The Wall Came Down 25 Years
Ago But Others Remain Defiant
It was a typical public jubilation moment: thousands of happy people, front cover news around the world, an event of political resonance (and appropriation too) and catharsis like few. It happened a generation ago: on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall finally came down.
But just as other similar, long overdue moments have been before it and since, when the symbolic end of the Cold War arrived, it was swift, pregnant with hope, and just as quickly, deeply dissatisfying. A quarter of a century later, we’re bound to question even its relevance.
It didn’t even end the détente, that unbearably nervous post-war time between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that for years paralyzed the world with fear. We now can see it for what it was: just a pro-forma liberation hour, coming late to rubber-stamp its own obsolescence.
But it was a jubilation all the same. Those who endured 28 years of that cruel scar, splitting heart and country in the middle, surely deserved to celebrate it all with gusto. Before long, however, it all wound up in a museum.
Sunday will culminate a week long commemoration, and images of mostly young people climbing crumbling logs of concrete, and a few survivor old timers too, crying like happy babies, will make the headlines. Not as breaking news, though; but as a cultural landmark.
We’ll take it anyway, of course. Times have been hard on reasons to be cheerful, and saturated with the kind of heartbreak that built the wall in the first place. So, heaven forbid if we let such an occasion to be merry pass, and, by all means, let’s have a worldwide party.
KEEPING THEM PEOPLE OUTSIDE
For 20th century standards, the fall of the Berlin Wall was an unbeatable icon of optimism and hope in the future. Some would argue that bottled down anger and misery was wishing for that day to come since pretty much a century ago, when the Great War began. And many cheered just as such.
For the ‘war to end all wars,’ many would argue, was the trigger for all conflicts that followed it, with the second one merely being an attempt to settle unfinished business left from it. From the muddy trenches to the 1961 construction site in Berlin and beyond, it all seemed to have been part of the same continuum.
But we’ve been building divides to keep people we don’t like away ever since, well, what about before the Great Wall of China, built between 220 and 206 BCE, and now standing as a touristic attraction? Just like of what’s left of the Wall, source of a still thriving industry of trinkets, selling bit by bit, parts of its brick and mortar skeleton.
Neither come close to the sheer cruelty, irony, and absolute despair represented by their way more politically relevant contemporaries: the three Israeli-built barriers, separating it from the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and between the strip and Egypt, and the already completed parts of the hundred-miles long fencing at the U.S.-Mexico border.
TRIBUTE LAND SCARS TO INTOLERANCE
This last one, still in construction, may someday extend to a 700 miles scar. Despite of its ever increasing costs, it won’t prevent the already receding influx from south of the border. Even as it is, it still stands as a monument to intolerance and xenophobia.
As the U.S. becomes inevitably more demographically entangled with Central America, and less with Europe, erecting a fence is a big, grandstanding waste of resources. At least for as long as millions of undocumented aliens continue to generate the lion share of the country’s wealth even without ever being able to partake of it.
As for the Israeli walls, built under the fear-mongering rhetoric of security, they succeeded in turning any two-state solution peace talks into an unfunny joke. So far, while failing that premise of protecting Israel, they’ve been effective land-grabbing instruments.
They’re the bricks in the wall against diplomacy, which must to come down before Israelis and Palestinians break bread to end their millennial conflict. For now, though, boxing neighbors seems higher in Israel’s agenda, as harboring hatred for their big brothers looks more important to Palestinians.
BUT ARE WE REALLY ALL BERLINERS?
The irony of the most famous quote from President Kennedy’s 1963 speech in West Berlin, just a few months before being assassinated, is that it was not lost to those left out of the Israeli-Gaza barrier: someone wrote it on that massive wall, in the original German language that JFK used.
It’s certainly way more politically charged being graffiti-ed on those concrete slabs, after all we know of the Jewish Holocaust in the hands of German Nazis during the war, than in the now reunified capital. There, the quote is a relic; in Gaza, it’s an urgent metaphor for help, directed at the world.
But for a post-war brilliant generation of artists, the Berlin Wall remains as powerful and inspirational a symbol as it’s always been. Among them is Roger Waters, of Pink Floyd, who almost single-handedly wrote arguably the most definite wall-inspired album of the 20th century.
An autobiographical requiem for the post-war, The Wall pays homage to his father – a WWII soldier killed in Italy whose remains were never found – that’s become an enduring statement for peace and disarmament. While its main premise, Tear Down the Wall, has already been accomplished in Europe, it’s still to happen everywhere else.
WALLS TO REMEMBER, NOT TO DIVIDE
If symbols are still important, there’s yet another wall with more resonance than the one the U.S. and its allies agreed to let the Soviet Union build in Germany: the stunningly serene 1982 Vietnam Veterans Memorial, created by Maya Lin and completed in Washington, DC.
Its deceptively simple conception – the list of names of those who died in that conflict – remains a quiet statement of the power for healing and remembrance that monuments can convey. It’s also a surprising interactive feature, perhaps not anticipated by Ms. Lin: its bas-relief design allows visitors to easily copy the names.
It stands in contrast with all other examples above for having being erected in response to war, not as a tool to wage it. Perhaps that’s what the Berlin Wall is destined to become too, and so may the barriers east of the Mediterranean sea, and the wavy U.S.-Mexican border fence.
As far as monuments go, though, former military trenches not always inspire positive ideas, and some are downright toxic. Perhaps we could spend those resources building works of cooperation and support to each other’s neighbors. In that way, we’re very glad that at least that wall in Berlin did come down.