The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2020

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FEB 2020 Issue
Field Notes

Berlin Wall: An Afterlife

November 9th, 2019 marked the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Berlin officials planned a week-long celebration in which the entire city became “the largest concert stage in the world.” However, amidst nationalist uprisings, racial and religious violence, from Halle to Ras al-Ain, and border tensions from Londonderry to Tapachula, it felt less like a celebration and more like a vigil for the death of the borderless-world dream promised 30 years ago.

The promise, symbolized by the Wall’s fall, came about spontaneously. On November 9, 1989, Günter Schabowski, a newly appointed German Democratic Republic (GDR) spokesman, announced in a press conference a policy allowing East Germans to own passports. One reporter asked when these measures would take effect. Schabowski, who looked confused, rummaged through his papers, and blurted out, “Er, as far as I know, immediately. Without delay.” Schabowski’s media gaffe made him an accidental hero: within hours of the press conference a mass of East Germans rolled on Checkpoint Charlie and other crossings, many with sledgehammers and pickaxes, and started to dismantle that wall. To the people watching around the world, this was seen as an act of catharsis releasing tensions building up since the Iron Curtain fell on Europe. The event was so almost unimaginable that it became a thing of myth.

The Wall itself became an international symbol of hope and freedom from oppression, and with it grew a Berlin Wall memory industry: Tourists pose in front of it at the East Side Gallery, sections of it have been given as gifts by the German government to municipalities, museums, and institutions all over the world, from Gdańsk, Poland to the Ein Hod Artist Village in Israel; from Cheonggyecheon in Seoul to the garden of the Maltese Charity Service in Budapest. Reshaping the wall into an object of memory has turned it into a monument: an archaic object, a piece of cultural heritage.

In 2014, as part of the 25-year commemoration of the fall of the Wall, an installation of thousands of helium-filled balloons coursed 12 kilometers of the border that once separated East and West and lit up the Berlin skies. The installation was intended to be a “symbol of hope for a world without borders”—balloons instead of bricks. But like balloons after a birthday party, this symbolic gesture began to deflate.

A few months after the festivities, migrants began washing up on the shores of Europe. Soon, refugees and asylum seekers from Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere massed in train stations, headed to Germany and Scandinavia. In 2016 Britons voted for Brexit. Chants of “build the wall” were heard at Trump rallies all over the US. In 2018, Gazans marched on the Israel–Gaza barrier, to be pushed back by armed force. In 2019, in Germany, a gunman killed two people at a kebab shop after failing to enter a synagogue, and 18 days later, in an election in the German State of Thuringia, the right-wing, anti-immigrant party Alternative for Germany gained 11 more seats. All across Europe, one can feel a retreat into nationalist ideologies. According to the Building Walls report, as of 2019, there have been over almost 1,000 km of walls constructed in the EU, “the equivalent of more than six times the total length of the Berlin Walls.”

What happened? How did these walls grow in front of our eyes without our noticing? What happened to the promise of the fall?

Wall as Metaphor

In 1989, just a few months before the fall, another person became an accidental hero. Francis Fukuyama, an American political scientist with a feeling for Hegel wrote an article for a political magazine.  In “The End of History?”  Fukuyama argued that the impending decline of Communism and the Soviet Union would lead to “Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Fukuyama saw the world order as binary: democracy and freedom on one side and fascism, communism, and authoritarianism on the other. “For our purposes, it matters very little what strange thoughts occur to people in Albania or Burkina Faso,” Fukuyama wrote, “for we are interested in what one could in some sense call the common ideological heritage of mankind.” This “common ideological heritage,” European at its core, was sold as universal. 

A few months later, as if by miracle, the wall collapsed, taking down the Soviet universe with it. Fukuyama was seen as a prophet and scholar-king. In his short essay, Fukuyama gave Western governments the intellectual seal of approval for their neoliberal agendas, which in turn they sold as “Globalization”: an interconnected world relying on scientific and technological development where increased trade, decentralized and deregulated powers, organizations like the World Trade Organization, and free-trade treaties made national borders irrelevant. The New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman, touting this ideology, titled a book The World is Flat (2005).

In unified Germany, in the passport-abolishing Schengen Area, in a world rushing towards democratic consumerism, walls and borders were talked about as an obsolete concept. Germany in particular leapt into this new world, becoming a leader of a new Europe that wanted to shed its continental ways. Germany wanted to be a nation cleansed of nationalism.

