Throughout my time as a student within the K-12 education system, I partook in countless school-sanctioned trips to renowned museums filled with children resisting the urge to touch some ancient artifact. While I acknowledged that these experiences outside of the classroom were enriching, more times than not, I found the acclaimed monuments to be painfully underwhelming. The Liberty Bell that once rang freedom for America was replaced with a replica so experts could work to restore its eighteenth-century quality. The size of Plymouth Rock was smaller than I had imagined and did not seem to epitomize the groundbreaking moment when the Pilgrims hit land. All of these pieces of the past that are advertised to impress simply did not. However, I have found that the underappreciated, often unknown structures are most striking. For instance, most New Yorkers would likely not know that a fragment from the Berlin Wall stands in Manhattan, but how could they?
The massive slab of concrete that once embodied oppressive ideals and unjust borders is presently in a restricted area at the United Nations headquarters. The average onlooker’s eyes would not likely gravitate toward the wall segment, for it is hidden one-story below the public atrium amidst trees and an abandoned construction site that overlooks the East River. It was only after I persuaded a security guard to grant me access that I could view the structure from a close distance. The segment divides an illustration of two individuals desperately reaching for each other’s embrace over the twelve-foot wall that once separated East and West Germany onto three panels with a sliver of space in between each. Pastel hued colors of blue, pink, and green cover the deeper blues, blacks, and reds from post-war graffiti. While a worn iron rod reads “Trophy of Civil Rights” and sits on top of the segment, there is only a small placard of information in minuscule font that cannot be read unless someone were to stand on the base of structure (an action that the U.N. certainly prohibits). But should the average individual have to cajole an employee (and pray that he or she has pushover tendencies) to view such a significant structure?
According to Associated Press writer Edith Lederer, the German government presented the United Nations with a segment of the Berlin Wall because it holds symbolic value as a lasting reminder of a world divided by the Cold War. The president of Germany’s Bundestag (the national parliament of the Federal Republic of Germany), Wolfgang Theirse, unveiled the wall fragment at the U.N. headquarters in April of 2002 in front of 50 guests (Lederer). Thierse was born in communist East Germany and personally remembers how “the wall shaped his life ‘in profound and painful ways’” (Lederer). Kofi Annan, the Secretary General of the United Nations, further justified why the headquarters was the perfect location for the monumental piece of history. He believed that it was appropriate for the U.N., a global nonprofit organization that works towards creating a stronger, more unified world, to have the piece because its efforts to absolve Soviet ideology were present throughout the former war-torn Europe (Lederer). Annan explained that the fall of the wall “helped to liberate the entire international community.” For this reason, the German government entrusted the U.N. headquarters with the segment under the impression that the organization would publicly display the wall in an effort to keep the memory of the war alive.
In a United Nations press release regarding the unveiling ceremony, the organization spoke greatly of the nonprofit’s gratitude for the German government’s generosity and disclosed that the organization would, in fact, fulfill this promise. The release stressed that the Berlin Wall was an offense to the human spirit that divided a country, but also demonstrated human beings’ capacity to construct borders and then “glare across them, hearts filled with hatred, minds full of fear and distrust, all the while numb to the notion that there might be a better way” (“Secretary General Welcomes Gift”). Secretary General Annan emphasized that when we look at the wall segment, it is remarkable how something that once seemed so big in our imaginations turned out to be so thin. He concluded that the couple yearning for each other’s affection over the wall represents the lesson “that divisions in the human community are not so insurmountable as we feared” and “gaps of misunderstanding and material well-being can to bridged” (“Secretary General Welcomes Gift”). As a result, the guests at the unveiling ceremony and the readers of the press release understood that the United Nations had welcomed and added the wall fragment to the organization’s impressive public collection of historical structures.
Although the United Nations publicly claimed that the segment of the Berlin Wall would be on public display for years to come, my findings prove that the organization fails to uphold its promise. Yet the fragment from the Berlin Wall at the U.N. is an important physical representation of history, which warrants its preservation as a landmark located in an accessible, unrestricted location for all individuals to see. Furthermore, as I will argue in this paper, the fragment informs the present as much as it preserves the past. By understanding contemporary political contexts and the historical gravity of the wall, one can better comprehend why the United Nations ought to spotlight the segment, as opposed to allowing it to occupy space in a restricted location.
