Hardeep Matharu explores the 30th anniversary of the end of the Berlin Wall and how and why the building of walls is making a worrying comeback – in the US and elsewhere.
A Curious Meeting
A year or so before Donald Trump announced his desire to occupy the White House, a bright young researcher was introduced to a man fascinated with culture.
How could it be changed? they mused.
The culture of a society, they concluded, was comprised of its people and their individual traits. If you could change how enough people felt and behaved, you could also shift the culture of the country in which they lived. If you wanted to change the culture, you had to change the people.
The researcher was tasked to find out more.
He instructed colleagues to sit before groups of Americans and speak to them about their country. Washington was dirty, they said, amongst other things. But, something else resonated. The pictures of walls and people scaling them which they were shown.
The 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall will be a “dark reckoning”.
Buoyed by what this then little-known company called Cambridge Analytica had found, the culture warrior – who would later become known as Trump’s campaign manager, right-wing media executive Steve Bannon – decided to put the results to good use. To Make America Great Again.
“I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me,” Trump declared, announcing his presidential bid the following year. “I will build a great, great wall on our southern border and I’ll have Mexico pay for that wall.”
The researcher who had spoken to Bannon, Chris Wylie, blew the whistle on his time at Cambridge Analytica last year, revealing that the data analytics firm stole millions of people’s Facebook data and subjected it to psychometric testing to determine how they could be ‘micro-targeted’ with online messaging to change their political behaviour.
Although he didn’t know it at the time, Wylie’s work at Cambridge Analytica would have a significant impact on Trump’s resonance with the American public. It also represented a concerning backwards step towards the exploitation of fear and anger in a politics of division and othering.
“Building the wall is not to stop immigrants – most come on a plane – it’s to embody separation,” Wylie said at the Frontline Club last year.
But, this was not an original idea.
Trump and Bannon’s obsession with building a US-Mexico border wall took inspiration, Wylie said, from a concept known as ‘die mauer im kopf’ – ‘the wall in the mind’. As well as testing images of walls in the focus groups, Wylie’s work at Cambridge Analytica also saw him considering the relevance of research conducted around the lasting psychological effects of the Berlin Wall – which fell 30 years ago this year.
What it indicated was, whether or not Trump actually built a wall, he merely needed to erect one in people’s minds. For walls, as well as being physical barriers, are psychological separators; tools to be constructed in people’s psyches.
In 1989, Germans and the West celebrated the fall of the Iron Curtain. Today, walls are making a comeback. And it’s the building of them in our heads that we need to make ourselves aware of.
A Useful Study
When the Berlin Wall fell on 9 November 1989, I was three years old. History – or the end of it – didn’t mean much.
Only more recently have I delved into the frighteningly not-so-distant past of Germany following the end of the Second World War. What I have learnt astounds me.
That Germany, which I have always known to be one country, was divided into two, with diametrically opposed political systems being implemented side-by-side.
I have the Wall in my mind… It’s always in my mind.Hans-Dieter Robel
That one half of the country, East Germany, was run as a communist police state – the German Democratic Republic (GDR) – by the Soviet Union; while America, Britain and France presided over its Western democratic counterpart – the Federal Republic of Germany.
That a wall, which was built one night around half of its divided capital by the East Germans as an “anti-fascist protective measure” – which people would die trying to cross – ended up falling without a single bullet fired.
It seems completely alien, but it happened. And a number of the philosophical questions raised by the Berlin Wall and Germany’s division are still relevant today – about the type of society in which we want to live, where purpose and meaning comes from, how diverse individuals and communities can live together, and what identity is and why it matters.
In his novel Wall Jumper, Peter Schneider wrote: “It will take us longer to tear down the Wall in our heads than any wrecking company will need for the Wall we can see.” His words coined the concept of ‘the wall in the mind’, which has come to mean the lasting psychological effects of difference after the removal of physical barriers.
While researching culture at Cambridge Analytica, Chris Wylie took note of one study in particular, examining the phenomenon of “mental maps”. Conducted in 2005, it found people tended to overestimate the distance between cities on opposite sides of the former East-West German border, far more greatly than the distance between cities on the same side.
“This trend was strengthened when participants had a negative attitude toward the reunification of Germany,” it stated. “Overestimated distances between both German parts indicate that there still exists a mental gap between East and West – even in young people – 15 years after German reunification.”
The study showed that emotional feelings of distance had translated into a perception of physical distance. That the two could be connected.
In Britain today, Brexit has come to represent – for some – the ultimate psychological and geographical cut-off with Europe, feeding a feeling of British exceptionalism and the supremacy of our great island state.
In Britain today, Brexit has similarly come to represent – for some – the ultimate psychological and geographical cut-off with Europe, feeding a feeling of British exceptionalism and the supremacy of our great island state. Much less discussed is its reflection of an unscrutinised legacy of Empire and a reluctance to examine how and why Britain went around the world creating walls in people’s heads.
During the 2015 refugee crisis, border fences sprung up all over south-eastern Europe, even between EU member states.
