By Robert Terrell
Two of the largest mural collections in the world are on the remnants of the Berlin Wall and the architecture that encompasses San Diego’s Chicano Park.
One adorns a wall that for decades stood for the division of Europe and Cold War animosity, and has since come to symbolize the enduring spirit of freedom and peaceful revolution. The other is a memorial to another history of power, exploitation, and marginalization. It is a space that remains contested in the city of San Diego just as our president-elect promises to build a new wall to keep Mexicans out.
Twenty-seven years to the day after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Donald Trump began his transition to power, his long effort to deliver on many divisive promises. Border wall included.
Reflecting on the Berlin Wall in this context urges us to remember that national and international politics happens in the everyday, too, and that actual people are left holding the bag. Both mural collections are a testimony to the people who get caught in political systems beyond their control and which operate independently of their interests.
One of the most famous images on the Berlin Wall features Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev kissing his East German counterpart Erich Honecker. The text with the image reads, “My God, help me to survive this deadly love.” It refers to the sentiment of so many people caught between the catastrophic alliance between East Germany and the Soviet Union. It’s a testament to the people divided by the Wall – those stuck in the middle of a geopolitical order that built walls between people who didn’t want them.
In the course of 2016, similar images of Donald Trump kissing conservative leaders appeared around the world — echoes and warnings of future deadly loves. They included Ted Cruz at the Cleveland RNC Convention, pro-Brexiter Boris Johnson in Bristol, UK, and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Vilnius, Lithuania.
Should Trump deliver on his July 21 suggestion that he will abandon our NATO obligation to protect the Baltic States from Russian invasion, it’s the people on the ground who will have to survive the deadly love of Trump and Putin captured so clearly in the Vilnius mural. The morning after Trump’s election, our European allies already began to fear this becoming a reality.
San Diego’s Chicano Park is a space in the city that memorializes the American seizure of Mexican land spanning from present-day Texas to Oregon. The murals commemorate the exploitation and systematic exclusion of Mexican laborers ranging from agriculture to the construction of the Coronado Bridge itself.
The park as an urban space testifies to a history of systematic persecution, the existence of which has been written out of conventional history and public consciousness.
The structural roots of the Coronado Bridge are in the Chicano/a working class neighborhood of Barrio Logan. Through the 1960s and ’70s, city officials fought the demands of local leaders to create an urban park in the space originally designated for junkyards. Pointing to the betrayal of the community, local leaders demanded and won the park, but it has since been a site of political contestation. The murals testify to this experience writ large. Ongoing contests for the meaning of the space embody a struggle for a liberal and multicultural future for our city.
As the U.S. awaits a president promising a border wall and so much more, let us remember that the Berlin Wall was built to keep people apart and imposed from above at the expense of those on either side of it. The fall of the Wall in 1989 embodied the enduring human desire for peace and unity. If that can survive multiple decades of authoritarian division, we can survive four years – or, at worst, even eight. But humanism still requires work, as always.
The border wall is a potential but perhaps unlikely future. Many said the same of the candidate promising it. In spite of his claims to the contrary, President-Elect Donald Trump cannot fix our country for us. Only we can.
Part of that involves remembering those lost or written out of politics. Educating yourself about these people — those lost, purposefully silenced, and facing concrete divisions — is vital. If 1989 taught us anything, it’s that people have the power to make change. They can topple walls both physical and metaphorical. But not by pretending that they don’t exist and not by succumbing to thinking that they have no power to shape the world.
November 9 reminded us not only the fall of the Berlin Wall but also the 1938 Night of Broken Glass, the first open anti-Semitic violence in Nazi Germany. As hate crimes spike and Swastikas appear across this country, we should remember more than ever before the many sorts of contests that can and should happen between state power and populist hatred.
Robert Terrell is a doctoral candidate in Modern European history at the University of California, San Diego. He specializes in the history of Germany in global context in the 20th century.