Borders: real and imagined

6/23, Vacha

I’ve been thinking a lot about borders and boundaries while we’ve been here. Borders are completely artificial, even when they’re physical, yet they are very real, very political man-made divisions that separate us in consequential and concrete ways. The inexplicable loyalty we feel to a place because of the boundaries imposed by some mapmaker, explorer, ruler, or politician hundreds of years ago, or in some cases, only recently, exists nearly everywhere in the world. All you need to do is talk to a Berliner about someone from Bavaria, and the strength of loyalty to state over loyalty to nation will become immediately apparent. (I know, I know…I’m one to talk, right? Minnesota is always on my heart. Figuratively and literally). German nationalism is a different beast than American nationalism, but loyalty to the bundesdländer: that’s real, and very strong.

While in Vacha, in addition to our incredible school visit, we had the chance to take a brief tour of the town, and experience a museum dedicated to telling the story of the Jewish residents of the town. We heard from the former Headmistress of the school that we had just visited, who left her position to research and develop the stories of the Jewish residents of Vacha that she and others shared with us. Vacha is a town situated right on the former East-West German border, and we had the chance to climb the tower next to the museum in order to see the border first-hand. From the tower, we saw the division between the former East and West Germany, and a guard tower that was maintained to remind citizens of the world today about the separation and the legacy it has in modern Germany.

Standing in this tower in Vacha, in the state of Thuringia (Thüringen in German) provided another profound German experience with the artificiality of borders. There was no visible divide; the grass was the same green, the houses looked the same, the water in the river didn’t flow opposite directions. It was a completely artificial division that stood for very real, tangible things. This division ruined, and in some cases, actually cost lives. It broke up families, it broke alliances, it broke economies, and it broke spirits for decades of Germans, both then and now. One local story we heard was of the house that fell right on the border in the photo above. Portions of it couldn’t be inhabited by the same family while the Iron Curtain remained, so the family packed up those rooms, and lived only in the portion of the house in West Germany. That was just one example of the very real division of the country during the Cold War.

One of the requirements for participation in TOP is the creation of a unit to be shared with other teachers to improve the teaching of Modern Germany. The unit I will be writing has to do with this notion: the importance of borders, the continual shaping and reshaping of them, and the human impact of these imposed divisions. I’m particularly interested in how the East-West division still affects a unified Germany today, 25 years later. Because of my experiences in Korea last summer, I’m also hoping to see if I can make comparisons between the successful and less successful aspects of German reunification, and the current barriers to Korean unification. If I can pull it off, it’ll hopefully be a thoughtful, useful way to frame current events by contextualizing them in the past. The importance of the lasting legacy that is associated with those boundaries has become increasingly apparent as we travel the former Iron Curtain. We’ll visit the Point Alpha Foundation tomorrow, which plays a significant role in educating about and maintaining the former border itself, and will be an incredible opportunity to learn about the East-West divide, and actually walk the border that figuratively and actually divided the world during the Cold War.

In a time where borders have become fundamental components of our daily conversations, and are consistently used to fan the flames of political rhetoric and division, the continuing importance of the Iron Curtain and borders in today’s world is striking. I’m hoping that as I reflect on this experience now and during the school year, I can help my students think meaningfully about sovereignty, conflict, and other boundaries around the world; the Korean Peninsula, US-Mexico, Sudan-South Sudan, Russia-Ukraine, China-Tibet, and so many other conflicts over man-made boundaries and artificial divisions. Difficult and important issues to think about, especially in working to help the young people and future politicians and policy makers I get to teach make sense of our world.

MC Lean

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