedge of India, here's a challenge:

Roy Moxham: At the back of my book I put the longitude and latitude of this bit of hedge I found. If you put those into Google Earth, you can actually see it. I mean, you don't even realise what it was because you know, if you see what I mean. You see the modern road going around in a curve, and then you see this raised barrier running across the middle of this bent for a couple of miles or whatever.

Annabelle Quince: So what is the longitude and latitude?

Roy Moxham: 26 degrees, 32.2 minutes north, and 79 degrees, 09.2 minutes east. So that is it, yes, you can see it on Google Earth, which quite pleased me.

Annabelle Quince: And we really would like to hear from anyone who manages to spot the hedge, so please email us via our webpage.

Today's sound engineer is Jenifer Parsonage. I'm Annabelle Quince and this is Rear Vision on RN.

© Australian Broadcasting Company (2017)