November 9th will mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a 155 km-long concrete barrier that separated the city for almost three decades. While traces of the wall are still scattered around Berlin’s neighborhoods, the cold-war ideological divide between the Eastern and Western areas of the city has all but disappeared.
Samia Henni, assistant professor at Cornell University’s College of Art, Architecture and Planning, studies architectural history with a focus on the architecture of conflicts, revolutions and wars. She says that, despite the lessons of the Berlin Wall, Europe has continued to build barriers and is now in the midst of a dramatic rise in the numbers of walls built to keep people out.
Henni is also available for interviews in German.
“Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, member states of the European Union and Schengen Area have built about 1,000 km—more than six times the length of the Berlin Wall—of border walls and barriers to impede displaced people migrating to Europe and control the movement of people and goods.
“Ten out of 28 member states have now constructed such walls, with a dramatic rise during the 2015 so-called ‘European migrant crisis,’ a period characterized by high number of refugees arriving on the shores of Southern Europe and the escalation of xenophobic parties across the continent.
“The 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall should confirm that a wall somewhere is not a solution to wars, invasions, and exploitations somewhere else, and that the European Union should not become a privileged fortress, if it is not already.”
Nicholas Mulder is a postdoctoral associate in Cornell’s history department, where he studies European politics and modern European history. Mulder says that the apparent gains of 1989 are obscured by the current threat posed by right-wing nationalism in Europe.
“1989 is mainly remembered for victory in the Cold War. But for Europeans it also marks the reunification of Germany, the end of Eastern European state socialism, and the transformation of the European community from a Western European club into a continent-wide union. Given all these processes converging in 1989, the legacy of the events of that year is mixed. The division of Europe that was agreed at Yalta and Potsdam in 1945 came to an end. New freedoms spread, and the European Union has been a political success.
“But from the vantagepoint of today, the apparent gains of 1989 obscure as much as they reveal. Despite EU support, Eastern Europe has not avoided economic dependence on the Western European industry. By focusing on the defeat of communism, liberals became complacent about the greater threat to democracy posed by right-wing nationalism, which has returned with a vengeance since the Great Recession.
"The protests currently happening from Chile to Lebanon to Hong Kong show that the struggle for political liberties goes hand in hand with the fight against inequality. 1989 won the former while losing the latter, and this unbalanced outcome has proven unstable."