Although globalization spread through the entire world with the help of fiber optics and satellite frequencies, it touched only certain parts of the population of each country, Western or not. There were classes that integrated into the technological world and its vernacular, their movement on and off the internet uninhibited. Then there was the rest of the world, still tied to its language and its land. The markets moved, but people, for the most part, stayed still. Within the EU, this meant that freedom of movement varied dramatically: For mobile professionals like bankers, tech workers, and people in the corporate world, commuting from one country to the other is simply a matter of getting on the Eurostar or taking a morning flight from Barcelona to Brussels. But low-skill workers moving from one country to another were met with hostility.

The acceptance of ex-Soviet countries like Poland and Latvia into the EU in 2004, seemingly a step towards a borderless European utopia, gave rise to nationalism in even the most progressive countries. All over Britain, right-wing parties, like the British National Party (BNP) and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), gained political influence by sounding the migrant-job-stealing-Eastern-European-invasion alarm. This sentiment was echoed during the run-up to the Brexit referendum when UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, said he would prefer immigrants from India and Australia to Eastern Europeans. This ideology was summed up with a poster: “26 million people in Europe are looking for work, and whose jobs are they after?” Meanwhile, three quarters of a million Britons were living in the EU. 

Ironically, Poland’s entrance into the EU had a similar effect at home: Many Polish people rebelled against what they reckoned as the erosion of a Polish identity— nationalistic, West Slavic, Catholic—by Brussels bureaucrats. They aimed to restore a Poland that was the center of Central Europe. Soon, they would have a representative at the Presidential Palace: Andrzej Duda, a politician for the Law and Justice party, who later became Poland’s representative to Brussels, won the 2015 election on strong anti-EU sentiments. In a speech, the former European Parliament member called the European Union an “imaginary community,” saying his role was to advance the power of the Polish people, in Poland and abroad, to promote Polish culture and history, and “For now, let them [the EU] leave us alone.” In November, 2018, the centennial celebration of Polish independence, Duda, standing in the back of a military Jeep and encircled by police and soldiers, made a speech about unity, celebrating the past in front of a rambunctious nationalist crowd. Recently, an EU legal advisor said that Poland “breached EU law” by refusing take in refugees. A Polish spokesperson said, in reply, that “Warsaw acted “in the interest of Polish citizens.”  The unity Duda spoke about wasn’t the universalist promise of Lech Wałęsa and and the EU. It was and is a synonym for nativism, the idea of a homogenous entity trying to withstand outside forces.

A New Age of Walls

Of course, for migrants outside of the EU, freedom of movement is nonexistent. In 2013, the European Parliament approved the creation of the European Border Surveillance System (Eurosur), an information exchange framework designed to improve the management of the EU’s external borders. It is run by Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, which, ironically is headquartered in Warsaw. During the 2015 migrant crisis Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia closed their borders to migrants coming from the Mediterranean and Turkey. It was only when outside populations came into Europe that Europe asserted itself again. 

But refugees running away from genocide, famine, and economic despair weren’t only stopped by the assistance of face recognition software, but also by local populations, in a backlash against the EU and its governments. For those who had always lived in rural Poland or East Germany, it was as though the walls, although not visible, had never come down. These populations didn’t enjoy the same gains as their cosmopolitan compatriots. In East Germany, GDP per capita is still around 20 percent lower than in the West, just as it was 15 years ago. The fallen Wall could be taken as a metaphor for a broken promise sold as “internationalism.”

Soon populations all over Europe began to develop nationalist sentiments. This was preyed upon by far-right parties like the Golden Dawn in Greece, the Front National in France, UKIP in England, AfD in Germany, parties that soon found their way into government with the election of Andrej Duda in Poland, Viktor Orban in Hungary, and Matteo Salvini in Italy. Walls, borders, coast guards intercepting boats carrying asylum seekers were ways for people to resist the infiltration of their world. If they couldn’t resist the invisible bureaucratic structures of the neoliberal elite restructuring the world, they could stop Syrians seeking shelter whom they saw as restructuring Europe.

In the US, Trump followed his European counterparts. He transformed the Republican party from the simplistic Reagan morality of “tear down that wall” to a nativist “build the wall.” Americans in Michigan and Ohio, upstate New York, and West Virginia made this a rallying cry, along with “Make America Great Again,” a promise to return to industrialization and white hegemony. Speaking about the feasibility of building a 2000 mile long wall, Senator Lindsey Graham said, “The Wall has become a metaphor for border security.”

