Europe’s Other Walls

The Berlin Wall has always had multiple lives. Beyond its fall lies a story of proliferating borders and exclusions.

“Berlin is not the same without a Wall,” said Bonny. “For people it’s better, but for rabbits, it’s worse. It’s become rather uncomfortable for us rabbits now, wouldn’t you say?” —Irene Dische and Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Esterhazy, the Rabbit Prince

Walk alongside the river Spree as it winds its way through the city of Berlin, and you will see a long concrete wall. A few tourists pose for pictures in front of its spray-painted surface. From 1961 to 1989, the Berlin Wall divided two countries. Maintained by the political maneuvers of the Cold War, it was built on the ruins of war and genocide. Today, it is one of Berlin’s main tourist attractions. As the capital of a unified Germany and European “cultural metropole,” Berlin is often narrated as a city without walls. Yet, walls remain an ever-present and uncanny apparition. Crowded with histories of violence and erasure, Berlin and much of Europe are haunted by past and present barricades.

As the Nazi regime unleashed its terror, it inscribed its power and efforts to reorder Europe into stone in Berlin, reshaping the city’s architecture and landscape. After World War II, “the Allies” divided the city into different sectors. Although the wall between East and West was not built until 1961, it soon became a multivalent signifier. For Western interpreters, it was the wall, signifying the failure of communism, the “unnatural” division of one nation, and the rupturing of Europe. In contrast, East German officials dubbed it antifaschistischer Schutzwall (antifascist protective wall), framing it as a refuge. Following its post-1989 demolition, the wall became a relic, its slabs and rubble sold as souvenirs on the city’s streets.

A black and white photo of an open, muddy area and buildings lining the horizon.
Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, 25 years ago. Rolf Dietrich Brecher/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

What follows is a tour of walls in Berlin. Saturated with stories about Europe and the history of “the West,” the wall has always had multiple lives. In its shadows dwell various displacements and exclusions as well as the construction of new borders throughout the city, throughout Germany, and Europe.

A museum of walls

In the winter of 2004, a section of the wall reappeared on Berlin’s streets. The Wall Museum at Checkpoint Charlie, the former border crossing between East and West Berlin, initiated a project to reconstruct 200 meters of the original Berlin Wall. One thousand and sixty-five wooden crosses were installed as a reminder of those killed trying to cross the border, while hired actors enacted GDR police border patrols. In an interview on TV, the museum’s director said the exhibit’s goal was to build a memorial to the victims of Germany’s division. Yet, weeks before its opening the exhibit whirled up a heated public debate. News reports criticized the exhibit as “Disneyfication at Checkpoint Charlie,” arguing that numbers of victims at the border were not verified and the exhibit was not authentic: the memorial wall, it turned out, was not located on the original boundary line and its fragments came from the nearby Potsdamer Square (Biehl and Hawley 2005). Likewise, the Berlin Bureau of City Planning opposed the exhibit because of its proximity to the Holocaust memorial. As a consequence, the exhibit was only allowed as a temporary art installation, triggering further protests by former political prisoners and other victims of GDR rule.

Following its post-1989 demolition, the wall became a relic, its slabs and rubble sold as souvenirs on the city’s streets.

A few weeks later, 30 members of the antiracist No Border Network dressed as “escape agents” initiated yet another protest. Placing infoposters and a 20-meter-long canvas on the reconstructed wall, they transformed the exhibit to address current border injustices. The writing on the wall now read “No Wall around Europe, right of stay for everybody.” The Berlin Wall, the activists argued, has transmuted into “Fortress Europe.” New legal and material borders, less visible but no less deadly, are produced through the curbing of asylum rights as well as the deportation and surveillance of “illegal aliens.” Migrants take risky journeys across the Mediterranean Sea and face precarious lives or legal limbo upon arrival in Europe.

The art intervention signaled the proliferation of new borders in the wake of the wall’s fall—long before the 2015 “refugee crisis.” Germany had been debating asylum and migration for decades. Refugees fled war in the former Yugoslavia; asylum seekers arrived from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East and lived in refugee houses on Berlin’s peripheries; and generations of Turkish migrant families who had made homes in Germany became the targets of racist attacks in an upsurge of nationalist sentiment across the country from the 1990s onward. In the process, Germany and Europe redefined their asylum policies, border infrastructures multiplied, and the numbers of asylum seekers seeking refuge in Germany tumbled to a historic low (Bundesamt fuer Migration und Fluechtlinge 2019).

