Mauerkrankheit: notes for an introduction

For the last several weeks I’ve been neglecting this blog and working on revising my Walls book. I am trying to transform my heap of editor-marked pages into a smoother-reading second draft for my deadline next week. In the meantime, and with thanks to Geoff Berner and Dr. Seuss, here is an excerpt from the recently rewritten introduction:

Human civilization has always been preoccupied with border barriers and fortified lines. In the first century AD, the Roman Emperor Hadrian built a 120 kilometre limestone wall across Roman Britain. Scholars still debate what Hadrian intended with his barrier. Some suggest he built the wall to exclude from his empire the savages he failed to conquer, or to control trade and immigration. Others wonder if the wall had any utility at all beyond a theatrical expression of imperial power; plastered and white-washed, the wall would’ve shone for miles in the northern sun. Hadrian’s wall continued to impress long after the plaster flaked off and the Roman Empire had given way to the British one. In 1754, English antiquarian William Stukely gushed that Hadrian’s Wall was only exceeded in its brick-and-mortar might by the grand patriarch of human walls, the Great Wall of China. Stukely wrote that the “Chinese Wall makes a considerable figure upon the terrestial globe, and may be discerned at the moon.” One must admire the confidence of an 18th century earth-bound scientist to describe what can be seen from the moon. As it turns out, his claim was both bold and incorrect; the Great Wall of China cannot be seen from the moon. But the myth, like the wall, endures.

So does the impulse to build walls. In the 1800s, the Danish repurposed an ancient Viking Age wall as a military fortification in their war with the Prussians. In the 1870s, Argentina built a line of trenches and watchtowers called the Zanja de Alsina to protect Buenos Aries province from invasion by the indigenous Mapuche. At the beginning of World War II, France constructed a concrete barrier along the border with Germany to defend againt a Nazi attack. The French further fortified their Maginot Line with artillery battlements, machine-gun installations and anti-tank barricades. The Line did not impress Hitler’s army who simply marched around it. Later, East Germany built their own wall. The Berlin Wall went up in 1961, dividing east from west for almost thirty years.

The Berlin Wall made Berliners sick. In 1973, East German psychiatrist Dietfried Müller-Hegemann observed that the Berlin Wall caused psychosis, schizophrenia, and phobias in the East Germans who lived in its shadow. Those who lived near the wall suffered behavioral problems such as rage and dejection. They showed elevated rates of alcoholism and suicide. The closer to the physical wall his patients lived, the more acute their disorders. One woman even suffered lock-jaw. Müller-Hegemann called the syndrome Mauerkrankheit, Wall Disease, and though he could not thoroughly research the syndrome for fear of prosecution, Müller-Hegemann predicted depression, despondency and high suicide rates would persist in Berlin for as long as the wall stood. The only remedy was to bring it down. Sure enough, in 1990, another East German psychotherapist named Hans Joachim Maaz wrote of the “emotional liberation” felt on the November night the wall finally fell. “The wall’s fall was the emotional climax of the unloading, the cathartic breaking-through of the unconscious. The emotional blockage unclogged, the repressed came to the surface and the parts that had been split apart, united.”

The humiliating failure of the Maginot Line and the emotional liberation felt as Berliners chipped their wall into souvenir dust hardly dissuaded the world’s wall builders. South Africa built a 120-kilometre electric fence, dubbed the ‘Snake of Fire’, along its border with Mozambique in 1975 to keep violence from the civil war there from spilling over the frontier. Until South Africa turned down the voltage in the 1990s, the Snake of Fire’s 3500-volt venom killed more people than the Berlin Wall ever did. Elephants trampled down most of the fence since then, but the South African government is now considering re-erecting the barrier to keep Mozambican poachers from killing rhinos. The United States turned Baghdad into a labyrinth of vertical concrete and is now building a wall along the Mexican frontier. India built fences along its borders with Pakistan and Bangladesh, and through the disputed region of Kashmir. Fences separate North and South Korea and keep Zimbabweans out of Botswana. In addition to the barrier around the West Bank, Israel just completed another wall along its Egyptian frontier to keep out migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. Greece is doing the same along its border with Turkey. In spite of their fevered opposition to Israel’s walls, nations of the Middle East are fortifiying their own borders. Kuwait walls out Iraq. Saudi Arabia walls out Yemen. Iran walls out Pakistan.

And the walls do not just rise on national borders. In the middle of the night in August 2006, the Italian city of Padua encircled the quarter of Via Anelli with a steel wall three metres high. City officials had grown weary of the drug trafficking, prostitution and gang violence in Via Anelli, a run-down neighborhood populated mainly by asylum-seekers from Africa. Padua relocated the residents then brought the wall down. In eastern Slovakia, a concrete wall rose in the village of Ostrovany on the edge of a Roma slum to keep ‘gypsies’ from raiding their neighbors vegetable gardens. Economic apartheid replaced racial apartheid in Johannesburg, South Africa where the wealthy, middle-class and poor alike enclose themselves within walled communities.

These physical walls feel like a throwback to antiquity. Weren’t the walls supposed to be coming down? We speak of globalization, international markets and global villages. Barriers to trade and travel keep falling, and we can communicate with anyone instantly from nearly anywhere in the world. But just as these virtual walls come down, real physical walls rise. Economics and electronics may link us, but we are increasingly divided by bricks, barbed wire and steel.

The proliferation of new walls perplexed me because history has not been kind to the old ones. The very idea of a wall represents such negativity that their builders often reject the word ‘wall’ altogether. The East German government prohibited East Berliners from using the term ‘Berlin Wall’ and insisted they refer to the barrier only as the “anti-fascist protection bulwark.” The new walls inherited these semantics: only opponents of Israel’s West Bank barrier and America’s border fortifications call the structures ‘walls.’ Supporters call them fences, a much softer word. I decided early on to refer to all the barriers I visit as ‘walls.’ Even when their physical structure more resembles a fence, the barriers still act as walls. They exclude and divide. The word ‘fence’ suggests something built of white pickets where neighbors might meet to exchange gossip and a cup of sugar, an image far too benign for the barriers I intended to examine.

The old walls inspired scorn and, when they failed, ridicule. Vancouver musician Geoff Berner sings bluntly about the Maginot Line:

Maginot Line. Maginot Line.

You thought you were so safe and strong.

Maginot Line. Maginot Line.

Stupid! Stupid! You were wrong.

And no less an artist than Dr. Seuss took on the wall. In The Butter Battle Book, an allegory of the Berlin Wall and the Cold War, an agent with the “Zook-Watching Border Patrol” brings his grandson to see the Wall on the “last day of summer, ten hours before fall.” The Wall stands between the Yooks and the Zooks, and the grandfather explains the absurd necessity of the barrier to the boy:

“It’s high time that you knew

of the terribly horrible thing that Zooks do.

In every Zook house and in every Zook town

every Zook eats his bread

with the butter side down!

“But we Yooks, as you know,

when we breakfast or sup,

spread our bread,” Grandpa said,

“with the butter side up.

That’s the right, honest way!”

Grandpa gritted his teeth.

“So you can’t trust a Zook who spreads bread underneath!…

Wisely, Dr. Seuss did not try to rhyme ‘anti-fascist protection bulwark.’

I understood why nations would choose to raise the walls. Everyone can grasp ideas of political territory and national security and threats from outside. The Ming Dynasty feared the Mongols, the French feared the Nazis, and the Israelis fear terrorists from the other side of the Green Line. East Germany wanted to keep their citizens inside while America wants to keep undocumented Mexicans out. But the idea of being personally walled out is an alien one. I come from a country bound only by oceans on three of its edges and the world’s longest fenceless border on the fourth. We call this border ‘undefended,’ and we mean it as a boast. My nationality grants me access anywhere. Nowhere in the world bars my entry. No place claims I am not wanted or not worthy. No one has ever built a wall for me.

What of those who live alongside the new barriers? What does the wall mean for those living in the borderlands between the United States and Mexico? Or India and Bangladesh? The Berlin Wall came down, but do the residents of divided Cyprus and Belfast suffer their own strains of Mauerkrankheit? I wondered what it meant to be walled out, or in, and to live a barricaded life. I wanted to discover what sort of societies create the walls. More than this, though, I wanted to know what societies the walls themselves create.

I suspected I would learn little from reading political pronouncements or staring down at lines on a map. From a distance, the walls are just social and territorial constructs. But for the people who live against them, those for whom the walls were built to include or exclude, the walls stand as cold physical realities. I needed to be where the posts are pounded into the ground and a country stakes its territory in bold concrete. I needed to be among those who butter their bread in the cool shadow of the walls. I wanted to understand why the walls exist, what they mean to those who live within them, and how they make us sick. So, in February 2008, because it seemed as good a place to start as any, I flew into the Sahara.