Standing By the Wall (By the Wall)

Tourism Lit: The Berlin Wall Museum

The Berlin Wall, May 1989. (Ken Kurson)

The communist world is fallin’ apart
The capitalists are just breakin’ hearts
Money is the reason to be
It makes me just want to sing Louie Louie – Iggy Pop

And the state

Was on the other side

– David Bowie

Our Rough Guide to Berlin says this about the Wall Museum: “Overall, though, the huge collection is
somewhat jumbled and rambling, and not quite the harrowing experience that some visitors expect.”

About which, more must be said – at least by this visitor, who landed in Berlin on Tuesday.

A little nostalgic hits-of-the-80s music please, Maestro. Let’s get into it.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, I was living in Austin. My source of income was precarious. A little of this, a little of that. Mostly working as a carpenter’s helper. But also teaching one class at ACC: a class in philosophy, about ethics. For which I had a text book that I threw out, and just photocopied a buncha the great texts and handed them out – The Gorgias, Nicodemean Ethics, Prolegomena to a future metaphysics of morals, Geneology of Morals, bits bits bits. Good bits.

I’d spent 4 years in Austin by that time. I came there to study philosophy, to get a Ph.D., and gave up that idea after two years, because the emotional climate of the department and the emotional climate of Roger Gathmann just didn’t mix. So I was thinking about my next move: garbage man? Secretary? Also, I wanted to right high fiction following in the footsteps of the masters. In the meantime, I talked at various tables, in various coffee shops. A leftist, of course.

When the Wall fell, I didn’t experience it from TV. Surely I saw the images somewhere, but for me, it was all text – after all, I was following in the footsteps of the masters. It was the newspapers. It was in my head from newspapers and photos in news magazines.

I was excited. I’d lived under the threat of nuclear war my whole life, and that was bad, ridiculous, ignoble. Also, it had long been obvious that the paradise of “really existing socialism” was run by a bunch of geriatric prison guards who tossed their critics into prisons, and were incapable of running the system with any efficiency. The industrial system was filthy, a black hole of social costs (what else was Chernobyl), negative externalities out the butthole. It was all very nice for the Soviets to align themselves with the anti-colonial struggle, but by 1968 at the latest it was obvious that the jig was up. Andrei Amalrik, now forgotten, got it right in his 1970 book, Will the Soviet Union survive until 1984? While the schtick of the Soviet establishment was to make its rule seem eternal – which is the schtick of the American establishment, circa 2018 – the energy spent on the image was weakening the thing itself.

In 1989, I considered myself a Marxist, but one of those critical kind. Of course, I was aware that there was some bad faith mixed in with that characterization, but we all gotta live. Anyway, point is that I was brimming with the historical moment, and even had a forum, my philosophy class, to brim away in. My poor kids, though, didn’t see it like this. In fact, every class I taught in philosophy in the eighties would make a mockery of the assumptions of 19th century philosophers, who would vaunt freedom as our greatest good. These kids didn’t think about freedom, or freedom of thought, at all. And though, in their very lifetimes, the U.S. had spent a good twelve trillion dollars on the military, ostensibly because Americans felt that the freeing up of the Russian and Eastern European masses was of a much higher priority than, say, national healthcare – the good news that our expenditures were bearing fruit did not seem to brighten the eye or your average 18 year old.

Looking back, over thirty years, it is obvious that they were right and I was wrong. The removal of the Soviet threat unleashed the kind of capitalist shit that so undid the world in the first half of the 20th century. I’ve become a convert to the Misfit version of history. The Misfit, in Flannery O’Connor’s story, A good man is hard to find. You’ll remember the end of the story, when the Misfit shoots the Grandmother dead. Then one of his boys says something about her, and the Misfit says, “She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” Which is rather how I now think of the U.S. and, in general, the West. Without the Soviet threat, I doubt that the Great Depression and the War would have been followed by the greatest rise in working class wealth in history. I doubt that the wealth inequality of the Western nations would have gone down. I doubt that health care would have become a human right in the civilized places. What we have seen in the thirty years is that pigs will be pigs.

