Friday, October 22, 2004

Heaven above Berlin

Is 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 Hildebrandt’s 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 Manhattan–financial 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.

9 Comments:

At 3:11 AM, Blogger Peter said...

Although it appeared to defy the division between East and West, both FDR and DDR used it as a show piece(...)

A petty editorial comment:

There was never a country you could describe with the acronym "FDR". This is a strange hybrid of English and German; the only conceivable expansion I can imagine is Federal Deutsche Republik. The proper name of the former state in Western Germany (since expanded to include the five Länder of Eastern Germany) was Bundesrepublik Deutschland, commonly abbreviated as BRD. The usual English translation was Federal Republic of Germany, or FGR.

The DDR, of course, was the Deutsche Demokratische Republik. The common English translation, German Democratic Republic, wasn't usually acronymmed in American parlance; reference to the East Geman state was infrequent enough that the name was usually spelled out in full.

Take care of the pennies, and the pounds will follow.

 
At 9:21 AM, Blogger Nathanael said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 9:23 AM, Blogger Nathanael said...

Changed, but not trivial: the error was a combination of quick typing and poor habits taken from Wide World of Sports (not a standard to which I should aspire.)

 
At 10:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's David Tiley from Barista..

I like the notion of putting a bit of the Wall back because it constitutes a different sort of memorial from a bit not knocked over in the first place. It becomes a kind of Platonic Wall, an artificial distillation of other bits of wall, made of mismatched bits of rubble. It asserts the fact that the Wall needs to be remembered as a decision from a time after the Wall.

btw - I was told this story by a documentary filmmaker. He was doing research in South Australia which took him to interview a German migrant some time in the early 90's. He was filmed in his front garden, which consisted of a bit of desert marked off from an enormous flat plain, with very distant small hills. He had mounted a very large flag pole in the garden, with a substantial Australian flag taut in the endless desert wind. As he spoke he leant casually on a large broken lump of concrete mounted in the dirt. His own piece of the Berlin Wall.

A man who knew where he wanted to be.

 
At 1:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd like to hear more on how WTC attack and the berlin wall can be considered similar?????????

 
At 2:35 PM, Blogger Nathanael said...

Those similarities would be interesting ... you have a very creative mind. However, you can see from my post that I don't have a clue about how to make such a comparisson. I am more interested in the "similarities between plans to rebuild", which is to say the problems faced by architects and urban planners. Sorry I could not help you.

 
At 5:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love the Berlin Wall!!!
I'm doing a report on it for school. So far Ifound out that it fell. Then I found out that in the past when it was still standing whole it was 100 miles long. You are the bomb for saving pieces of the Berlin Wall. And Ronald Reagan was stupid trying to rebuild it!!! :-) I <3 it
(heart)

 
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