East Side Gallery03-13-2013
We commonly assume that political acts and claims are shaped by some form of reasoning. How then do we respond to political stands in which arguments are piled atop arguments in contradictory ways, and where the force of the various arguments is less important than victory? We see in political discourse a definite willingness to embrace any argument that helps one win, whether or not it makes sense.
One example of our cynical embrace of bad arguments is the recent controversy over the East Side Gallery in Berlin. The Gallery is comprised of a series of murals that, over the course of the past two decades, an international cast of artists has painted and re-painted on an approximately one-mile stretch of the Berlin Wall. Indeed, the East Side Gallery occupies the longest existing remnant of the Wall, and it has become a significant landmark not only for those visitors who seek to experience something of the city’s Cold War past, but also for those long-time residents who regard it as an embodiment of the city’s contemporary feel and texture.
The tumult of the past few weeks erupted over the plans of a developer, Maik Uwe Hinkel, to construct luxury apartments and an office complex in the former border zone—now a modest green space—that lies between the East Side Gallery and the Spree River. According to the agreements reached by Hinkel and the local government, these new buildings would entail the creation of an access road and pedestrian bridge to allow passage to pedestrians, bicyclists, and emergency vehicles. The road and bridge, in turn, would require the removal of two stretches of the East Side Gallery and their replacement in the adjacent green space. Local planners had first approved the construction and the alteration to the East Side Gallery back in 2005, and since that time Hinkel’s plans had aroused little concerted opposition.
When workers lifted out one concrete slab from the Gallery on Friday, March 2nd, however, hundreds of demonstrators flocked to the site to prevent any further removals. A group of activists hastily organized a larger demonstration that same weekend, one that ultimately drew a raucous crowd of more than six thousand people. In the face of these surprising protests, Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit declared that all further work on the site would be postponed until at least March 18th, when a meeting of the major players would decide its fate. Since then, the developer and the relevant local officials have all declared their eagerness to find a solution that preserves the East Side Gallery in its current state. Even the slab removed earlier this month seems destined to return to its former location.
Yet the apparent success of the protest threatens to overshadow the problematic aspects of the demonstrators’ arguments. On the one hand, many of the organizers and protesters regarded their opposition as a small but significant rejoinder to the insistent tide of commercial development in post-Wall Berlin. To adopt the terms of Sharon Zukin’s recent book Naked City, they saw the East Side Gallery as an embodiment of the city’s distinctive authenticity and rootedness, which they argued should be protected from the homogenizing onslaught of upscale growth and gentrification. To wit, one of the coalitions that spearheaded the protest calls itself “Sink the Media Spree” (Mediaspree Versenken), a name that invokes developers’ recent efforts to transform the area along the river into a headquarters for high-tech communications and media. Its webpage declares that this portion of Berlin should preserve “the neighborhood” as it currently exists and not fall victim to “profit mania” (Kiez statt Profitwahn).
But the East Side Gallery cannot be cast so readily as an incarnation of local authenticity, especially the kind that stands opposed to commerce. First of all, many government actors and city residents were far more eager to see the Wall dismantled in the months and years after November 1989 than to see it preserved, and they condoned if not actively contributed to its wholesale removal. As a result, the survival of the East Side Gallery represents the exception, not the rule, in the city’s engagement with the Wall as a material structure. Second, artists from around the world initially established the East Side Gallery as a celebration of artistic and political liberty, but their murals received support from the local and national governments because they helped to draw tourists to Berlin and added to the city’s cachet as a cultural destination. In the light of this state patronage, I find it rather curious to hear activists pitching the East Side Gallery against the forces of capital and development.
On the other hand, many demonstrators contended that the alteration of the East Side Gallery would amount to an intolerable attack on the city’s historical inheritance. One variation of this position is that the removal of the two sections constitutes a dilution if not erasure of Germany’s traumatic past. According to this argument, the East Side Gallery should be left intact so that residents and visitors can confront the traces of the country’s division. Another, more strident variation insists that the construction plans display a callous disregard for those who suffered under the East German regime and, more specifically, lost their lives while attempting to escape it. In the words of one activist in Der Tagesspiegel: “the most important point is not whether the Wall will be opened. We are against the combination of removing the Wall and building hotels and apartments in death strips.”
Again, the East Side Gallery’s connection with Germany’s fraught past is not nearly as straightforward as the activists and demonstrators have suggested. As Brian Ladd details in his book The Ghosts of Berlin, the murals of the East Side Gallery were not painted until the early 1990s, after the Wall had fallen and East Germany had ceased to exist. In fact, this portion of the Wall could not have been painted before 1989, because it stood in East Berlin, and anyone who attempted to leave a mark on it, or even lingered near it, would have been apprehended by East German police officers or border soldiers. Of course, amateur and professional artists did draw and paint some striking imagery on the Berlin Wall during the Cold War, but they created it on the Wall’s “outer” surface while standing in West Berlin, where they had much less to fear from East German border personnel. The muralists who launched and maintained the East Side Gallery certainly meant to evoke and further this tradition of “Wall art,” but in the process they abstracted it from a prior historical era and relocated it in another part of the city.
I note these objections not because I support the proposed construction or the alteration of the East Side Gallery. In particular, I am not at all convinced that the partial removal of the Wall is really necessary, whether or not Hinkel and the city go ahead with the area’s development. But I am troubled by the protesters’ reluctance to take the ironies and complexities of the current circumstances more fully into account. They are too eager to cast the developer and local officials as the villains in this story, particularly when the city and the federal government have in fact created a substantial memorial landscape related to the Wall. And they are too quick to position themselves on the moral high ground. Given the Wall’s disappearance from virtually every other part of the city, their demands for preserving the East Side Gallery seem more than a little belated.