With their alternative museum, the activists challenged the wall museum’s failure to acknowledge the multilayered histories of violence and power embedded in this concrete structure. Yet more importantly, they drew attention to how walls mutate and travel in the present—in the political context of a Europe that is highly contested as anti-EU and white nationalist movements gain momentum. Indeed, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the sheer volume of border infrastructures and barbed wire has multiplied across Europe (Stone 2018). This trend continues, especially after 2015, when many European Union member states erected walls along national borders to keep migrants out.

Following the afterlives of Cold War borders, we might take a step into the zones between walls—the next stop on our tour.

The empty center

For decades, what is now the center of Berlin was a so-called death strip between the two walls of this Cold War borderline. In her 1998 film, The Empty Center, Hito Steyerl tells us a history of walls from this zone. Weaving together historical traces, the film chronicles the changing landscape of Berlin’s Potsdamer Square and Mitte district.

Once a bustling city center, then a borderland, and temporarily occupied by squatters after the wall’s demise, this area turned into an enormous construction site in the 1990s. Today, the square is a gleaming landscape of high-rise buildings inhabited by corporations and cleaned daily by low-paid migrant workers. The center returns, yet those who maintain it are pushed to its margins.

Seen from this former “no-man’s land,” the history of the Berlin Wall is a history of race, violence, and imperial power—a history that provincializes Europe.

There is more to this story. Until 1869, long before the Berlin Wall was built, another kind of wall stretched along here. Marking the edge of the city, the Berlin customs border monitored people (especially Jews), goods, and animals as they crossed the urban boundary. Later, European colonial powers redrew the political borders of Africa at the 1885 West Africa Conference held nearby, laying the groundwork for further colonial extraction and boosting Germany’s imperial power. In Steyerl’s film, these different histories fade into each other, interspersed with scenes of anti-immigrant and workers’ protests, the departing parade of Western Allied forces, and the Nazi ascent to power.

Using the method of montage, the film seizes hold of memories of Europe’s long entanglements with colonialism, nationalism, and anti-Semitism (see Benjamin 1986: 391). As these unfold on the screen, we observe the ephemeral character of walls as they create new layers of exclusion in the construction of a European metropole. Seen from this former “no-man’s land,” the history of the Berlin Wall is a history of race, violence, and imperial power—a history that provincializes Europe (see Chakrabarty 2000).

Yet, so far our tour has been preoccupied with historic monuments and sites. Such a lens can be deceptive, reinforcing a sense of nostalgia via attention to Europe’s ruins (see for example, Rosaldo 1989; Stoler 2013; Stoetzer 2018). Smaller, barely visible things might tell another story.

Sunflower seeds

Comprising several large-scale apartment blocks surrounding a local underground train station, the Kottbusser Gate neighborhood is located in the former West Berlin district of Kreuzberg. In the decades following the 1960s, Turkish migrant workers, punks, and anarchist squatters settled into its available and affordable housing in the shadow of the wall. Media and public discourses from the 1990s on cast the neighborhood as a crime-ridden district and sozialer Brennpunkt (social hotspot). Most recently Kottbusser Gate has also attracted tourists searching for Berlin’s vibrant nightlife and multicultural vibe. Despite ongoing local opposition, some of the district’s longtime residents have been displaced due to rising rents and property values.  

They drew attention to how walls mutate and travel in the present—in the political context of a Europe that is highly contested as anti-EU and white nationalist movements gain momentum.

In this neighborhood, the shells of tiny sunflower seeds lie scattered on the streets and sidewalks. These roasted and salted seeds are a popular low-cost snack. People eat the seeds—called ay çekirdeği (sunflower seeds, in Turkish) or glub (the Arabic word for hearts)—everywhere: at home, in the office, or on the street. In their mixed-media installation, Glub (2004), Mieke Bal and Shahram Entekhabi show how eating seeds—often associated with the Arab world—testifies to invented traditions in the context of migration, unemployment, tourism, and boredom in Berlin. Small, migrant-owned shops sell sunflower, pumpkin, and other kinds of seeds all over the city; they can be addictive; and they trigger conversations between people and between birds. They are communicative and produce polite manners because you can’t talk while chewing them.

Clustering up in crunchy piles, the discarded hulls leave traces of communication behind. They do not easily fit into neoliberal models of cultural diversity or stories about so-called immigrant parallel worlds. Their distribution across the city is unpredictable and without clear patterns. Yet, they attest to ordinary experiences of contact, conviviality, and conflict (see Gilroy 2004)—and thus to the changing social and material fabric of European cities that the recent rise of right-wing nationalist movements and political events such as Brexit so forcefully seek to deny.

