Migrations Borders of the Past: On Europe and the Berlin Wall
The idea of a peacefully united continent that acknowledges identity must prevail.
We have entered an age of insecurity — economic insecurity, physical insecurity, political insecurity. The fact that we are largely unaware of this is small comfort: few in 1914 predicted the utter collapse of their world and the economic and political catastrophes that followed. Insecurity breeds fear. And fear — fear of change, fear of decline, fear of strangers and an unfamiliar world — is corroding the trust and interdependence on which civil societies rest. —Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land
The border between West and East Berlin had been rebuilt, after a fashion. From August 2015 to June 2016, the tram line between Bornholmer Strasse and the Virchow hospital was closed for public transport as the Bösebridge was renovated, forcing trains from Prenzlauer Berg to stop just before the bridge, like in GDR times when reaching the border crossing here. One warm summer evening in June 2016, in the middle of an annus horribilis , I decided to walk to my neighborhood of Wedding between the tracks, an area that is normally verboten to enter.
Up a slight incline I passed markings in the sidewalks, bronze indicators of the dates and events that led to the opening of the Berlin Wall, which occurred here first at the Bornholmer Strasse border crossing at 11:30 p.m. on November 9, 1989.
Today, in every corner of the continent, some loud right-wing nincompoop is upholding the ideas of “country” and “race” and makes exclusion seem like a solid strategy for the future. On the other hand, Europe, especially Germany, is being told that as long as the economy is doing well, we are doing well, that we need to keep upholding austerity, despite the fact that the southern half of the European Union is being slowly privatized to death.
The success of the new European populists was made possible by the constant erosion of the social fabric that austerity and an over-administrative EU government in Brussels represent. Of course, the people in Bautzen and Sleaford are protesting against refugees, either on the street or by referendum. How else can they be heard? When newspapers report the fact that the nearest supermarket for the refugees in their new home is eight kilometers away, is this not the same for the local inhabitants, and hasn’t it been like this for ten, fifteen years? Twenty-eight years after reunification the pensions in the former GDR are still not at the same level as the West German ones. Investment bonds and shares have become the new mummified cats and slaughtered servants for a group of aging cronies, increasingly detached from the reality of life in post-Cold War Europe. Maybe their wealth will buy them eternal life, but I wager it won’t.
Closer to the Bösebruecke and the S-Bahn station I reached the place of November 9th, a small square with a white leftover part of the Berlin Wall on one side, and large displays of black-and-white pictures of the border crossing juxtaposed with colorful images of the evening of November 9th. Images of masses of laughing and cheering people—men in blue jeans with enormous moustaches, women in grey and brown winter coats carrying plastic bags—all surging forward toward the border, toward freedom.
I was born German, but for the last twenty years I have been traveling and living all over Europe. I’ve seen the sun rise over the highlands of Catalonia, and I’ve woken up to the same sun in the compartment of my night train entering Russia. I drank with hobos, lost souls, and found ones in Edinburgh, Reykjavik, Belfast, Bucharest, Prague, and Perugia. I waded through the sewers of Paris and swam in the Irish Sea, and I walked over the frozen harbor of Helsinki. I fell in love in a hundred places but came together with my wife, whose mother is from France, at a Halloween party in Tower Hamlets and proposed to her in Temple Bar. Above any political entity, I have a strong, emotional appreciation for our continent and all of its people and countries. I’ve also lived in both Germany and Ireland for the last ten years, which means I’ve immensely benefitted from the political decision to enable EU citizens to live and work unrestrictedly in all member countries.
After crossing the bridge and entering the former West Berlin, like all those happy people twenty-eight years ago, I walked across the street and hopped down onto the tracks at the tram stop. The dark line of the tracks led me down Bornholmer and into Osloer Strasse, the lights of Wedding to the left and right of me as I wandered through the darkness in the middle of the road. The unused tram line was surprisingly busy at night. Every fifty meters or so I met a dog and its owner, making the best of the long grass that had grown around and between the tracks. There was fear in 1989, of last stands by the East German border guards, army or Stasi, of nervous Soviet generals pressing buttons. I wondered if the people in the illuminated living rooms around me had been afraid of the people swarming across the border, but then I remembered the images of them cheering and hugging the new arrivals, slapping the roofs of the Trabbies chugging down Osloer Strasse in triumph and celebration—but in celebration of unity, not victory.