But, Angela Merkel took a different approach. The Chancellor, who grew up in the GDR, welcomed almost a million non-EU citizens into Germany. Speaking to students at Harvard University recently, she said that a wall did not take root in her mind.
“Our individual liberties are not givens,” she said. “Democracy is not something we can take for granted. Neither is peace, and neither is prosperity. But, if we break down the walls that hem us in, if we step out into the open and have the courage to embrace new beginnings, everything is possible.
“The Berlin Wall limited my opportunities. It quite literally stood in my way. However, there was one thing which this wall couldn’t do through all those years: it couldn’t impose limits on my inner thoughts, my personality, my imagination, my dreams and desires.”
A Wall in the Mind
In Berlin, I met Hans-Dieter Robel. The 71-year-old grew up in Hanover, West Germany, and moved to West Berlin in 1969.
Having lived with the Berlin Wall for 20 years and 30 years without it, it strangely appears more notable to him now than it did at the time.
Back then, he never thought about it much, he told me, because of the freedom he had and – although he felt that even West Berliners “were really under the control of the Stasi” – any sad and scary consequences of the Wall became normalised.
He told me about the time he attempted to visit his grandparents in East Germany. Having been granted an “entrance card” to meet them in East Berlin and receiving a letter from them to say they would be there, they never turned up.
“I waited and waited and they never came,” Hans-Dieter recalled. “Then I wrote a letter to find out was going on. Six weeks later, they said ‘yes, we were [on our way], but then they threw us out of the train because we were forbidden to go to the capital of East Germany’. They were not allowed to go to their own capital city. Why? Because of meeting West Germans. The Stasi had read my letters.”
Hans-Dieter did not meet his grandparents in all the time they were living in the GDR. He visited their graves after the Wall fell.
Another time, he said, he was on a train to visit his girlfriend in another part of West Berlin, which had to pass through a number of ‘ghost stations’ – shut to the public and heavily guarded – located in East Berlin. The train broke down.
“It was a West train under East Berlin, and for four hours there was no electricity and the [East German] soldiers with the machine guns came to stop us getting off,” Hans-Dieter said. “Eventually [West Germans] came with diesel and took us back. There was a baby, we needed water, people were shitting in the train and so forth. But, nothing. Because we were the enemies. The capitalists and the enemies.”
If I ride the S-Bhan, I close my eyes and I only listen to what they talk in the train and I can tell you ‘he’s an Eastern, he’s a Western’.Hans-Dieter Robel
When the Stasi Archives opened to the public in 1992, Hans-Dieter discovered the GDR’s secret police had kept a file on him. Modelled on Lenin’s Cheka – as a ‘sword and shield’ to defend the interests of the communist state – by the end, the GDR infamously had one Stasi spy or informer for every 63 of its people.
His file contained records of conversations he had had with colleagues – code names “panther” and “lion” – during a six-year stint working in East Berlin. There were also summaries of the letters to his grandparents.
“It was normal,” he told me. “Thinking about it, it was very, very sad. But at that time, every month they were shooting down men at the Wall. The Wall was normal for us.”
After its fall, Hans-Dieter believed the two Germanys would exist as separate states and not one reunified country, as was to happen in 1990.
“I never thought the Wall would come down because the differences were so, so big between the two,” he said. “When they opened the Wall in November 1989 everyone was happy. And then, in the first half a year, we had different economies, money, mentality.”
In the days afterwards, he remembers seeing long queues of East Germans outside the state-owned bank in West Berlin – even though two private ones were located, with no queues, right next door. Nobody wanted to deviate. Describing his time managing workers from the former East Germany, Hans-Dieter said they had “double meaning” – a difference between what they said and how they felt, which resulted in them cutting corners because they were reluctant to raise concerns.
I asked Hans-Dieter about the GDR’s somewhat polarised legacy – ‘Stasiland’ versus a paternalistic welfare state. What about the accounts of East Germans who had insisted that life in the GDR was not so bad?
He shook his head and laughed.
“I grew up as a free man in a free country and my freedom ends there where the freedom of other people starts,” he told me. “They were always fighting for peace.”
For him, there was nothing positive about the GDR. He recalled a conversation he had with a man still living in the former East Germany, after the Wall came down.
It will take us longer to tear down the Wall in our heads than any wrecking company will need for the Wall we can see.Peter Schneider
“He said to me ‘we were such a good collective in our neighbourhood’,” Hans-Dieter explained. “‘Everybody helped each other and so if I had a problem I could go to my neighbour but, now, nothing anymore because the Wall came down’. And I asked him: ‘did they change the people there?’ They were the same.
“Before, it was ‘do you have a wheel for me? I have sugar for you’, ‘do you have tomatoes for me? I have bread for you’. And, now you can buy everything, you don’t need the neighbours anymore. I said, ‘if you were a good collective, you would make a house party [now] and so on’. Nothing.”