In the burrow

Our final stop is a rabbit burrow behind the wall…

Irene Dische and Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s children’s story Esterhazy: The Rabbit Prince (1994) chronicles the story of an Austrian rabbit who travels to Berlin to try his luck and settle in a secret haven of rabbits living in burrows in the border zone of the Berlin Wall. Shortly after his arrival, Esterhazy falls in love with a checkered rabbit called Bonny, but loses sight of her when he is hired as a professional Easter Bunny at a local department store.

Esterhazy is laid off after the holiday and finds himself living in a van where he subsists off cakes and reads newspapers filled with reports of humans and the wall, but no rabbits. When he is discovered by the owner of the van and his family, he befriends them. Despite initial hesitations, the well-intentioned family takes their new friend to a restaurant where the waiter recommends the day’s special: roasted rabbit. Realizing some risks are worth taking and others are not, Esterhazy hops off in disgust. Finally, he finds the wall—an endlessly high, endlessly long, endlessly gray barrier. The field behind it smells wonderful; it is crowded with rabbits and his lost friend Bonny.

The rabbits would have lived happily ever after in the burrow behind the wall, if not for the day when hundreds of people began tramping around the field, shouting and hammering to tear down the wall. The next day, both the field and the wall are gone. Although the humans seem overjoyed, the rabbits don’t share their enthusiasm and decide to move to the countryside.

A photograph of a paved walkway with the shape of a rabbit set in the middle, smoother than the surrounding ground.
A rabbit engraving along the former path of the Berlin Wall. David Little/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

While the tale of the rabbit prince speaks to aristocratic and Christian traditions, it provides an alternative account of the Berlin Wall—one in which the reunified nation poses the danger of displacement for those who dwell at the margins of the “human” and lose their habitat in the course of subsequent construction booms, rising nationalisms, and neoliberal economics. Yet The Rabbit Prince is also more than metaphor; the story produces a line of flight, not a refuge (see Deleuze and Guattari 1986). It gestures at the actual border ecology of the Berlin Wall, one that was indeed inhabited by a large rabbit population (Konopka 2010). By chronicling unruly interspecies intimacies and the search for a more habitable world, Esterhazy’s story unsettles liberal accounts of socialism versus free market society that center on the idea of the duped human subject under totalitarian rule (see also Cherkaev and Tipikina 2018).

Tour’s end

Our tour of Berlin has engaged with the ways in which various actors faced with all kinds of walls renarrate and remake history. All these sites and stories expose the limits of an inquiry of European political division that does not take into account the continuing forces of racism and imperial power in the postsocialist era. Our tour thus reveals the lives that get written out of the suspended symbolic order of a historical monument.

The Berlin Wall always had multiple materialities and meanings. Its dismantling has given rise to the simultaneity of new virtual interconnectedness, waning sovereignties, and walled states (see Brown 2010). As Cold War walls fell, new border fences went up. The Mediterranean Sea has become yet another wall, invisible and deadly. Global capitalism’s limitless desire for extraction has precipitated climate emergencies and the destruction of habitats, unleashing multiple, more-than-human displacements. Lurking beyond Berlin’s walls and in their fissures is a larger story of past, present, and future imperialisms and nationalisms—a story that always also includes instances of contact, cooperation, and alternative futures.

Bettina Stoetzer is an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her research focuses on the intersections of ecology, globalization, and urban social justice. Her forthcoming book is Ruderal City: Ecologies of Migration and Urban Life in Berlin (under contract).

References for which there is no longer an online work of record available:

Bundesamt fuer Migration und Fluechtlinge. 2019. “Migration, Integration und Asyl in Zahlen.” https://www.bamf.de/SharedDocs/Anlagen/DE/Publikationen/Broschueren/broschuere-statistik-2005.pdf?__blob=publicationFile, accessed October 9, 2019.

Cite as: Stoetzer, Bettina. 2019. “Europe’s Other Walls.” Anthropology News website, November 15, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1315

Post a Comment

Want to comment? Please be aware that only comments from current AAA members will be approved. AN is supported by member dues, so discussions on anthropology-news.org are moderated to ensure that current members are commenting. As with all AN content, comments reflect the views of the person who submitted the comment only. The approval of a comment to go live does not signify endorsement by AN or the AAA.

Commenting Disclaimer

Want to comment? Please be aware that only comments from current AAA members will be approve. AN is supported by member dues, so discussions on anthropology-news.org are moderated to ensure that current members are commenting. As with all AN content, comments reflect the views of the person who submitted the comment only. The approval of a comment to go live does not signify endorsement by AN or the AAA.