Why is the Wall still dividing us? The persistence of the intellectual cold war

Discussing some ideas relating to my piece on the divide between Eastern and Western Europe, I was struck by the following question: “How is it possible that the Wall separating East and West is still so successful?” It’s true! While I thought that 1989 marks a historical turning point that initiated an integrative process, this turns out to be a cherished illusion of mine. As my interlocutor pointed out, the Wall is still successful. It continues to keep the people apart. OK, I wanted to object, there is still an economic divide and that takes time of course. “No”, she retorted, “it’s not only economic, it’s also intellectual.” So there the point was being made again: the cold war attitude continues, also intellectually. What does that mean?

To keep things simple, I’ll focus on Germany. Let’s begin with my illusion. Having grown up in a small town near Düsseldorf, the Wall seemed far away. Apart from very few visits of relatives, I had no contacts and not much of an idea of the former GDR. Although I was quite moved by the fall of the Wall, it didn’t seem to affect my life directly. That changed when I moved to Budapest for one and a half years in 1994. I realised that my education had failed me. I knew hardly anything about the history of Hungary or Eastern Europe, not even about East Germany. Nevertheless, I was convinced that now there would be a process of integration under way. Europe would grow together. Slowly but surely; it had to. Did it?

East Germany is still a thing. That is strange in itself. It shouldn’t be. After all, the Wall has now been down slightly longer than it was up. It was built in 1961 and came down in 1989. Since then, 30 years have passed. But it must be liberating to think that neo-nazism, for instance, is not a problem in Germany but East Germany. The East is a perfect scapegoat in several domains. The narrative is dominated by the economic imbalance and the idea that people from the (former) East lack democratic education. The upshot of the narrative seems to be this: East Germans have a different mentality. The former generations were communists or dominated by communists. Their offspring are neo-nazis or indoctrinated by neo-nazis. You get the idea…

Of course, many biographies have been upset one way or another. Of course, the situation is complex, but after looking at some figures the crucial problems don’t strike me as owing primarily to a difference in mentality. This doesn’t mean that there is no problem of neo-nazism. But how did things start moving in the East? The former GDR seems to have been “colonised”, as some put it already by 1997. What were the effects in academia? Today, I read an article with the headline that “men lead three quarters of German universities”. Yes, I can imagine that. What the headline didn’t state but what I found among the figures is that “no rector or president” originates from East Germany. OK, not every academic biography culminates in leading a university. But still: reading this, I felt reminded of stories about “liquidation”. So I looked up some more figures: “By 1994, over 13,000 positions at universities in east Germany had been liquidated, and 20,000 more people (including 5,000 professors) had lost their jobs. Many teachers and academics were fired ‘despite the fact that they had proven professional qualifications.’” It’s hard to believe that these measures did anything to facilitate integration, let alone intellectual integration.

At this point, it doesn’t look like the divisive East-West narratives will loose their grip anytime soon. But why not? I guess that the colonialisation as part of the unification process will continue to be justified. It needs to be justified to cover up the crimes committed. But how can such things be justified? How can you justify to have sacked a huge amount of people and taken over quite some of their positions? Again, it will continue to be blamed on the mentality: If they complain about the past, you can blame it on their mentality. The lack of democratic education left them unfit for such responsibilities and now they are being nostalgic.* If they complain about their situation now, you can still blame it on the mentality. Which mentality? Well, they are still lacking democratic education and cannot understand that the state doesn’t have the duty to coddle them in their unemployment. Whichever way you see it, they just turn out to be incapable. So taking over responsibilities was and is justified.

It goes without saying that the forgoing is verging on a black and white picture. The idea is not to explain such complex political developments in a blog post. The idea is to gesture towards an answer to the question of why the Wall continues to be so efficient, even though it came down 30 years ago. What is the ideology that is so persistent? I truly don’t know. Perhaps the ideology of those erecting the Wall is still or again at work. Or the very idea of a Wall, of a divide, is more convenient than we want to believe. For it can serve in justifying differences and injustices even after tearing it down. In any case, the reference to “mentality” strikes me as a highly problematic form of moral exclusion.

So perhaps the Wall continues to serves as a justificational loop. How does it work? The people blaming each other will most likely not assume that they are just pointing to a supposed mentality in order to justify an injustice. They will take their beliefs (about communism, nazism, and capitalism etc.) to be true of those accused. But they can likely do so as long as the justificational mechanism of the Wall keeps them apart.


* Thinking about (n)ostalgia, there is also the more sinister explanation that the cherished memories do not simply reach back to the time after 1961, but further back to the times after 1933. In other words, if you want to explain the far-right movement by reference to mentality, you might look to the mentality that spans across East and West Germany, nourished well before the Wall was erected.

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