In Berlin, Trump's talk of a Mexico wall stirs unpleasant memories

The Berlin Wall set a strong example of how futile such walls ultimately are, especially when faced with strong resistance, says one analyst.

Michael Sohn/AP/File
Protesters attend a 'Berlin Women's March on Washington' demonstration in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on Jan. 21, the day after the inauguration of Donald Trump as the new president of the United States.

Born in a divided city, Sebastian Horndasch would cross the Berlin Wall to visit his family in the east once or twice a year. Movement in the other direction was forbidden.

“My mother always had to stop me from discussing with the border guards back then because I was so outraged by the fact that [East German] citizens weren’t allowed out,” says Mr. Horndasch, who was eight years old when the communist-era barrier fell.

Such memories pushed Horndasch to protest in near-freezing temperatures recently at the foot of the monumental Brandenburg Gate, where the wall once stood. There he joined 1,000 people gathered in defiance of President Trump’s plan of constructing a 1,900-mile wall along the US-Mexican border, as well as the now on-hold travel ban, which temporarily bars citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.

“As we had a wall in Germany that used to cut Berlin in two halves, we know how terrible, how divisive walls can be,” said Horndasch, following the chanting crowd organized by newly created Berlin activist group The Coalition as it marched to the nearby US Embassy.

Drawing historical parallels to their own former oppressive barrier that stood for 28 years, many Germans find Mr. Trump’s talk of building such a wall particularly abrasive. Faced with a growing right-wing populism movement in Germany and in other parts of Europe, and current barriers being erected across the continent to slow the flow of migrants, they also find it representative of a general closure to new cultures and ideas.

Tearing down walls

Walls create “isolation and exclusion,” wrote Berlin Mayor Michael Müller after Trump issued an order to build the wall, less than a week after he took office. "Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, we can not simply accept it when all our historical experiences are overlooked by those to whom we largely owe our freedom, the Americans," he added, also citing barriers in Cyprus and Korea as modern examples of the division.  

“We in Berlin know that walls don’t work,” says Christopher Harms, pointing out that a wall would have kept him, a West Berliner, and his wife, from the East, apart.

Especially in light of his country’s history and currently rising authoritarian regimes around the world, it’s vital that the US and Germany stand against both physical and ideological walls through “an open press and the ability to be involved in democracy,” he added.

Born after the wall fell, German-American Jara Nassar grew up in Heidelberg and the US hearing stories of friends, neighbors, and relatives split apart. 

“They decided what side of the street you live on, they decided whether your future would be in the East or West,” she says. “It’s pretty much the same in this situation because if you are born a few kilometers further south or west suddenly you get blocked by a huge wall.”

Yet one of the biggest lessons learned from the Berlin Wall is that, “no wall is built for eternity,” said Berlin Wall Foundation director Axel Klausmeier in a recent interview with the German Press Agency. The wall provides a simple short-term plan, but won’t be effective in the long run for barring illegal immigration, he cautioned.

He extended an invitation to give Trump a tour of the wall, which is now composed of a few remaining remnants throughout the city, should he visit Berlin. “Perhaps he is interested in the historical model,” says Mr. Klausmeier.

Rooted in history

Yet Joerg Forbrig, a senior transatlantic fellow for Central and Eastern Europe with the German Marshall Fund, cautions against drawing historical parallels between the Berlin Wall and the proposed wall along the Mexican border: one was constructed to keep people in, and the other would be to keep people out.

Still, he says, the Berlin Wall set a strong example of how futile such walls ultimately are, especially when faced with strong resistance. “Those who absolutely wanted to get out still found ways, often at great risk, often with incredible ingenuity” says Mr. Forbrig, who comes from the eastern German city of Erfurt. “But people’s desire to overcome this artificial division was greater and stronger than any concrete could ever be.”

He also questioned how a wall along the Mexican border would keep out migrants from the US, pointing out that 40-50 percent of all illegal migration is enacted through legal means such as flights and tourists visas, according to the Pew Research Center.

“A wall doesn’t stop people who want to go into freedom, into a better life, and try to live a new life in a society that they think is a better one than their own,” says Jochen Staadt, a researcher on the history of divided Germany at Free University Berlin.

Dr. Staadt pointed to how hundreds of the university’s students helped people escape out of East Berlin in the days after the wall was built, helping them acquire Swiss passports or construct tunnels.

Trump’s planned wall, which comes on top of the 652 miles of chain fence already running along the US-Mexican border, will likewise continue to face resistance in the US, he said. “I think the wall on the Mexican border cannot divide the history of [both] countries, which have a very close common history.”

Other walls in Europe

The wall is symptomatic of a broader sense that closing societies might help where many people feel overwhelmed by their openness, a wish for keeping people, ideas, and religions away from the US, says Forbrig. That mirrors similar impulses in Europe.

“[German anti-Islamization movement] Pegida, Brexiteers, or [France's] National Front aren’t all that different from what President Trump has long been saying and is now doing,” he says. “It’s the same isolationist impulse. Walls and travel bans are only symptoms of that.”

For some Germans, the proposed Mexican Wall is similar to current borders being built throughout Europe to slow the flow of refugees. 

Visual artist Stephanie Hanna from Berlin related the proposed Mexican wall to the border fences on the Spanish-Moroccan borders of Ceuta and Melilla in order to stop immigrants from Africa from entering the EU through the island enclave. “It’s a wall between the more exploitative part of the world and the part that’s being exploited,” she says.

Staadt also compared it to Hungary’s border, a 13-foot high, 340 mile fence along the Croatian and Serbian border, which the government began constructing in 2015. Yet, he says, “these borders being put up across Europe against the people coming from the outside did not stop them.”

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