‘We build too many walls and not enough bridges.’ (Isaac Newton)
Travelling 33 kilometres from Münchberg in former West Germany to Mödlareuth at the edge of the former East, yesterday, felt like travelling 33 years back in time. The first occasion on which I had visited the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR) was shortly after the infamous Berlin wall came down, and before the subsequent German reunification that confined the now-defunkt DDR to the history books. I was struck, then, by how colourful it was in the East, in contrast to the documentaries we saw on TV where it was almost invariably depicted in shades of drab grey, black and white. The next thing that struck me was how naïve I had been to imagine the East was really like that.
Unlike most state boundaries around the world, the DDR’s border with its ominous walls, fences, watch towers, searchlights, minefields and patrols with dogs and guns at that time were designed primarily to keep the DDR’s own citizens in, rather than – like a former US President’s vision of his own big wall – to keep other people out. According to the Netflix documentary ‘Merkel’ (2022), former German Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel’s upbringing in and experience of living behind the DDR’s stretch of the iron curtain had a significant psychological influence on her resistance to hard borders in and around the European Union. The past has a way of playing itself out in the present.
The parts of the East that I visited this week looked remarkably similar to how they did all those years ago. The physical border is gone, except in those places where remnants have been preserved to retain a sense of history-as-real and to educate intrigued visitors and tourists. The ongoing cultural differences and economic disparities between West and East, however, continue to have a marked influence on German politics. The pale-painted houses still look now as they did as before, some like symbols of a distant, decaying past that lost and never quite managed to recover and regain their former glory. The new cold war, gaining in foreboding heat, carries a disturbing resonance.
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