(Modified from a a blog post originally published by the London’s School of Advanced Study. Full text available here)
The most iconic images from 1989 show people on the Berlin Wall, dancing, holding hands, feet dangling East and West, and laughing. Twenty-five years on, these images remain emblems of a fleeting memory: political happiness.
Perhaps the story of the Berlin Wall has particular appeal to English-speaking audiences, who grew up with that dramatic nursery rhyme of a fractured body politic. It turns out that this particular Humpty Dumpty could be put together again without any King’s horses or men!
Yet it is all too easy to confuse the end of this particular story with the end of history. Injustice can exist without visible walls. How emblematic has the fall of the wall really been when it comes to the twentieth century?
Actually, it is the nineteenth century and not the twentieth that had first beaconed an era of tumbling walls. Back in 1848, Marx and Engels had spoken of the bourgeoisie breaking down ‘Chinese walls’ through the forces of capitalism. But it was in Europe, from Lucca in the South to Vienna in the Centre and York in the North, where medieval fortresses and walls of early modern city-states first gave way to fashionable promenades. Like these, the Chinese wall never had to be destroyed in order to change its significance: it was simply absorbed into a new empire and, by the end of the nineteenth century, turned into a tourist destination, intact. However, by the late twentieth century, Europeans, far from seeing more walls wither away, engaged in the construction of new walls of barbed wire, concrete, and steel, which continue to divide cities such as Nicosia, Belfast, and Jerusalem. Numerous other frontiers, invisible to most of us, policed by the European international border taskforce, Frontex, protect fortress Europe in its borderlands reaching from Poland to Greece and Morocco.
Franz Kafka’s parable about the construction of the Great Wall of China offers some clues. In this story, which he wrote in 1917, as the empire of which he was a subject was in its death throes, Kafka projected himself into the mind of a construction worker. Looking back, Kafka’s worker was puzzled about two things. Why is it, he asks, that the Great Wall was built in separate segments, leaving so many gaps between them? Then there was another paradox. According to the emperor’s loyal Mandarins, the wall was needed for protection against encroachments by the Northern tribes. But believing in this threat required a degree of trust: the worker himself had ever seen anyone from these tribes approaching their territory. In fact, he could not be sure that such tribes existed at all. His lingering suspicion was that perhaps the wall’s primary function was the process of building itself, i.e., the recruitment, training and intraimperial migration of the workforce? As soon as the gaps between the wall’s segments were filled, that particular empire began to crumble.
The moral also applies to the process of deconstruction. As long as there was still work to do in breaking it down, it had a meaning and a function for those who chose to identify with this particular instance of happiness, for instance, by travelling to Berlin or buying ever smaller souvenir pieces of the wall at the airport. In 2014, Berliners are struggling to preserve a last piece of wall against developers of real estate. Now we know: this particular story of political happiness lasted nearly as long as the wall’s unhappy twenty-eight year construction. Today, its photographic memory is under copyright.
What is the next wall to be conquered by a dancing crowd?
© Dina Gusejnova, 2015