Michael Saenger

Walls in Berlin and the West Bank


For all the things to complain about in the media, anniversaries are something that they do well.

Of course, it’s somewhat arbitrary to say that at a certain number of years, a round number, we will reflect on an important event from the past.  Was the fall of the Berlin Wall not relevant in 2004?  But to worry about what draws our attention to these anniversaries is to miss the point.  However arbitrary a round number may be, the media has used these milestones as opportunities to remember the past—the start of World War I, and now, the fall of the wall inside Berlin.  These efforts at memory may not be perfect, but there has been a sincere attempt to do, in short form, what historians do for a living, that is, to ask what we as a culture remember, what we forget, and what we make of the past. In contrast with the breathless, panic-inducing normal news cycle, these anniversaries spark a thirst for the wider view.

So let’s remember 1989 for a moment.  It felt like an awakening. For so many years, we had been taught to think of the world as divided, and the wall in Berlin seemed almost too perfect a metaphor for that division. A visible scar from the end of the Second World War, at the heart of what had been Nazi Germany, it remained as a bloody barrier between two political worlds.  The tragedy of the wall was always the fact that, unlike the longer fence that separated West Germany from East Germany, it was in the middle of a city, surrounded not by fields but by people.

When it fell, it seemed to confirm the West’s dream of an escape from history. Nations and nationalism had caused both World Wars, and, for a moment, it seemed as if nations would finally end.  Who could blame us for thinking that this is what the event meant?  Shortly afterward, the British pop band Jesus Jones recorded the song, “Right Here, Right Now,” a song which seemed to capture perfectly how a generation experienced the wonder of a world that suddenly lurched away from missiles and walls and toward champagne and conversation.

The problem, of course, emerged as the years that followed showed us that history had not, in fact, ended.  Not long after the wall fell, Srebrenica showed the world that the terrible forces that had long caused horrible killing were not gone. And buried in the memorials in the former Soviet Union as well as those in Washington, DC and Northern France are testaments to the fact that great evil in the past century was not only caused by nations, but also ended by them. In the decades since the euphoria of 1989, it became clear that there were at least two dangers, both equally real: to cling to the enmities of the past, and prematurely to ignore the fact that they are still alive.

At first glance, the barrier that separates the West Bank from Israel looks like another Berlin Wall, as some Palestinian activists recently tried to demonstrate.  Like the European barrier, it stands both as a real and a symbolic separation of people who could, and should, speak with one another.  It divides Palestinians from other Palestinians, and also Palestinians from Israelis. But if history teaches us anything, it is to be careful about such simple readings of the scars of the past.

Part of the reason why we misread the Berlin Wall and its collapse is that we misunderstood the idea of a nation. From the safety of a free West, nations have long been felt by us to be largely symbolic.  Even when America sustained a long confrontation with the Soviet Union, we feared an enemy that was far away.

The reality is that we can never escape the ongoing crisis in the Middle East if we continue to view nations in general, and Israel in particular, as the problem.  Such a view ignores a key fact: many different entities can start a war, but only a nation can end one.

For decades, Palestine has been moving in two directions at once.  On the one hand, it has taken greater steps toward nationhood, and on the other, it has rejected the responsibilities that such nationhood would require, chiefly the control of its own armed forces and a willingness to negotiate with its neighbors. The European Left has encouraged this double-game, and in the process has done more to harm prospects of peace than any wall ever can.  It is an unfortunate reality that the wall between Israel and Palestine has been physically necessary to block terrorist attacks. If such attacks had been directed at any Western nation, a much larger and more violent response would have happened long ago.

Walls are tragic. But they are not all the same. Germans—on both sides—were ready to take down their wall when they did, and that was glorious, but Europe was not done with the forces that led to its construction, and our reluctance to accept this fact led to a slow response to conflict in the Balkans, and to the death of many innocent people.  Until Palestine demilitarizes and accepts the existence of Israel, the wall that protects the most multi-cultural state, and the only functioning democracy, in the Middle East, Israel, must remain. The day when that wall falls will be glorious, but we cannot hasten that moment by comforting ourselves with illusions of an easy escape from the dangers of the past.

About the Author
Michael Saenger is Professor of English at Southwestern University and the author of two books and the editor of another. He has been a Finalist for the Southwestern Teaching Award, and he has given talks on cultural history in Europe, Israel and North America.
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