Instant History: The Berlin Wall Falls Again (and Again…)

Instant History: The Berlin Wall Falls Again (and Again…)

Instant History: The Berlin Wall Falls Again (and Again…)

By Sunil Manghani

April 21, 2009
Sunil Manghani
With the same familiarity of a nursery rhyme, the simple phrase “the fall of the Berlin Wall” remains with us. It is a chapter heading, a footnote, and of course a turning-point, intercepting the flow of an argument or indeed the contest of political ideologies: after the fall … it all changes.  It denotes a time, a place and a sense of change. It marks a new beginning, as well as an “end of history”. We live in a post-Wall era and that carries with it certain responsibilities, not least how we choose to respond and relate to the media news events that the fall of the Wall prefigures. 
Film crew at the Bernauer Strasse Wall Memorial preparing a news report for the 40th anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall, 2002.

Photo: Sunil Manghani

With the twenty-year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall now upon us, it is likely we’ll get to see it fall again (and again) – with those same pictures of celebration replayed by the news networks and on documentary programmes around world. And so we should watch it all over again. For, whilst the event may seem for some a distant memory, its global importance as a political symbol, marking the wholesale collapse of communism and the purported victory for liberal democracy worldwide, remains a significant feature of our recent history. Nevertheless, for all their historical, social and political significance, very little critical attention has been given to the images of the fall of the Wall. It is as if the pictures – as some form of “Instant History” – were too self-evident a portrayal as to require any further explanation or examination.

Instant History needs to be understood as a complex, layered phenomenon. It can be said to relate to a new kind of transparency of the media, evident, for example, with the rise in 24-hour news reporting, which has the habit of making the very mechanisms and logistics of live reporting itself newsworthy. There is a flattening out of ideological differences in contemporary journalistic practice, but this does not then mean we gain a more complex reporting or picturing of events. We can also consider an event such as the fall of the Wall as a form of instant replay. Not only is its form of history to be thought of as a specific moment in time, as an event, but it also refers to an inherent repetition and circulation of meaning, the event being instantly available for citation and re-circulation; aiding and abetting an ever-present and malleable continuum of history.

Wall painting at the East Side Gallery, Mühlenstrasse, Berlin, 2002.

Photo: Sunil Manghani

The dominant interpretation of the fall of the Berlin Wall is one of celebration and the victory of capitalist, liberal democracy (neatly captured and promulgated by Francis Fukuyama’s thesis of an “end of history”). The morning after the event, for example, the then British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, gave her reaction to the awaiting press: “Oh I think it is a great day for freedom … you can see the joy on people’s faces and you see what freedom means to them, it makes you realise that you can’t stifle or suppress people’s desire for liberty”. It is this part of the story, this theme of celebration, which now comes before anything else.

It is no surprise that Margaret Thatcher used the occasion to extol the virtues of liberal democracy, though it is significant she achieved this not so much through verbal rhetoric, but more shrewdly by letting the images “speak” for themselves; accepting and even indulging in their reality. The problem, of course, is that for those wishing to take a critical stance there is apparently no other way of watching these scenes. In other words, looking at the very same images, there is difficulty in making use of them for alternative political ends, for a Left politics, for example, and/or the all too brief optimistic new politics of the East German opposition groups.

An illustration of this dilemma can be seen in remarks made by the philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who was very critical of “revolutionary” interpretations of the event, arguing that these were imposed by the West, “perhaps to cover the need for remedial work, for making up for lost time” Habermas acknowledges the importance of the images of the fall of the Wall (at least in that we cannot not take notice of them), but seems to suggest we somehow put them to one side: 

Images of liberation and of capitulation telescope into one another; what's left behind is the mournful fact that, of all the data that have brashly been declared as “historical”, hardly one of them will impress itself on the collective memory of coming generations. What happened at the beginning was purity of feeling, a moment of solidarity and joy, indeed a glimpse of the sublime for everyone who empathized with the elated celebration on the television screen; the utterly civil enthusiasm of the streams of East Germans rushing westward, reclaiming their immediate physical freedom. I’m afraid that no historically lasting memories will crystallize from this emotional beginning. – Jürgen Habermas, The Past as Future, p. 40-41.

