When conducting a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to commemorate the recent destruction of the Berlin Wall, Leonard Bernstein substituted the word freude (joy) with the word freiheit (freedom) in the choral part of the fourth movement, thereby rechristening it from “Ode to Joy” to “Ode to Freedom” for the occasion. The Wall fell on November ninth, 1989, 30 years ago. Despite the tedious outrage of the orthodox guardians of conformity, Bernstein judged his moment in history perfectly and the word change in the symphony turned out to be both apt and poignantly moving. But the point was widely missed by many all the same, because precisely twenty seven years to the day after the Wall’s destruction, America woke up to the heart-breaking reality that Donald Trump had won the presidency.
The irony only just now occurs to me as I write this, but in early 1990, I received as a gift a small chunk of the Berlin Wall from the hand of a man who is today a Trump supporter. He was then a pastor of a church, an intellectual, a graduate of Berkeley, a translator of books and articles from German to English by profession and a decent human being.
In another story from ten years earlier than that, in 1980, I heard from a friend, this one from Poland, who was a fellow student of mathematics at my university. He told me of a time a few years earlier still when he fell for an East German girl and travelled from Kraków to her East German town to be with her. In short order he was intercepted by the Stasi, the secret police, and whisked to the border where he was put on a train en route to the other side of the Wall. As the train departed he was told, “East German girls don’t go out with Polish pigs.”
These disjointed, unrelated accounts from one small, observing life, tell the same story: walls are bad but not everyone knows it. Walls divide, they differentiate, they delineate and they breed the speech of hate, they are as ugly as bigotry in their construction and as magnificent as Beethoven in their destruction. They crystalize the mission of the jackbooted fascist, cut like razors across the lines of youthful romance and are occasionally too thick and too high and too deep for learned men to comprehend the monolith of their evil. Walls are symbols of the worst impulses of the human spirit and are employed chiefly as ironic reminders that we sometimes must be vigilant against those very impulses. Walls are slavery and their absence is freedom.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.