Heaven above BerlinIs Ronald Reagan spinning in his grave? What does he think of plans to rebuild the Berlin Wall?
Alexandra Hildebrandt, the head of the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, wants to re-erect a 140 meter section of the Berlin Wall from pieces saved by her husband. The plan is controversial in Berlin. Many residents see it as a crass attempt to attract tourism: the museum already employs drama students to stand around in East German uniforms to have their photographs taken for 5 euros. (Recently, the students protested Hildebrandts efforts to cut their jobs by wrapping themselves in toilet paper.) Others complain that there would be something artificial about the new wall: it would not be in the actual location where the wall stood.
Even before it was erected, Berlin was an unnatural space. Although it appeared to defy the division between East and West, both BRD and DDR used it as a show piece to prove the superiority of their respective ideologies. The Wall made those divisions concrete. The space around the wall was a landscape of graffiti and desperation. It was where Wim Wenders lonely angels wandered in search of human contact in Wings of Desire, and where Hansel started his journey to transcend the boundaries of gender in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
When it was taken down, West German went to great lengths to erase all evidence that Berlin was ever divided. Banks and department stores were built on the ground where it stood. Federal ministries erected new buildings as the government moved from Bonn to Berlin; a few East German buildings were employed, but only for practical reasons. Capitalism announced its triumph over ideology by displacing the evidence of Communism.
Tearing down the wall did not erase all barriers: it destroyed evidence of divisions that still exist in Germany. East Berlin is still different from West. A walk along Unter den Linden, the long avenue that runs through the city, reveals drastic differences. The east is an area of cheap housing for immigrants and the less affluent. New development goes to the western parts of the city, and the east maintains then look of a communist metropolis (similar block apartments buildings of the type that are being torn down in other European cities). As I have mentioned before, Germany itself is divided socially along East-West lines. People in the former East Germany have suffered greater economic hardship, and political extremism (both left and right) is more popular than elsewhere in Germany. There is ill will between the two Germanies: the East Germans don't feet that those in the West have ever understood them, only wishing to remake them. The film Goodbye Lenin revealed how the Reunification was an invasion of West German values. Socially and culturally, the wall defied its own destruction.
Without the Berlin Wall, Germans cannot reflect on the meaning of the traumatic decades of separation. People who come to Berlin no longer come for the legacy of Prussia and the Hohenzollerns, but the Cold War. Tourists look for the wall, searching out obscure sections of the city where the work of bulldozing was not completed. As Anne Whitson Spirn put it in 1998:
Forgetting the past can be foolish, and attempts to reinvent it may even be dangerous: in Berlin, traces of the wall are being rapidly and systematically expunged, denying and forfeiting an opportunity to come to terms with a tragic past.
Planting the symbols of capitalism on top of the site of the wall did not unite Berlin. Even though the wall lacks physical existence, the divide persists. The site of memory now buried under spaces for finance and commerce, and those who look to mourn can have their pictures taken with art students.
There are similarities between plans to rebuild the Berlin Wall and to construct the Freedom Tower on the site of Ground Zero. These were both places where battles took place in the heart of an urban landscape, even thought the former simmered while the other exploded. The destruction of the Twin Towers allowed for questions about how to use open space to revive the neighborhoods of lower Manhattanfinancial space or communal development. Even now, Tower 7 of the World Trade Center is being rebuilt according to its original designs by its original designer. The memorial site is a largely abstract space next to the defiant, monumental skyscraper entitled Freedom--word that takes on less certain meaning with every day. At least Ground Zero will acknowledged the veritable remains of a virtual war, and hopefully the contradictions between spaces for memory and finance, for city and nation, for community and war will be worked out.