“Writing on the Wall” – Understanding Today’s German Society through a Study of the Representations of the Berlin Wall in Literature, Art, and Music

November 9, 1989: Celebration at the Brandenburg Gate

In November 1989, pictures of jubilating East and West Germans dancing on the Berlin Wall went around the world. Chanting “We are the people”, East Germans had demanded their freedom and finally brought down the authoritarian GDR regime during the Peaceful Revolution. The Fall of the Berlin Wall, which led to the reunification of Germany in 1990, drastically changed the country’s geographical and political landscape. This watershed moment in German history also deeply affected many areas of everyday life and culture. More obviously, it transformed Germans’ definition of personal and national identities and attitudes toward perceived and actual imbalances between the former East and West. Different electoral behavior, divergent income and unemployment rates as well as waves of “Ostalgie” (nostalgia for the former GDR) are only some of the most evident signs and challenges of the still ongoing process of re-unification.

Students in Prof. Kathrin Seidl-Gómez’s advanced conversation course, “Writing on the Wall”, worked on representations of the Berlin Wall in literature, film, and music to develop an understanding of the importance of the mid-twentieth century separation and later reunification of Germany for today’s society. Examining a trove of sources, students learned about the unbroken desire for freedom that persevered in the GDR in the shadow of state surveillance and the artistic responses to a life in the shadow of the Wall. They studied how East Germans attempted, and in many cases succeeded, at escaping the GDR using manifold courageous and inventive strategies. East Germans used underground tunnels, self-built balloons and airplanes, forged IDs and hid in vehicles of all sorts.

Peter Golisch

During a guest lecture, students enjoyed the unique opportunity of hearing firsthand Peter Golisch’s experience of living and escaping the GDR. Mr. Golisch, born in Berlin in 1936, lived as a teenager in the GDR where he came under Stasi-surveillance due to critical remarks against the regime. He managed to flee into the West in the early 1950s, leaving behind an oppressive regime but never escaping from the formative impact these years in the GDR had on his life. Students also discussed the identity-constitutive aspect of the national borders as demarcation lines whose sudden disappearance came to force people on both sides to reevaluate their values, political allegiances, and cultural identity/ies. Particularly illuminating was a case study by the anthropologist Daphne Berdahl we studied. Berdahl’s ethnographic account of the lives of people in the East-German border village of Kella in the early 1990s gave students insight into a socialist society’s transition into capitalism. Reading the novel Aus dem Schneider by Katrin Askan allowed for a different kind of aesthetic experience and intellectual engagement with daily life in the former GDR. Askan portrays five decades of German history (1936-1986) through a family story and discusses the political events and conditions under two dictatorships including the role of chance versus self-determination in totalitarian societies, the import of the idea of Heimat (home), memory, and how identity is created in such circumstances. For the analysis of Askan’s novel we departed from questions such as: How it might have felt to live under an authoritarian regime: Would we be the same? What are the choices between compliance, protest, and escape? What were the consequences of such choices on your personal life and the well-being of your family? Reading Askan’s novel, we learned about daily life in the GDR, about mandatory flag ceremonies at school, and found ourselves exploring stunning oddities such as the layout of the Berlin train station Friedrichstrasse that – while located in the East – belonged in part to West-Germany.

Prof. Kathrin Seidl-Gómez

Students made indeed a number of surprising discoveries. They learned, for instance, that the GDR sold some of their imprisoned dissident citizens to West Germany to fight the deficit of their failing economy with injections of hard currency; that there were more than 400 cases of illegal crossings of the border from West into the East; and that hundreds of East Germans left behind all of their belongings to spontaneously seize the opportunity to flee into the West during the Pan-European Picnic in Hungary in August 1989. More than twenty years later, these events still form part of the lived experience of many Germans and condition the ways in which they define themselves and interact as a society. They inform their political views and the decisions of supporting other nations in their struggle for independence from dictatorships, or for survival during the hardships of the current crisis of the European economy.

We explored in this course how the Fall of the Wall has created a new conceptual framework that shapes the perception of borders, language, space and traditions. Senior Suzan Ok, who developed a research project comparing the Berlin Wall with other walls in history, points at the value of exploring this specific aspect of German history for an understanding of historical and cultural processes pertinent to other periods and regions: “In this course, I learned not only about the political and cultural influence of the Berlin Wall, but also the commonalities and differences among major walls and barriers in the past and present. This was a valuable lesson on the meaning of national identity.” The research project of Peter Lecce, also a Senior, drove the point home: He wrote a nuanced thesis on the applicability of lessons learned from the Berlin Wall to the situation created by the erection of the U.S.-Mexico Border Fence.

Philip Basnight presents his research

These two projects are just some examples of the variety of interesting, informative, and well-research work that students presented as their final projects of this course. Every student gave a 15-20 minute long presentation, discussing yet new aspects of life, media, culture, and politics and also of literature and artistic production both in the GDR and in Germany after the reunification. Sophomore Amanda Morrow notes how much she “enjoyed the conference-style presentations at the end of the course, because it was a great way for us to research a topic that we personally found very interesting and to learn about the interests of our classmates.” By being continuously engaged with relevant readings and in discussions, students not only expanded their knowledge about this essential part of German history, but also their competence of expressing opinions and constructing arguments in German, and they had fun. As Max Lazar put it, “it was an absolutely fantastic class.”

Other course materials included poetry by Sarah Kirsch, Uwe Kolbe, and Volker Braun, essays by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, short prose by Claudia Rusch and Durs Grünbein, and Peter Schneider’s novel Der Mauerspringer, narratives of contemporary witnesses, West German TV interviews from the 1980s with people who escaped from the GDR, political caricatures, documentary and feature films (Clayton Nemrow’s The Rise and Fall of the Berlin Wall, Wolfgang Becker’s classic Good Bye Lenin! and Roland Richter’s The Tunnel), and recordings of the performance of Beethoven’s Ninth’s in Berlin in December 1989 under Leonard Bernstein who altered for the occasion the words of the acclaimed “Ode to Joy.”
The course was offered as a joint 200/400-level course, and several students who took it at the higher level completed additional readings, attended extra meetings and led discussion groups. The Junior Sean Vadas reflects on the resulting learning experience: “This course was unique in how much I learned from my peers as well as my professor.”

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