While the demise of the Iron Curtain surely meant the victory of capitalism over communism, it also meant making choices, good or bad, for those who previously had their choices made by their state. I do not subscribe to the argument that communism, or socialism respectively, had its chance and failed and we are now forever stuck with capitalism as the best of all worlds. Quite the opposite: Capitalism has had an equal chance, and like communism it has failed. Twenty-eight years after the alleged victory of one unifying worldview, some parts of society and many politicians all over Europe—the generation that came after the elder statesmen who managed the peaceful end of the Cold War—are still adhering to the European version of the American Dream: Believing in austerity and that we ourselves will be able to improve our situation if we only work hard and consume. Humanity should have a moon base by now, given our technological advancements, but instead we’re producing selfie sticks and wristwatch phones and more ways to watch porn on the go and plastic vortexes swirling in the Pacific.
Even from the abyss of horror in which we try to feel our way today, half-blind, our hearts distraught and shattered, I look up again and again to the ancient constellations that shone on my childhood, comforting myself with the inherited confidence that, some day, this relapse will appear only an interval in the eternal rhythm of progress onward and upward. ― Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday
My parents always taught me fairness and openness, and when the wall came down it felt, for a brief moment, as if these values had prevailed and the unified continent of Europe could only progress onward from there. Despite the wars in former Yugoslavia (which gave me a first glimpse of what failures the EU as political entity is capable of), an atmosphere of hope and positivity seemed to prevail. Since then, I have always striven to be fair and open, to treat other humans as equal, regardless of origin and social standing. These days, I guess that makes me a humanist, one that also abhors totalitarianism.
My own family experienced its share. My granduncle was executed by the Nazis as a Polish spy; my grandmother spent four years in labor camps courtesy of the Soviet Union. I am convinced that, in the spirit of George Orwell, social democracy has to be the political form most worthy of support, now and in the future. And that means that I have, up to a point, the same views as the people who tilted the balance toward Brexit, toward Trump. If we keep dismantling the welfare state and consider everything with a market value, things can only get worse. The difference is, maybe, that I do not define myself via exclusion and a longing for the good old days.
If there is one thing that unites all the people I met on my European travels—in Warsaw, Belfast, Tours, Yekaterinburg—is that once we’ve overcome our prejudices and stereotypes the only way forward is exchange, communication, and collaboration. Or, as Persepolis author Marjane Satrapi once said, “The difference between me and my government is much bigger than between me and you.” We all are sure that we do not want war in our lifetime, that we do not want a Europe where walls are built again, whether against refugees, the “evil” Russians, or against too many foreign employees in London.
Despite the best efforts of the nincompoops, we are all aware of the horrible history of the small continent we share, of the Gestapo, the NKVD, of Srebrenica. Europe has to be about being aware of one’s identity and cultural background without adulating it. Nation-states and their cultural identities are important, but in a globalized world it would be madness to try to hide behind walls. You can rest assured that all the people you are trying to hide from will be knocking on the walls soon, with trebuchets and battering rams. And if your walls keep withstanding that, they won’t withstand the rising sea levels.
How can I not support the concept of a continent working together while keeping the cultural identities intact, coming from a place where a wall dominated life until I was twelve? How could I consider the European project a failure? The idea of a peacefully united continent that acknowledges identity and enables exchange must prevail. The more barriers we put in the way, the more difficult we make it for us and our children to exchange and explore other places and cultures. The more fear we create of the unknown, the more difficult we make it for us to have a nuanced view of the world. In our globalized and interconnected present, this is more important than ever.
I am a child of the Cold War, but my hope sits with the often-quoted millennials, those twenty-somethings born into a world of hope and freedom, who take free movement as something bestowed upon them, who fund idealistic fantasies like supermarkets without plastic packaging and who became Bahnhofsklatscher (people welcoming refugees at train stations—a derogative term used by the new right in Germany) in 2015. I look at my friends who are ten, fifteen years younger than I am, and not at the opportunistic generation of bastards ruling us today who grew up in a world of unabashed materialism, who still think that as long as their cronies are well-off, they too are well-off. They cannot last. What can and will last, if you will allow me to paraphrase astronaut Edgar Mitchell—who once said that when you look upon the world from the moon you immediately develop a global consciousness—is the European consciousness that has been growing since the Berlin Wall was punctured. The bastards in power today can try as much as they like and close borders and erect walls topped with barbed wire again, but my friends will win in the end. I will help them whatever way I can.
I finally reached the brightly-lit intersection of Osloer and Schwedenstrasse, where Berlin looked startlingly like Moscow: concrete office buildings from the ’70s, too much traffic, and Vietnamese immigrants and babushkas selling chintz and plastic shoes from small shops in the pedestrian tunnel. Here I departed the dark line for one last glass for the road at Wilma Bar. As I was stepping back into the light of the tram stop and the Dönerbude opposite, I realised that we are all still walking a line, one that was created twenty-eight years back. But what helps me walk it, for the time being, is that I know a few things now: Capitalism cannot be the answer; unity is always better than fragmentation; solidarity is always better than ostracism.