Hans-Dieter saw the man’s Ostalgie – nostalgia for the former East Germany – as being related to a forced and thus false solidarity, based on need, rather than true collectivism.
Having taken part in exchange trips around the world since 1978, he said “after the Wall came down we would start it in East Germany but nobody would go”.
“We had contact with our occupiers, they were our friends,” he added. “In East Germany, they had no contact to strangers or the Russians so they never met other cultures.”
Living up to Ossi-Wessi clichés, Hans-Dieter said East Germans were “always complaining” and passively waiting for their circumstances to change. (East Germans are famously viewed as Jammerossis – ‘always moaning’ – by their Western counterparts, with the latter called Besserwessis – ‘know it alls’ – by East Germans).
When the Wall came down, East and West Germans “spoke the same language, but had a different meaning” – a sentiment Hans-Dieter still feels to this day.
“If I ride the S-Bhan, I close my eyes and I only listen to what they talk in the train and I can tell you ‘he’s an Eastern, he’s a Western’,” he said. “It’s a sensitive thing, but you can hear it.
“I have the Wall in my mind. Two weeks ago, I was at a funeral in Leipzig and I came home and said to my girlfriend it was the first time that I never felt that I am in East Germany. It’s always in my mind.”
Although I do not think this has made Hans-Dieter any less open, warm and tolerant as a person, it has created an othering. While the Berlin Wall was normalised in his life when it stood, it has had – perhaps surprisingly – a more lasting influence after its fall.
A Return to the Past
The 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall will be a “dark reckoning”, Paul Betts, Professor of Modern European History at Oxford University, told me back in London.
“The ‘wall in the mind’ was something that was in discussion after reunification – that East and West Germans had not come together successfully, that there was still enormous cultural alienation, misunderstandings, recriminations on both sides,” he said. “People were surprised that what looked like a temporary Cold War division actually set very, very deep roots.
“Today, there is an idea that we’re living in an age of walls – for some a frightening phenomenon which seems to undo the hopes and dreams of 1989. We’re in a world of the comeback of nationalism, xenophobia, barbed wire and fences.”
Building the wall is not to stop immigrants – most come on a plane – it’s to embody separation.Chris Wylie, Cambridge Analytica whistleblower
“There’s a resurgence of Conservative right-wing politics across Europe, Britain and the US and it has become a new kind of axis of authoritarianism which is driven by feelings of despair and fear for lots of people and right-wing political parties seem to speak to those interests,” he added.
As Prof Betts spoke of the resurgence of the idea of the “charismatic power of the nation state to organise the lives of most people”, an image I had seen in Berlin’s DDR Museum came to mind – of toddlers sat on a potty bench in a kindergarten in East Germany. Unable to leave until they had all finished, the practice was designed to “eschew infantile individualism for the maturity of collective group awareness”.
This kind of organisation of their lives I can’t see people wanting, but the notion of a national, state-focused identity appears key for many.
“Economic difficulties and the effects of austerity have come back to bite people,” Prof Betts told me. “The nation state, however much people like to have written it off, has come back hugely as an organising principle of 21st Century political life. The idea that this was going to somewhat fade away through prosperity and secularisation hasn’t happened. We’re going to have to think much harder about what people care about, and why these forces seem to be so powerful and emotionally satisfying for people.”
One of the politicians embodying this today is Hungary’s Viktor Orban, with his “defence and greatness of the nation state under siege” and his idea of a “very strong, state-centred idea of authoritarian democracy”, standing against the EU, while accepting its subsidies.
As for the former East Germany, with high levels of poverty and unemployment, it has also been susceptible to right-wing appeal, with parties such as the Alternative for Germany (AfD) making serious headway in recent years.
Overestimated distances between both German parts indicate that there still exists a mental gap between East and West.2005 study
“A lot of Eastern Europeans feel triply occupied – first by the Nazis, then by the Soviets, and then in the way they’ve been constructed by the EU,” Prof Betts told me. “The nation state is the last and only vehicle of independence, of resistance, of sovereignty, so they’re very strongly committed to that.
“So, in a moment where Western Europeans are pushing this idea of Europe, the tendency of Eastern Europeans has been to cling to the nation state as a much more emotional vehicle. In that way, you have a division between West Germans who have been raised in a European context and East Germans who are much more disillusioned and think of themselves, first and foremost, as Germans.”
That the Berlin Wall fell only 30 years ago, and the profound questions it raised are still relevant today, should jolt us out of our complacency.
We don’t need cement and bricks to build walls, each one of us does this in our own lives, all the time. But, if – as Steve Bannon believes – these walls can be weaponised and new ones constructed, it rests on us to critically assess our own barriers, psychological and otherwise.
The Berlin Wall was built one night and came down one day. Passivity does not change the world.
what the papers don’t say
Thank youfor reading this article
New to Byline Times? Find out about us
Support our journalists
To have an impact, our investigations need an audience.
But emails don’t pay our journalists, and nor do billionaires or intrusive ads. We’re funded by readers’ subscription fees: