In which I get a little philosophical about my new home and its un-division
Last Saturday marked the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The day was cold, rainy, and miserable—not a day I’d have chosen to cross a newly-opened wall unless I really had to—but the week has featured commemorations and celebrations galore. In that spirit, as that week draws to a close, here is a reflection on a historical turning point from someone who wasn’t alive at the time and isn’t deeply familiar with the details and is new to the country:
Division, in my experience, is always contrived; unity is the natural order of things. Division is voluntary; unity is involuntary. In order to have social division, certain individuals must decide that they cannot abide the presence of other individuals or are unwilling to accept various qualities in other individuals. People can come from an array of backgrounds and belief systems, but are predisposed to find commonalities and coexist peacefully unless or until someone deems this coexistence intolerable and perpetrates an act of violence against another group. Division is active—it can only be fulfilled through action. It must be conscious. Left purely to our own devices, in an ideal world without any prejudices or preconceived notions to skew our opinions, we would live passively, as a unified entity.
Only since moving here have I absorbed the full story of the Wall. Its raising in 1961 was a premeditated, orchestrated, and covert operation, requiring extensive thought and action. From what I can tell, its fall in 1989 essentially came about by accident. A series of miscommunications from high-ranking officials alerted the city that portions of the border would be opened. By the time the people responsible realized their error, hordes of people had descended upon the site to shout at the guards, and taming these crowds would have shed too much civilian blood. So the Wall was opened and the border dissolved. It was the most momentous announcement to come out of Europe since the end of World War II, and it was totally unintentional.
Today the remnants of the Wall stand overlooking the River Spree just between the districts of Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg as the East Side Gallery. Local and international artists have been commissioned to turn each section into a canvas, and if you walk from one end to the other you can see an impressive breadth of work. Each artist’s style is distinct, but they all express a desire for unity.
I pass the Gallery at least once a week en route to different activities. I suspect its meaning will change for me the longer I live here. The shadow of this division will always remain with Berlin. And there are obviously divisive forces working with great intensity to keep people apart all over the world. Families are separated. People pledge themselves to terrorist organizations with genocidal agendas. While unity itself may be the natural order, passivity is not enough in the world we live in. It will not bring peace. We need to take active steps toward defeating and eradicating these divisive forces and creating unifying forces in their stead.
What is left of the Wall, a hallmark of Cold War hostility, has been repurposed to propagate the polar-opposite message. May we all continue to learn from the Wall.
Image: my own, of a special memorial ad on Warschauer Strasse near the Gallery. The banner wraps around the corner of the building. Full top text: “Die Welt braucht mehr Menschen, die keine Mauern wollen,” or “The world needs more people who do not want walls.” Bottom text: “Zusammen eins,” or “Together, one.” #30JahreMauerfall