I may not have been there for the fall of the wall, I may have been only a distant twinkle in the sky of my parents’ eyes, and yet, through the eyes of my professors and words of my books, I can feel a sense of connection, of shared emotion, at what remains a pivotal moment of recent German history, memory, and culture.
The 25th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall events hosted by the Gettysburg College Dept. of German Studies sought to do exactly the opposite. Although a wall was built, it did not seek to exclude, but rather to include. Kicking off a week-long celebration, students, faculty, and administrators from across campus were invited to help construct the wall in Musselman Library from 12-1pm on Monday, November 2nd. Constructing the wall out of cardboard boxes and tape, community members elicited a number of perplexed stares and confused glances from students expecting the library to be full, but not of a construction crew.
Building the wall seemed like a game, something comical, but, when I stop and think back on my experience of ripping tape and fitting together boxes, it created much more. I was a part of a community, and we were doing something together –something to make us US. Although we laughed, and graffitied everything from penguins and light-hearted messages to profound thoughts on our wall, I found myself to be deconstructed by it, by the process of stacking, drawing, creating.
Who was I to build this wall? What right did I have to create a barrier between students and their much needed open space in the library? Our wall could be moved by two people using only three fingers; it stood five boxes tall and eight boxes long. So small, when compared with the mammoth structure built, first in secret, by the German Democratic Republic (GDR). We did not start at night, we began and ended in the daylight, our purposes opposite of back then.
Night did play a role in our celebration. Throughout the week, a video of images and facts about the Berlin wall played on the side of Pennsylvania Hall.
Again seeking to cross boundaries and be inclusive, Tuesday evening’s event brought current and former faculty members to the Junction in order to remember the Wall and what it meant. The evening began with a short film shot and edited by Prof. Henning Wrage, originally from the former East Germany.
Afterwards, an audience of students sat and listened to an enlightening series of readings performed by Henning Wrage, Eric Scheufler, and Laurel Cohen (German Studies), Arthur McCardle and Michael Ritterson (formerly of German Studies), William Bowman* (History), Radost Rangelova (Spanish), Joseph Brandauer (Health Sciences) and Sandra Tausel (German Studies TA), both of whom are from Austria, and Alan Perry (Italian Studies). Flags of both nations flew behind them, willing their audience to remember another time.
Our Tuesday evening of powerful reflection was followed by an insightful, lunchtime panel discussion about the Fall of the Berlin Wall in a global context. Joined by faculty members Nina Barzachka and Robert Bohrer (Political Science), Susan Chen (Asian Studies), Abou Bamba (History), Alvaro Kaempfer (Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino Studies/Globalization Studies), and Henning Wrage (German Studies), German Studies engaged in a dialogue about the purpose of the Berlin Wall and the ramifications of its fall on various countries.
Thursday evening, students of German gathered together to watch Das Versprechen (The Promise), a 1995 film which chronicles the fictional lives of two characters separated by the building of the wall.
Friday, Nov. 7th, found Prof. Cohen translating during a skype interview with Dirk Moldt, a former Wall protester and demonstration organizer. Much of his discussion centered around the role of the Wall as a symbol of oppression.
Sunday, events drew to a close with the tearing down of the wall; a catharsis for students, faculty, and staff who had viewed it with a mixture of mirth, apprehension, and confusion.
As we tore down our wall, destroying any reminders that it once caused a division, Berlin remembered in its own way. Creating a wall of light, the city once again remembered its division, choosing to release balloons into the sky, a signal of letting go of the pain. As Prof. Laurel Cohen wrote in an email to her students, “This event changed the world you live in today…“ and it has. For those of us not old enough to remember the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the German Studies Dept. gave us a chance to create our own memories, to experience –in part– the emotion accompanying such a momentous event.
Walls are built and torn down every day, but that does not mean that we should forget that they splinter; they divide. Twenty-five years ago, on Nov. 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, opening the dividing line between two halves of a whole, reuniting pieces of land and family members. Two countries once again became one. Almost immediately after the Fall of the Wall, another wall was built –this time between the United States and Mexico; another wall, the Security Fence/Apartheid Wall surrounds the West Bank. It is almost as if the world could not go on without walls. Each was built in order to keep people out, but a wall does more than that. A wall sets up dichotomies: what is over THERE is bad which makes us good; what is over THERE is dangerous which makes US safe and protected behind OUR wall. It seeks not only to exclude people, but their ideas, their culture, their languages.
I may not have been there for the fall of the wall, I may have been only a distant twinkle in the sky of my parents’ eyes, and yet, through the eyes of my professors and words of my books, I feel a sense of connection, of shared emotion, at what is a pivotal moment of German history, memory, and culture.
For another take on the events, please see Stephany Harrington’s reflective piece from The Gettysburgian.
For more information and an “insider look“ at the Fall of the Berlin Wall, please check out these recently released NSA documents. Many Thanks to Prof. Abou Bamba of the Gettysburg College History Dept. for drawing my attention to these documents.
*Prof. William Bowman’s insightful reading was published on Sunday, Nov. 9th in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
For more information about post-war culture, please see Paul Hockenos’s article from the Boston Review.
Photo Credit goes to the German Studies Dept. and Prof. Henning Wrage.
More photos, links, and videos can be found at the German Studies webpage and at the German Studies Facebook Page