As a historical monument, the Berlin Wall segment serves as a visible reminder of a vital period in twentieth-century global politics. Hope M. Harrison, a professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University, affirms this historical significance in “The Berlin Wall After Fifty Years,” where he emphasizes that the Berlin Wall is the most visible memory of the Global Cold War—with its rise, duration, and fall all connected to the conflict between the East and the West (5). He highlights that the wall symbolized what some refer to as the “second German dictatorship of the 20th century,” a time when communist East Germany constructed a 27 mile-long death strip complete with barbed wire and armed guards to prevent East Germans from fleeing into democratic West Germany (2-5). Harrison’s comments stress the significance of preserving and displaying the Wall, for it reminds us of the past, which helps ensure that history does not repeat itself again (and again).
Indeed, while we most often associate the Berlin Wall as being exclusively relevant to the Cold War era, the U.N.’s segment from the structure also connects to contemporary politics. Although physical barriers are typically put in place to prevent illegal immigration and terrorism, these structures also perpetuate isolation and differentiate nations based on their political, economic, or religious status. For example, the Israel-West Bank barrier is deeply rooted in conflict between the Palestinians and Israelites, which also pertains to differences in religious affiliation. Moreover, according to The Atlantic article “A World of Walls,” Europe, because of the Syrian refugee crisis and Ukrainian conflict, will soon have more physical barriers than it did during the Cold War (Friedman 4). These barriers, and the hostilities they represent, highlight the importance of displaying the fragment of the Berlin Wall, which, in reminding us of the past, help us to navigate the present.
While refugees have a closer relationship to European countries simply based on geographical proximity, the United States has also played a role in response to recent events. There is a clear undertone emerging that individuals who seek asylum in our country must fit the Americanized mold. More than half of U.S. governors justify their paranoid reaction to the idea of allowing Syrian refugees into the U.S. by stereotyping an entire religion, Islam, as responsible for the actions of one radical group, which illustrates the aforementioned atmosphere of skepticism and fear (Fantz and Brumfield). But this stigma does not have to continue. The discussion can change, and the segment of the Berlin Wall possesses the symbolic power to ignite this action.
During the height of the Cold War, the average West German would likely not believe you if you told him or her that he or she would have the ability to reunite with family on the other side of the Berlin Wall, but the destruction of the wall proves that such despotic borders can become obsolete and countries have the capacity to coexist peacefully. New York City is a perfect example of a harmonious blend of cultures. The United Nations headquarters is located in a densely populated metropolitan hub that was built on the melting pot ideal: people of drastically different backgrounds coming together in the same place. Massive influxes of immigrants entered the city in pursuit of their respective American dream in centuries prior, and exiled individuals aspire to do the same today. If the segment of the Berlin Wall became a landmark, it would serve as a physical reminder for Americans that New York’s diversity depends upon an erosion of barriers. Moreover, the Berlin Wall also importantly reminds New Yorkers that, in times of strife—when we might feel the need to erect new barriers—we must remain resolute.
As a landmark, the wall fragment would display that we should instead acknowledge that people can coexist despite religious, economic, political, or cultural differences. The German government graciously gifted the organization with the piece of the Berlin Wall with the understanding that the United Nations would display it in an unrestricted manner, but somewhere along the last thirteen years this 2002 intention was lost. It is unarguable that the segment has a deep-rooted history regarding the Cold War and aligns perfectly with the ideals of the United States-headquartered global nonprofit. But we must also acknowledge that the piece has tremendous political significance today. Therefore, the segment of the Berlin Wall should be intertwined with the surrounding historical structures at the U.N. and preserved as a landmark that all individuals can both publicly admire and deeply consider.
Fantz, Ashley and Ben Brumfield. “More than Half the Nation’s Governors Say Syrian Refugees Not Welcome.” CNN. Cable News Network, 19 Nov. 2015. Web. 01 Dec. 2015.
Friedman, Uri. “A World of Walls.” The Atlantic. The Atlantic, 19 May 2016. Web. 22 May 2016.
Harrison, Hope M. “The Berlin Wall after Fifty Years: Introduction.” German Politics & Society 29.2 (2011): 1-7. Web. 29 Nov. 2015.
Lederer, Edith M. “Germany Gives UN Berlin Wall Piece.” Midland Reporter Telegram. Associated Press, 5 Apr. 2002. Web. 29 Nov. 2015.
“Secretary General Welcomes Gift from Germany of Piece of Berlin Wall.” United Nations. United Nations, 4 Apr. 2002. Web. 29 Nov. 2015.