The Berlin Wall mentality, reconsidered

In 1986, when I returned to New York City after living in West Berlin for a long time, a lot of people asked me “When will they tear down the Wall?”

There is something typically American about this question. Behind the question was the implicit assumption that, eventually, the two Germanies would be re-united. You might call it hopeful. Others might call it naive.

However, that wasn’t the mentality in Germany at the time. While I was living in West Berlin, the question of removing the Wall simply never arose: we went about our day-to-day business with the assumption that the wall would be there indefinitely.

After all, the German people are champions at pursuing a goal with conviction. And so it was with the Wall. They didn’t just build any old wall. They built the world’s best wall, a damn solid concrete barricade right through the center of town, a stout slab, ugly and menacing, surrounded by tank traps and dog runs and barbed wire and watchtowers. It looked like it would be there forever. Tear it down? It seemed impregnable.

The construction of the Wall had caused the entire city to reorganize. The transport system, the power grid and water supply were all rebuilt to accommodate the division. The Wall cut through buildings, churchyards and major thoroughfares. It divided old neighborhoods and reduced some lovely districts to near-slums. The Wall even extended underground, to prevent tunneling, and the subway tunnels were narrowed and sealed where the West Berlin subway system wandered beneath the border. These changes in the landscape seemed permanent at the time.

As a resident of West Berlin, I grew accustomed to the uncanny sensation of being peered at through binoculars by East German border patrols while I jogged past their watchtowers. By cuting off all commercial activity in the city center, the Wall provided an eerie zone of solitude in the middle of a bustling city. So we residents grew accustomed to this obstacle and found our own accommodation with it. Meanwhile, the locus of commerce shifted west to Charlottenburg, Kurfurstendamm and the Zoo station.

But the Wall wasn’t just an obstruction in physical layout of the city: as a symbol, it colonized our imagination, too. The Wall occupied a place in every resident’s mind. Any wall needs willpower to keep it in place. Especially such an absurdity that cut a city right in half through its most vital avenues and intersections. On both sides of the Berlin Wall were vast reservoirs of stubborn willpower. Like Olympic athletes, residents on either side were determined to live to the utmost by the then-prevailing rules of the rivalry.

The Wall represented a competition between two concepts of society. It was a physical manifestation of the war of wills between East and West.

This was truly an epic battle, although it played out in slow motion over decades and not directly on a battlefield.

Not just the historical clash between Communism versus Democracy: in practice, by the mid 1980s, both of these political concepts had evolved beyond the point of recognition for their founding authors.

Rather, Berlin illustrated the clash between a culture that placed the individual ahead of society and another opposing culture that repressed individualism utterly.

In the mid-1980s, West Berlin was the apex of the individualist impulse. The walled city offered visitors a bewildering pastiche of every extreme expression of consumer culture and the cult of individualism that prevailed in the West. Fabulous performance-tuned cars and decadent fur coats on display on the KuDamm were juxtraposed with hippie stoners and anarchists and self-proclaimed communists who squatted in unoccupied buildings just a mile away. Punk rockers with spiked hair and black leather rode their bikes home from nightclubs past office workers trudging to the UBahn station. In the parks, nude sunbathers shocked traditional Turkish families. Every human vice could be indulged within a few blocks of the Kaiser Wilhelm memorial church. Neon lights blazed and brilliant ubiquitous advertisements offered the most modern consumer appliances to shoppers in this island of consumerism located hundreds of miles inside of the grim East Bloc. Every week there were violent street protests and demonstrations, with outraged university students tearing up the streets and throwing cobblestones at the riot police. West Berlin attracted every misfit, punk, radical and seeker who couldn’t fit into staid West German society. The entire city was a monument to self expression, ranging from protest to self-indulgence to traditionalism and even bland middle class conformity.

Meanwhile, in East Berlin, a kind of frozen solemnity prevailed over enforced uniformity. The entire city was grey, devoid of ornament, advertisement or neon. Self expression was not visible. Clothing was uniformly dull and practical. The new buildings constructed by the Communist government were dehumanizing, vast monoliths that towered over the individual. The old buildings were unpainted, unrepaired and decaying. The streets were silent, empty of private vehicles except for the occasional Trabant. On every corner lurked uniformed and plainclothes policemen. The food was bland and unpleasant. There was nothing worth buying in any store. This was the socialist paradise, mankind reduced to the lowest common denominator, and the conversation muted.

The situation was quite clearly absurd. The contrast was so extreme it was almost funny. West Berlin was supremely western in every way, and East Berlin was ultra communist and proud of it. I recall taking visitors across the border at Checkpoint Charlie where the contrast between the two societies was most vivid.

It was absurd, and yet the situation seemed quite permanent. The mentality on both sides of the Wall was so entrenched, so adamant, that change seemed unthinkable.

Of course, all of that dissipated in an instant when, just a few years later, the Wall was torn down. People on both sides discovered that they had much in common. The two cultures blended, merged and recombined into an entirely new configuration, more vital and less extreme than in the mid 1980s. Today Berlin is the coolest city in Europe.

There is a lesson, or an inspiration perhaps, in the story of Berlin for those Americans who yearn for change and yet despair of the entrenched willpower demonstrated by those who would defend the collective interests of global finance, neo-imperialism and neo-conservativism.

Today in the United States we live in an absurd, unsustainable situation: fighting two wars begun under false premises towards undefined goals; bailing out irresponsible financiers who have been grossly overcompensated for reckless speculation and fiscal incompetence; manufacturing frankenfoods that lack nutrition and are packed with poisons; borrowing money from China to purchase plastic junk that we don’t need that ends up in rented storage lockers; denying health care to millions of citizens whose taxes subsidize bonuses for Wall Street fatcats; and so on. Perhaps most peculiar is the jingoistic assertion by some Americans that somehow this lifestyle is the role model for all other countries to emulate. There is a lot to admire in the American system, but there’s also a lot to fix.

American politics today reflects the entrenched mentality on both sides of the Wall during the Cold War: extreme positions, hardened beyond all reasonable argument, and stubborn willpower committed to maintaining the status quo indefinitely.

But the example of Berlin illustrates that an absurd situation cannot be maintained forever. Eventually the willpower will dissipate, and when it does, the walls will come down. And then we will wake up, look around in stunned silence, and wonder how we could have poured so much energy into perpetuating an illusion for so long.