On one level, the argument is straightforward: the media images of the fall of the Wall distract from the more important historical and ideological shift that brought about the whole collapse of communism and, in Germany, the procession to unification. The images conflict with the view that the “mode of the unification process itself is more important”. This is, indeed, how numerous accounts of reunification are explained, but rarely are they remembered in the way that the images of the fall of the Wall are remembered and re-cited. We might accept Habermas’ argument that the revolutionary “consciousness” that was palpably (and visually) in evidence with the event of the fall of the Wall was not in the end able to secure its future. Thus, the “purity of feeling”, the “utterly civil enthusiasm” and sense of solidarity that the images of this event portrayed were not, in the end, able to fulfil their potential, to carve out a new political future for East Germany, but instead, through reunification, helped settle an existing political and economic framework. This, above all, is the apparent burden the images present for critics of the event.

Wall painting and café kiosk, Berlin, 2002.

Photo: Sunil Manghani

The Germanist Peter Uwe Hohendahl makes a similar observation, explaining that whilst the events of the fall of the Wall are agreed by most to have been, “the right stuff for television”, it is also the case that any subsequent debate about the meaning and implications for the future of Germany and Europe was thought to be more appropriately conducted through the print media. The “public demand” for more in-depth information and analysis is argued to have occurred “precisely because the events that resulted in the unification occurred so fast that those who participated in them […] found it difficult to get a complete picture of the structural transformation”. Yet, the idea of a “complete picture” surely suggests a movement away from the actual images of the fall of the Wall, as if somehow these were never going to be able to show us anything of the “true” nature of the event. Such a view maintains a platonic distinction between the images of the event and the “reality” of the transformation behind them.

The writer and critic Susan Sontag, in writing about our photographic era and the industrial rise of what she calls our “image-world” argues how a platonic distinction is “less and less plausible”. She interjects an ethical dimension, arguing that, as much as real things in the world, we need an “ecology of images”. We need to sift through images in order to make sense of what is truly important about them and crucially, in light of a seemingly overabundance of images, we need to find strategies to keep critically aware of them. In other words, we must not become complacent or fatigued simply because the same images seem to appear again and again (with the same story to tell). Quite the opposite, we need to find the means to remain fresh to the surprises (the affects) that images make. Above all, Sontag argues there is collective responsibility in maintaining critical strategies towards the image-world we have come to make and inhabit. And, significantly, she accepts that strategies can come in the form of the images themselves, noting that the camera is both “antidote and the disease, a means of appropriating reality and a means of making it obsolete”.

The film comedies "Helden wie wir" and "Goodbye Lenin!" provide good examples of how actual archival footage of the fall of the Berlin Wall can be re-appropriated, or re-cycled. Both films present alternative and somewhat surreal accounts of the event of the fall of the Wall, but in doing so help to more concretely illustrate what an image critique of the fall of the Wall might actually look like. Crucially, the idea of an image critique – or “thought-image” to use the phrase of Walter Benjamin – should not be about making final, resolute arguments through pictures, nor about advocating a collection of better, more “truthful” ones. Instead it ought to refer to a more open-ended and on-going process of critical reflection. The thought-image is perhaps better understood as a critical space in which we (re-)discover and wrestle with the full complexity of ideas, things and events. In taking this perspective, we might more adeptly maintain vigilance in the passing of an instant history ...

Dr. Sunil Maghani

The ideas and arguments in this article can be read in extended form in "Image Critique and the Fall of the Berlin Wall" (Intellect Books, 2008) and "Picturing Berlin, Piecing Together a Public Sphere" (Pécuchet, 2008). The author, Dr Sunil Manghani, is Reader in Critical & Cultural Theory at York St John University (UK). His various academic publications appear in the journals "Theory, Culture & Society", "Film International", "Journal of Visual Art Practice", and "Culture, Theory and Critique". He is also co-editor of "Images: A Reader" (Sage, 2006), an anthology of writings on the image from Plato to the present.

References

Fukuyama, Francis (1992) "The End of History and the Last Man". London: Penguin.
[Habermas, Jürgen (1991) "Vergangenheit Als Zukunft", Zürich: Pendo Verlag.]
Habermas, Jürgen (1994) "The Past as Future", trans. by Max Pensky. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Hohendahl, Peter Uwe (1995) "Recasting the Public Sphere", October, 73 (Summer), pp.27-54.
Sontag, Susan (1979) "On Photography". London: Penguin.

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