Post 9/11, migrants weren’t only seen as job takers, but as terrorists. The Department of Homeland Security was established in 2002 in the run-up to the Iraq War. The surveillance apparatus became ubiquitous all over the US, aided by the same technological advances touted as liberating a mere eight years before. It was in fact the export of war to the Middle East, making violence invisible in westernized countries and omnipresent in Libya, Yemen, and Syria, that gave rise to these nationalists’ fears. The fear of the unknown, the faceless enemy, made US citizens give enormous powers to governmental services, so they could keep on living as usual and keep violence outside of American borders. 

The memory industry of the Berlin Wall hides the fact that Europe has failed its borderless promise time after time; that the world is open, but only for some; that although the West isn’t concerned with the “strange thoughts that occur to people in Albania or Burkina Faso,” in an interconnected world countries cannot simply export their cheap labor and pollution to underdeveloped countries. The segments of the Wall in various countries mask this reality: a piece of it stands in Gdańsk, Poland, where recently the mayor was stabbed by a right-wing nationalist; in downtown Seoul, a piece stands on a river bank where North Koreans fled after the war, a war that never ended; another in Schengen, Luxemburg, where the idea of a borderless Eurozone came into reality but is now under attack.

Breaking Down the Invisible Wall

Witnessing these retreats into fundamentalist and nationalist ideologies can leave one with a mix of apathy and rage. But what if this poisonous concoction leading was designed? If so, how can we resist it?

In 1989 another person talked about the end of history, but for him, it was anything but a positive trajectory. East-German playwright and activist Heiner Müller said in an interview that year that “there’s a real danger that peace will bring the end of history.” It was a peculiar statement, especially for someone speaking about unity and fighting to end the authoritarian GDR regime. But in this statement, Müller unconsciously articulated the fundamental flaw inherent in the Fukuyama doctrine: if there’s no more history, there is no future. The future in this case isn’t a matter of one attainable policy but of an aspiration in the collective imagination. Peace without a vision of the future isn’t sustainable.

The governments of the end of history were the first to manage a world devoid of big ideologies like Communism, Fascism, and Nazism. They were overwhelmed with urgent, real-world issues facing Europe and the world, like the climate crisis, an increasing globalized inequality, cyber-security threats, and battles over natural resources. The 21st century began with 9/11, followed by the 2009 financial crash, which—apart from demolishing job sectors and costing millions of lives‚—also sparked people to take to the streets in a call for fundamental change. But instead of taking the mantle of change and offering foundational changes, to make the world really open, liberal leaders offered incremental fixes to current institutions.

Where there is no hopeful vision for the future, ideology creeps in. This is why in the past decade it has been easy for people to fall into one ideology or another, to embrace hyper-nationalism or to push for progressive multiculturalism. But ideologies are artificial walls designed to divide people who all agree change is necessary.

And here is the crack in the wall: by focusing on shared needs instead of one ideology or another, people can begin forging new alliances. In 2019 people have taken to the streets in Hong Kong, Chile, Bolivia, Sudan, and Lebanon; millions across the world gathered to sound the alarm on climate crisis; volunteers are flying from far and wide to offer aid to refugees and to serve as human shields facing hostile communities. Today, just as in 1989, there is unbridled unrest, and today, more than ever, there is possibility for real solidarity. All these people are taking to the streets, speaking up, because their fundamental needs aren’t being met. Most of all it’s the climate crisis, which is affecting everyone and anything, that is not only bringing communities from all around the world together but also exposes the inability or unwillingness of political apparatuses to deal with this existential threat that crosses every divide and every wall.

If in 1989 people articulated their hopes for the future by breaking down a wall, today people are trying to break down invisible walls, and they are using new tools to do so—a sailboat, yellow vests, umbrellas. In the midst of all these struggles and conflicts, there’s one question still unanswered from 1989: what is left after the walls are broken? And how can we be sure we aren’t helping build new walls unaware?


Etan Nechin

Eitan Nechin is a New York-based Israeli writer. Currently, he is writer-at-residence at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris, where he’s finishing work on his first novel. His writing can be found in The New York Times, LA Review of Books, Vice, and elsewhere. @etanetan23


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2020

All Issues