#FreiheitBerlin? done with walls Berlin?

It was directly on my first day in Berlin, in the subway station Samaritenstraßein the district Friedrichshain where I reside, when this poster first caught my attention. Interestingly enough, and different from the other posters in the subway and the streets, this poster was not meant to sell a certain product, nor was it meant to sell some kind of activity. It seemed to be meant to spread an idea. The idea of Berlin as a city where previous divides belong to history and the presence is full of freedom – supported by the ‘FreiheitBerlin’ hashtag and the well-known photograph of hundreds of people gathering around and on top of the fallen Berlin Wall next to the Brandenburger Tor on the ninth of November 1989.

Curious about the story behind this idea-spreading poster, I did some research when I arrived back home that day. The second Google-hit brought me directly to the website of beBerlin. This is, as explained on the website itself “the state’s official signet and the communicative brand to promote the German capital”. beBerlin is used to “shine a spotlight on Berlin’s diversity and to make Berlin’s way of life a tangible and authentic experience”.  The the beBerlin campaigns addresses issues that give Berlin “its unique qualities, transforming the entire city into an international brand”.

Specifically for the year 2017 beBerlin chose the #FreiheitBerlin because “more than anything else, Berlin in 2017 is an international magnet” where a large variety of people from throughout the world associate a sense of longing with – fair enough. The explanation then takes its praising a few steps further by describing the city in a nutshell as following: “Berlin is vibrant. Berlin is love. Berlin is the Berliners. What sets Berlin apart is the freedom that is present in all areas of the city and that is reflected in the unique Berlin way of life. Berlin is indeed the capital of freedom”. Apparently this freedom is, as beBerlin states, present ‘at all levels’ in the city and is evident primarily in ‘the personal freedom of each individual’ and ‘the liberty to seek personal fulfilment and to live unencumbered by the expectations of others’ – here is where it does become a little extravagant, or is it me?

Is Berlin really the capital of freedom because it is the place where we have learned that ‘walls are never a good idea’? Is Berlin really the capital of freedom because of its ‘unique appreciation of liberty’? Does the absence of the physical division by walls in a place naturally mean the freedom ‘in every conceivable dimension’? It is with these convictions as a fundament that the beBerlin campaign invites all Berliners and visitors to share what freedom means to them through using the subsequent #FreiheitBerlin. A very nice idea, yes – but in my opinion the beBerlin’ers buried their heads a little too far in the sand here.

The poster caught my eye right on my first day in this complex urban space and can be seen as a starting point of my research project. It shows the presence of a need to emphasize the city’s borderlessness, its freedom and the transience of its previous physical divide.  While I do fully agree with the importance of continuing to remember and understand Berlin’s divided past – which not even thirty years after its existence dangerously tends to turn into some sort of movie-like fantasy in some cases – at the same time a sense of uneasiness and incomprehensibility catches me when looking at the poster and reading about the beBerlin campaign.

‘Done with walls’, yes – and that is certainly something to be proud of. But opposing the ‘walled’ past and the ‘free’ present like this does hide the fact that the past wall has its clear effects in the city up until today. Furthermore the poster gives the impression that walls are the only possible divisions in the city and hence, there are no divisions in contemporary Berlin anymore. However, there are many divisions that run through the city today, which have developed both during and after the period of the physical divide by the wall and which take on many forms.

The photograph I took of the poster from the Kreuzberg/Mitte Spree riverside when I noticed it for the second time (to be viewed at the Homepage of this website), shows a tip of the iceberg of these present divisions that run through Berlin. Looking at the Friedrichshain riverside behind the poster, a spectacle of various elements comes together on a stage full of contrasts: An empty building with graffiti protesting against ‘Mediaspree’ (one of the largest property investment projects in Berlin which aims to establish media companies along a section of the Spree) on its façade, right next to a brand new building and a construction crane. A huge portrait graffiti which is actually a Levi’s advertisement, next to a responding graffiti depicting men on horses that target at the portrait. And looking closer, the statements ‘Refugees Welcome!!’ and ‘We are all people’ right next to the Spree bank. This spectacle, in a sense, serves as a concentrate of what plays itself out on the Berliner stage. A stage of interplay between different actors with contrasting views, goals and needs embedded in the past and the present. A stage which is, hence, not solely filled with freedom ‘at all levels’ but also with divisions, borders and immaterial walls.

A central part of this research project consists of putting into question the poster: #FreiheitBerlin? done with walls Berlin?

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