Dec 2016

Introduction to Mauerbau & Mauerschau

Transatlantic Cassandra Calls from Falling and Rising Walls

„Es geschah im November “ by Kani Alavi, East Side Gallery, Berlin (Photo: Susan Wansink)
„Es geschah im November “ by Kani Alavi, East Side Gallery, Berlin (Photo: Susan Wansink)

“First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin”
Leonard Cohen, “First We Take Manhattan”

“Mauerbau & Mauerschau”, in German, these two compound words describe the building of a wall and the viewing from the wall. The latter also evokes the Homeric epic of ancient Troy, when Helena and Cassandra were foretelling the fall of their mighty fortress. In the art of theater, this looking from the wall is known as teichoscopia in which an actor describes the unfolding events that the audience cannot – or net yet – see. This epic perspective can also serve as a theatrical focus to envision the future of our contemporary reality.

During the recent election campaign for the American presidency, the leading candidate of the Republican Party first captured the attention of America and the world with his outlandish promise to build a wall along the southern border to Mexico. If completed as promised, this fortification could match in its magnitude the Great Wall of China that was built thousands of years ago. Whatever the case will be, the legendary land of the brave and the free, the exemplary country of immigration and of unlimited possibilities now threatens millions of its inhabitants, who begin to fear that they soon might find themselves as miserable deportees. And the not so distant vision of this rising wall along the southern border could soon morph into an even more ominous apparition, that is, a veritable “Fortress America”. As such it would certainly parallel all the aspirations of Europe’s right-wing parties who want to turn the European continent more and more into a xenophobic “Fortress Europa”!

The counter-vision to this transatlantic fortification is the political reality of a liberal, open-border Germany. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and in increased numbers in the last two years, the country with its legacy of a horrible fascist and communist history has become vice versa an exemplary stronghold of freedom and democracy, welcoming over a million refugee from the war-torn regions of the Near East. In the eyes of the out-going president of the United States, this unprecedented national magnanimity toward a completely foreign people and alien culture has transformed contemporary Germany into the “Liberal West’s Last Defender” (New York Times, Nov. 13, 2016).

Jeanne Goodman, “Refugees” (2016)
Jeanne Finkelstein Goodman, “Refugees” (2016)

However, Angel Merkel’s bold refugee policy has politically speaking increasingly divided her only recently re-united country. Whereas the outer borders have fallen, increasingly inner walls are rising, from so-called sound barriers, such as the headline catching twelve-foot wall surrounding a refugee camp in Perlach, Bavaria, to the sprawling security barriers in Berlin after the latest terror attack. And these physical barriers are growing more and more into emotional barriers of fear and loathing in the hearts and minds of millions of Germans, many of whom had once whole-heartedly welcomed the hosts of refugees.

In other words, Lady Liberty, that ultimate Wonder Woman of Western Modernity, with her progressive ideals of freedom and democracy is watching with growing trepidation, as social realities and political radicalization on both sides of the Atlantic are turning millions into hostages of angst and prejudice.

Jeanne Goodman, "Refugees" (2016)
Jeanne Finkelstein Goodman, “Refugees” (2016)

These new “huddled masses” not only represent all those who are crossing borders for better or for worse, they also come to represent all those millions who fear to become victims of escalating violence, ranging from the growing wave of hate crimes committed by right-wing and left-wing extremists to the surging tide of bloody terror perpetrated all over the world by political terrorists and suicidal jihadists.

If Angela Merkel is still the most powerful woman in the world, Donald Trump will soon be the world’s most powerful man. And since his election victory, he has made it already abundantly clear, that he will dramatically reshape the presidency in his own image in order to “Make America Great Again”. On the domestic front, his sweeping proposals range from vigorously rebuilding the fossil fuel industry to severely limiting civil liberties such as the freedom of speech, which could make the burning of the American flag a federal crime punishable by jail or even loss of citizenship. In the realm of foreign politics, he plans to withdraw from international agreements concerning climate change and he considers to abandon long standing, multi-national alliances, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). And last but not least, on the military front, he is determined to expand the nuclear arsenal, thereby raising again that old specter of a nuclear arms race so reminiscent of the era of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. In Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, these two exemplary strongmen of our current world politics, this regressive confrontation would certainly find its two most archetypal representatives. And one madman is still enough to turn this global confrontation into an international catastrophe.

