BIPP: Cultural symbolism of the wall: from Texas to Berlin

Max Hubbauer and Yiwei Wang, BIPP Interns

With mounting pressure to seal off the U.S.-Mexico border and a recent threat by President Donald Trump of cutting off aid to several Central American countries, the United States has moved towards a self-imposed state of isolation, the likes of which have few historical counterparts. Facing uncertain social and economic consequences, the fallout of this widening rift has been fiercely debated. The Berlin Wall, which divided East from West Germany for over 28 years, may provide a unique case study to reflect on the potential physical, psychological, and social ramifications of this divide. Indeed, while the wall’s destruction in 1989 seems to be a distant memory, the aftermath of this separation remains omnipresent in contemporary German society. Furthermore, by approaching the border crisis from a historical lens, it is possible to gain insight into the broader cultural effects the construction of a wall can have.


After World War II, when Berlin was separated into four zones, monitored by the United States, France, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union, Germany became ideologically and socioeconomically polarized. As the Allied West aligned itself with a capitalist economic system and the values of democracy, the Soviet-controlled East shifted towards communism. The construction of the wall in 1961 solidified this isolation and soon came to represent the front lines of the Cold War conflict. During the strife, thousands of East Germans attempted to flee to the West, both successfully and unsuccessfully. In 1989, facing civil unrest and the inevitable downfall of the USSR, the wall would be gradually demolished, allowing for the start of reunification. But even after several decades, the process of reunification is ongoing, as weaving together the two disparate fragments has proven a relentlessly challenging task.


Though remnants of the wall have been almost completely expunged from the physical landscape of the country, it has left an indelible mark on the national psyche. Indeed, in German, the saying “Mauer im Kopf” or “Wall in mind” restates the continued relevance of the barrier on modern life. With East Germans earning less while having fewer representatives in social and economic spheres, some have questioned whether the fall of the wall has brought about more harm than good.


Looking back on the current situation facing the United States, it becomes clear that the border wall, whether expanded or not, can have profound impacts on the trajectory of North American life. After the Berlin Wall fell, Germany encountered an identity crisis, as the term “Die Wende,” or “the turn,” was used to encompass the process of change and integration that followed. In this same way, the United States faces a crucial turning point. The current volatile geopolitical landscape demands a critical reevaluation of policies that could lead to unrest, as policymakers must grapple with the emerging mass human diaspora around the world. Though there is a fundamental difference between the two barriers, as the Berlin Wall was designed to keep East Germans insulated from the West and Trump’s border wall stands to stymy the rapid influx of immigrants into the United States, both represent concrete, intractable solutions to complex and multifaceted problems. If the Berlin Wall can teach us any lesson, it is that building walls may only exacerbate the deep-seated issues at the heart of these crises. While the implications of closing the border remain to be seen, reflecting on historical examples such as the Berlin Wall makes it clear that the chasm created by a wall, even if only temporary, may inflict permanent psychological, social, and economic scars on a nation.

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