Every single day, I bike over where the Berlin Wall once stood. A wall that from 1961 to 1989 divided loved ones from each other, a wall that broke Berliners’ sense of home, that created two foreign cultures out of and in the same city, a wall that has forever shaped Berlin’s history and culture. And in 2018, I am able to bike right over it.
Peter Schneiders “The Wall Jumper” attempts to put the reader in the mindset of 1980s Berliners living with the wall. The DDR (Deutsches Demokratisches Republik, the socialist party of East Germany controlled by the USSR following WWII) originally erected the wall to stop the hemorrhage of its population from moving to the capitalist west, where they could find a generally higher quality of life. The wall, however, was not just a slab of concrete graffiti’d with the mural of Erich Honecker kissing Leonid Brezhnev where people would take Instagram photos. Schneider paints a chilling picture of the wall’s reality:
“The border between the two German states, and especially between the two halves of Berlin, is considered the world’s most closely guarded and the most difficult to cross. The ring around West Berlin is 102.5 miles in length. Of this, 65.8 miles consist of concrete slabs topped with pipe; another 34 miles is constructed of stamped metal fencing. Two hundred sixty watchtowers stand along the border ring, manned day and night by twice that many border guards. The towers are linked by a tarred military road, which runs within the border strip. To the right and left of the road, a carefully raked stretch of sand conceals trip wires; flares go off if anything touches them. Should this happen, jeeps stand ready for the border troops, and dogs are stationed at 267 dog runs along the way” (50).
In this stunning description, and in my overall experience reading the book, Schneider forces the reader to take a raw look at Berlin’s crucial political role by proxy of the wall. We can easily conceptualize an East- and West-Berlin, in part because each developed such a different aesthetic and character during the iron curtain that is still evident today, but we cannot even begin to imagine living day-to-day with a monolithic, constant reminder that we occupy only half of our home, and that half of our home’s occupants–our friends, our family, human beings–are prisoners to their half. Driving this point home, Schneider often refers to East- and West-Berlin respectively as a “half-city” (19) throughout the novel.
Berlin lies in the heart of East Germany, so although half of fell under the jurisdiction of the Western Allies (U.S.A., U.K., France), the city itself was still in the east. The wall created a division not only within Berlin but also between Berlin and the rest of the east, Berlin and the rest of Germany. That division, with Berlin’s staunch leftist politics and humming metropolitan vibe standing in contrast with the rest of Germany’s right-leaning small towns, remains still today, 30 years after the wall has come down.
The narrator, originally a West-Berliner in possession of a visa which allows him to “wall jump” to the east and back, collects stories from his friends on both sides of the wall. Considering these perspectives, he notes: “The further you are from the border, the more casually each half-people imagines itself whole” (14). This coping mechanism seemed the only option for Berliners, who never thought the wall would come down; each half-city could not indefinitely mourn the loss of their other half, so each side continued with their lives. What choice did they have? Schneider here proposes a key element that, although I’d subconsciously acknowledged this fact before, transformed my thinking when really brought into focus: the wall dividing Berlin did not stop the growth of each half-city. East- and West-Berlin continued to foster and develop their own cultures, growing further apart with each passing day behind the iron curtain. Reunification did not mean reintegration.
Schneider elaborates on the growing disparity between the two sides: “For Germans in the West, the Wall became a mirror that told them, day by day, who was the fairest one of all” (18). Life in the west meant freedom and comfort, which neither side forgot. For those living in West-Berlin, the wall transformed into a daily reminder of their privilege, of their superiority. Meanwhile, in the East, hatred would galvanize for any dissenting individual, because s/he “would remind the others that they may have put up with tyranny too long and too cleverly” (62). For thirty years, each half-country developed an identity in opposition to its other half. Reunification did not dissolve these differences, it brought them to the surface. The narrator states that for him, the separation pangs between the east and west “resemble a love grieving not so much for his loved one as for the strong emotion he once felt. In Germany, it seems, time doesn’t heal wounds; it kills the sensation of pain” (33). Each side, of course, could have never forgotten about the other, and longed-for reunification, to revert to the sense of wholeness it once had.
For me, the real tragedy of the Berlin Wall lies in the added insult to injury of its reunification: the city would never really be united, even after the wall came down. How could it be? Painful as it was, the wall forced Berliners, East- and West-, to move on with their lives. They had no choice but to numb themselves to their unimaginable situation, longing for a wholeness they would never recapture.