Back to the future of Metropolis: The German expressionist film maker Fritz Lang had modelled his cinematic opus magnum of the silent movie era not only after German Bauhaus aesthetics but above all after the rising skyline of modern Manhattan. What the Weimar Republic of Germany and America’s “Roaring Twenties” had in common, was an innovative energy and creative decadence that imbued and adumbrated both nations and their modern cultures with ancient memories of mythic Babylon. Thus, “Berlin-Babylon” and “Hollywood Babylon” became popular monikers at that time in both countries. From today’s perspective, Fritz Lang’s futuristic masterpiece of Metropolis conjures up even more historical parallels and this time it is to Trump’s trademark tower in Midtown Manhattan. If one recalls Fredersen, Fritz Lang’s supreme leader in his lofty gilded halls, then Trump’s rule high above his showy waterfalls appears to be a veritable trompe l’oeil and cinematic déjà vu.

Fritz Lang’s all-powerful overlord has a son who eventually brings the strife and struggle between those below and above to a peaceful end. And it seems, as if Fredersen’s prodigal son might make a comeback as Trump’s prodigious daughter. Will she accomplish the same, as so many believers say and even more doubters hope and pray?! Will this American reality show par excellence also have a happy ending following the glamorous tradition of good old Hollywood – Babylon?

If one believes in the American Dream, then the sky is the limit. But beautiful dreams can become horrible nightmares, turning that sky into a bottomless pit. Just remember “Ground Zero” – not so long ago! And now on the ground of the former twin towers sparkling waters are falling into commemorative ponds, representing and reflecting the tears shed for all those loved ones who lost their lives in that abysmal tragedy.

Hubris comes before the fall, that’s what ancient scriptures have been warning us all along. But who can decipher today’s writing on the wall, on all those visible and invisible walls from Berlin to Manhattan and on to Beijing and all the way back to Moscow’s towering Kremlin? What one can clearly see from their old ramparts and new parapets, is the rising need for bridges that will unite us in what keeps dividing us. What we need indeed more than ever are bridges over all those trouble waters, from the Mediterranean Sea with all its sinking refugee boats and on to our Atlantic Shores with all its rising flood-water moats!

However, if we don’t believe any more in our reality, in our modern science and our recent history, then we might be indeed doomed to believe in the prophecies of our Latter Day Saints, when the falling towers of mythic Babylon become the rising towers of a modern Armageddon. And then those self-fulfilling prophecies will undoubtedly be the very last of our post-factual realities!

Refugees2
Jeanne Finkelstein Goodman, “Refugees” (2016)

***

“First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin …”, that was one of the most memorable lines of the late Leonard Cohen, one of the great blind seers of our modern times. This special edition of the online journal Glossen is also indebted to his enigmatic vision. It collects contributions from authors and artists from both America and Germany writing on the prospects of freedom and democracy in our Western societies. Three of the contributors themselves had to pay a high price for these precious achievements of our modern times as they grew up in the so-called “German Democratic Republic”, by spending altogether several years of their youth in prison for having demonstrated publicly – quod erat demonstrandum – for more freedom and democracy!

The collection includes also texts from several well-known authors such as Rita Dove, celebrated African-American poet laureate; Freya Klier, Germany’s most prominent civil rights activist; and finally Anna Rosmus, who as a young woman uncovered the Nazi past of her hometown in Southern Bavaria and subsequently emigrated to America in order to escape the death threats of Neo-Nazis in Germany. Eventually she became the role model for The Nasty Girl, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1990. Especially these three voices add additional poignancy to this diverse chorus of transatlantic Cassandra calls.

Their texts are probably best complemented by Michael Panitz’ essay “And in her heart, a wall – A Jewish Lens on a Walled World”. Its scholarly erudition and rabbinical experience offers a historical overview of the kotel, the ancient Wailing Wall – arguably the wall of all walls -, thereby exemplifying and illuminating both sides of walls, whose multiple functions provide shelter and protection, social inclusion and political exclusion, and last but not least, an ubiquitous surface for writings on the wall all over the world, ranging from scribbles to artful graffiti, murals, political slogans, and protest poetry.

The text collection concludes with three pieces which focus on the thematic triangulation of exile, emigration, and recollection. Especially the topic of leaving one’s native land is not only a central thematic feature in this text collection, but also a transformative experience for several of its contributors. Thus, this concluding chapter begins with the review of an anthology by authors  of the PEN Center of German Speaking Writers Abroad, whose texts are inspired by Ovid, antiquity’s most famous exiled poet, it continues with fond memories of Robert Schopflocher, one of the last representative emigrants of the German-Jewish cultural symbiosis during the Weimar Republic and it concludes with a very personal interview with Gerald Uhlig-Romero, the founder of the famous Berlin Café Einstein Unter den Linden, which according to the media had not only  become over the years the central meeting place of the Berlin Republic but also the transatlantic cultural bridge between Germany and America.

Frederick A. Lubich, Interim Editor




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