The Lessons of the Berlin Wall

The Lessons of the Berlin Wall

Modern-day American border guard Shawn Carter works for the Chicago Transit
Authority. His first morning of work at the Western Brown Line El station, a
few days before the November 9 anniversary of the so-called Western defeat of
Communism, he was shocked to find a massive intact section of the Berlin Wall
five yards from his post.

“I’d never seen it before!” he said, excited. The descriptive literature
closest to his seat detailed shootings and escape attempts and Ronald Reagan’s
demands that Gorbachev eliminate the barrier to capitalism – exciting moments
in the history of what, otherwise, was a slab of concrete people lived with
for 28 years. The moment he got to work, Carter said, he pored over it. “It’s
amazing to see what people went through, that people lost their lives.”

His sympathy didn’t extend, however, to the would-be modern barrier jumper
whose CTA card didn’t work. Carter flashed him a look and the dejected man wandered
away. This is what CTA attendants get paid to do.

Carter theorized the Wall section was probably placed there in the Lincoln
Square neighborhood because Germans historically settled in the area. (Many
had moved out by the time the Wall was installed in October of 2007, but this
hasn’t had an effect on the marketing slogans that adorn the lampposts along
Western Avenue. In truth, this placement of the Wall is also likely someone’s
idea of a joke: The street was so named because it acted as the city’s original
western edge, not to mention the hilarity of situating a symbol of the East
Germany right in the middle of Western.)

Far more than a concession to local and international history, however, Carter
thought the Wall was a great educational opportunity.

“They don’t teach young people in school anymore,” he lamented. “The
TV teaches them now.”

But what is to be learned from the Berlin Wall?

Usually commemorated as the end of the cold war, although sometimes more thoughtfully
considered the victory of democracy over Communism, in all senses the opening
of the border that kept East from West in the late 1980s was a major score for
capitalism.

The Wall was a strain on families separated by its almost overnight construction
– few Easterners speak of a thwarted desire for American goods. Yet, when the
Wall fell on this date 20 years ago – following, depending on who you ask, the
success of David Hasselhoff’s hit single “I’ve Been Looking for Freedom”
in Germany or Reagan’s equally catchy “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
speech – some of the very first legal border crossers weren’t imaged in the
massive swarms pictured on the evening news.

No, former resident Sarah Lewison, an artist, remembered, “The loosening
of restrictions between west and east was scheduled to favor the entry of commodities.
First Coca Cola, then visits to auntie.”

Lewison was leaving Berlin just as the Wall was crumbling, and remembered talking
to artists who lived in the East. Besides restricted access to their families,
they had few complaints. “They all had jobs doing what they loved,”
she said. (Berlin’s unemployment rate is now around 14 percent.)

Still, the fall of the Wall has come to symbolize the justice inherent in free-market
economies, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the tourist shops along
Unter den Linden in Berlin. These sell trinkets and gewgaws to any comer, each
festooned with a brightly colored bit of felled capitalist resistance.

Necklaces, bears, postcards, snow globes and diminutive Brandenburg Gates are
available adorned with crumbling chunks of the Wall. (Prices start at around
10 euros and quickly become more expensive, depending on how well you want to
remember the GDR.) If you can’t decide on what occasion you may wear a memoir
of the barrier that at least 138 people lost their lives trying to pass, you
can purchase a stand-alone, inch-diameter, certificate-authenticated “piece
of German history” for around 2.95 euros – about $4.25 USD.

While the pickaxes and memento collecting started immediately, the Wall’s first
commercial appearance did not come until five days later. Selling reminders
of the cold war to Americans was a craze kicked off by radio personality Steve
Cochran of KDWB in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. On November 14, 1989, he offered
two chunks to callers as prizes on his drive-time commercial radio show. This
inspired immediate outrage over the crass sale of the Communist keepsakes that
lasted until the Christmas shopping season swung into high gear two weeks later.
By then, department stores in most US downtowns were selling bits of the Wall
too.

By 1990, GDR souvenir sales were common enough in tourist shops in Berlin,
and independent vendors roamed the streets with smaller displays.

Today, at any given moment, perhaps 5,000 euros worth of Wall memorabilia is
on retail display today at each of 15 major tourist shops in Germany’s capital
city, resulting in around $115,000 worth of Communist merch for sale every day,
still two decades later. Already sold are the 45 several-ton sections of Wall
situated throughout the world – 27 of which are now in the United States. Most
were sold at unknown costs, likely in the tens or hundreds of millions, not
including shipping or handling. Economically speaking, sales of the Wall may
by now have exceeded the $7 billion cost in local talent the thing was originally
built to restrain.

A glorious victory for capitalism, indeed. Especially since, just a few years
ago, it looked for a moment as if the Communists could still win. Sales of the
Wall, Die Zeit reported in 2007, had recently stagnated and most of the “good
pieces” – the colorful ones – had been sold off already.

The problem was, the cheerful, creative resistance to Communism evidenced by
graffiti wasn’t quite as common as all that. Much of it was painted, in fact,
only after the fall, leaving a great deal of the Wall the dull gray of its original
1961 construction. Who wants to remember that?

The natural solution – under capitalism – was to recall the plain concrete
pieces and spray paint them, reporter Tobias Timm explained. Sales picked up
again, and these pieces continue to be sold with genuine certificates of authenticity.
Because capitalism urges adherence to the letter of the law, but not to its
spirit, this makes perfect sense. They are, after all, still authentic pieces
of Wall.

Not so in Dixon, Illinois, about an hour and 45 minutes west of the Western
Avenue Brown Line stop in Chicago. The boyhood home of Ronald Reagan, like the
El station, boasts an intimate connection with this piece of history. In fact,
several years ago, the city installed a replica of the Berlin Wall in its Wings
of Peace and Freedom Park. In recognition of the former president’s “efforts
to attain worldwide peace and freedom” (according to the Dixon Tourism
Directory web site), several full sections of cement wall stand, brightly painted.
Unfortunately, they are totally unmarked as fakes. News outlets, tourists and
tea-party patriots regularly overlook their replica status and assume them to
be real.

And under capitalism, this makes sense too. They are, after all, still authentic
pieces of some wall.

Maybe the resounding lesson of the Berlin Wall for young people is: In the
free market, history just doesn’t matter.

This seems to be the theme of “MTV’s” November 5 U2 concert at the
Brandenburg Gate, part of a week-long series celebrating the fall of the Wall.
To ensure that only properly ticketed fans would enjoy the free performance,
“MTV” built up a new seven-foot wall around the concert area.

It was certainly in poor taste, but somehow seems an appropriate way to commemorate
20 years of capitalism.