It’s been 60 years since 15-year-old Jürgen climbed a rickety ladder leaning against the half-built Berlin Wall. This was the last gap in the East-West border, the last loophole, before those in East Berlin were trapped.

Jürgen was not able to return to his family home until 1989.

The authorities building the Wall in 1961 had little choice. The 3.5 million who had fled within the previous 11 years made up nearly a fifth of the entire East German population.

Those migrating represented the brightest and best amongst the young and professional classes; looming economic, social and reputational implications threatened the very viability of the East German state.

The building of the Wall was met with resignation by Harold Macmillan, the then prime minister – famously shooting grouse as the drama unfolded – and insouciance by the US president.

John F Kennedy remarked that “a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war”, but the families of the 140 who died in its shadow may not have seen the difference.

Jürgen is my uncle, and now lives happily in a care home in Düren. At the time of his escape he was studying at a Prussian boarding school in the American sector. He had moved freely between school and his Russian sector home, until that one summer holiday, when my grandmother intervened and sent him back west.

My mother was luckier. Born just before the war, she took her Abitur in 1956 and applied to read English and Russian at Leipzig University.

While her academic results alone could have granted her entry, her sozialistische Haltung – “socialistic attitude” – could not.

She was instead awarded a scholarship to Das Lettehaus, a college in West Berlin, and received an exit visa despite, or perhaps because of, her reputation as troublemaker. In 1958, she moved to Derbyshire to improve her English and there she stayed.

Six months ago, 12 activists set out by boat from Hong Kong to freedom in Taiwan. Their route carried them across Chinese territorial waters until they were intercepted by the coast guard, leading to the first public admission by Chinese authorities that they had blocked those attempting to flee.

Is this a sign that the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong faces its own Wall? As Machiavelli observed: “Whoever considers the past and the present will readily observe that all cities and all peoples […] ever have been animated by the same desires and the same passions.”

There are indeed some signs of history repeating itself now the UK government has opened a free visa route for British National Overseas Passport holders. Estimates vary as to how many of the 5.4 million eligible will come to the UK. Perhaps 1.5 million is a sensible estimate – a fifth of the population – the same proportion that left East Berlin for a new life in the West.

It is also no coincidence that the most educated and mobile Hong Kongers – those with professional skills, language proficiency and international ambition – are also the ones eyeing the ladder to the West. This has grave implications for the future health of what was once the most prosperous city in Asia.

Initially those leaving Berlin did so under the guise of “visits”. All travel was stopped by 1956 along the inner German border, but it still left Berlin as a gateway to the West.

Of course there is currently no blanket ban on travel out of Hong Kong (or at least other than the exigencies of the pandemic) but exit is controlled and such “visits” may see a resurgence.

On Dec 11 1957, East Germany introduced a new passport law reducing the overall number of refugees leaving.

On Jan 29 2021, Beijing declared it will stop recognising British National (Overseas) passports as travel and identification documents and the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman ominously warned of further measures.

At least the East Germans appeared to act independently of Soviet direction – however in Hong Kong however there is no disguising who is calling the shots.

The building of the Wall proved a potent catalyst in the creation of the Cold War and an unmistakably confrontational act against the spirt of the Potsdam Agreement.

The Cuban Missile Crisis followed a year later and then the whole panoply of proxy wars that kept the world in fear of global nuclear catastrophe for the next quarter of a century.

Hong Kong has its own Handover Agreement. Will there be further escalation that bends this to breaking point? Will the ladder the UK government has extended be enough for the people of Hong Kong?

Published in The Sunday Telegraph on Feb 14 2021.

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