But that’s another story. This is just to present the background for our visit to Checkpoint Charlie, the place where the American soldiers in Berlin kept watch on their Soviet counterparts. Next to which, on Friedrichstrasse 45, you find the Wall Museum.

Yes, I was expecting an anti-communist fiesta. But I was not expecting a museum with such a revisionist theory of history. In the Museum’s history, the Nazis came from, apparently, outer space. First we get World War II. What happened in World War II? Why, the brave Germans tried to resist terrible Hitler (whose picture is oddly muted among the pictures of all the world leaders on the walls) under Klaus von Stauffenberg, the German colonel who tried to blow Hitler up on July 20, 1944 – very fine, and I like Stauffenberg, who died under torture, too, but let’s face it, an army officer attempting to assassinate Hitler as Germany was losing the war sounds less like resistance to me than buyer’s remorse .

The museum, though, after getting hyper-excited about Stauffenberg, setting the stage, so to speak, for the tale to come, then turns its attention to the atrocities of World War II. No, not the Jews. Not, especially, 3.5 million Russian soldiers who died in the p.o.w. camps. No, the atrocities in question concern the German soldiers kept in Soviet concentration camps after the war. After that, it is on to Soviet atrocities, like the German soldiers kept in Soviet concentration camps after the war. No mention, of course, is made here of Dachau, Matthausen, or the Once you wipe these things out, it is much easier to speak of the moral equivalence, the coin toss, between Hitler and Stalin.

That equivalence was the burden of the song of the rightwing German historians in the 1970s, who were fighting against Willy Brandt socialism and radicalized youth. And nobody spread this idea more than Axel Springer. So I suppose, in retrospect, that I should not have been surprised to see his portrait hanging in one of the Museum halls, combined with one of those elogious explanatory plaques. Nor that the portrait of Reagan hung in another hall. With a plaque explaining he was an American hero.

Springer doesn’t push many American tourist buttons. It is hard to explain his influence or his politics. He was Rupert Murdoch crossed with Berlusconi. He was a sign, a terrible sign, of the future. His publishing empire combined a staff in which a considerable number of ex-Nazi bigwigs held positions of power; but, in a twist, Springer media was always wholeheartedly for Israel. Long before American evangelicals traded in their old hatred of the Jews as Christ-killers for their new love of Israel as a great place for most of the Jews to be decimated and the rest converted (as per Revelations), Springer was there, making a strategic change to Israelophilia in a European rightwing tradition that was default anti-Semitic.

Thus, as we toured the hot, hot building – Berlin is hot, the world is hot, and the major polluters are doubling down on destroying the Holocene, I kept thinking in the dusty heat – I noticed, like the Rough Guide writer,  that the exhibits were oddly off-track. What was a whole room devoted to Guernica doing here? But looking at it as a whole, that makes sense. If you are not going to include Auschwitz on your itinerary, Guernica is a very nice, portable atrocity. It reduces the scale of atrocities to put the crescendo on a German bombing that took place in Spain, before the war. Everybody can be against Guernica, we can pull out the reproduction of Picasso’s painting, and we don’t have to ask any difficult questions. And it avoids making atrocity the core principle of the state.

Springer – for us literary types – is remembered, as well, through Heinrich Boll’s novel, The Lost Honor of Katherina Blum. Another prophetic work! Boll saw that rightwing media operated through systematically stripping people of their dignity – punching down hard. Katherina Blum has a one night stand with a man who joins a leftwing terrorist group, and her life is destroyed by the press, who depict her as a whore, a terrorist, scum, etc., etc. Finally she agrees to meet the journalist who is on the anti-Blum crusade for an interview, and shoots him dead. I believe, I haven’t read the book in years. It famously upset Springer, who threatened to sue. Boll included this disclaimer at the front of the novel.

“Persons and incidents of this story are invented. If the description of certain journalist practices bear a similarity with the practices of the Bild-Newspaper, these similarities are neither intended nor accidental – but unavoidable.”

Why is it that I suspect Murdoch has a picture of Axel Springer up in his office? He should if he doesn’t. He owes much to the man.

Mourn the victims of the Wall, but, for their sake: don’t go to the Wall Museum. Advice from a friend.

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