On November 6th, we will host the next event in the Contested Spaces series entitled “The Berlin Wall: 30 Years Later.” The 2019-20 Contested Spaces theme is “This Ground” which is a broad topic that supports many contemporary conversations, such as the actual “contested space” of a nation and “This Ground” refers to how contributors grapple with local concerns. For our event on November 6th, “This Ground” applies to Berlin, Germany as we commemorate the 30th anniversary of the toppling of the Wall. 

In this roundtable discussion, several UR professors will speak about the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and why border wall construction has proliferated since then. Speakers include Dr. Kathrin Bower and Dr. Katrina Nousek from German Studies in the Languages, Literatures, and Cultures department, Dr. Michelle Kahn from History, and Dr. Margaret Dorsey from Sociology & Anthropology.

On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall – a physical and psychological symbol of the Cold War, the Iron Curtain, and the clash between capitalism and communism – ceased to be a deadly barrier between East and West Germany. Germany was divided into two separate states in 1949 as an outcome of World War II and growing geopolitical tensions grounded in ideological differences. In 1961, East Germany erected a heavily militarized wall through the divided city of Berlin to stem the tide of East German refugees who were fleeing to West Germany through West Berlin. As a result of the wall, families and friends were torn apart, and the two Germanys became further estranged. 

“The wall also symbolized the oversimplification of the Cold War into a binary clash between ‘capitalism, freedom, and democracy’ in the West and ‘communism, dictatorship, and oppression’ in the East,” Dr. Michelle Kahn said. “While both the politics and the lived experience of the post-1945 world were far more complicated, the construction of the physical wall played into Cold Warriors’ rhetoric and perpetuated the imagined divide.” 

The fall of the Berlin Wall led to the reunification of Germany after 40 years, but many also saw it as a harbinger of a borderless world. In fact, the opposite has occurred. “With approximately 35 nation states building over 70 walls, the fall of the Berlin Wall marks the start of a new era of wall building. As such, it opens spaces to discuss human rights, mobilities, and what democracy means on the ground for people,” said Dr. Margaret Dorsey.

Dr. Kathrin Bower, one of the speakers at the upcoming event, was actually in Berlin in 1989 as a graduate student on a Fulbright scholarship, and thus, witnessed the events of November 1989 firsthand. Since coming to UR, Bower has returned to Berlin on a regular basis and is the founder of UR's summer study abroad program in Berlin.  

“It is also important to note that the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 was accomplished by peaceful means after a series of events that forced the hand of the East German government,” Bower said. “Borders opened in other Eastern bloc countries such as Hungary that enabled a mass exodus of East Germans, contributing further to pressure on the East German government. The protest movement in East Germany grew over the course of several months and the rallying cry ‘We are the people’ became the motto of the peaceful revolution. Unfortunately, the same rallying cry has now been hijacked by a right-wing extremist party in today's united Germany and used as a means to criticize the government's refugee policies and approach to migration.” 

Although the fall of the Berlin Wall occurred 30 years ago, it still remains an important topic on a global scale. The wall has many symbolic meanings, one of them being how ideological differences can be divisive to an extreme, relating to today’s current political climate. However, Dr. Katrina Nousek points out that today’s world is different in many ways compared to 1960s-1970s Germany. 

“Whereas the development of divided Germany needs to be read in the global wake of World War II and the utopian modernism that preceded it, today’s geopolitical imaginaries and globalizing economies are fueled in part by the post-communist transition that began in the wake of the Wall and the Cold War order it symbolizes,” said Dr. Katrina Nousek. “We have much to learn from the possible futures and alternative politics of this time.” 

Dr. Kahn also insists that although we are in a fundamentally different historical moment, the fall of the Berlin Wall reminds us that these types of issues are not new, but rather, are a significant feature of continuous exclusionary policies nation-states enact. It also reminds us of the racially charged history we have in Richmond and its relevance to today. 

“Examining the Berlin Wall in relation to the topic of walls, borders, and partitions more broadly speaks to the needs of this community and to a reimagining of Richmond as a contested space that is both international and multi-racial,” Kahn said. 

Event details:
This event is sponsored by A&S and the departments of History, Languages, Literatures and Cultures, and Sociology & Anthropology. The roundtable will take place on November 6th in the Brown-Alley Room in Weinstein Hall at 7 p.m. More details can be found here.