Summer 2017

Inventory / Concrete Politics

The fragmentary presence of the Berlin Wall in the United States

Courtney Stephens and Pacho Velez

“Inventory” is a column that examines or presents a list, catalogue, or register.

In one sense, the Berlin Wall fell on 9 November 1989. But in another, it still stands, with a number of its concrete panels left in place around the city as monuments. Berlin is not the only site, however, for such acts of commemoration. In the United States, we have identified more than seventy large sections of the wall that are on public display in places ranging from Ripley’s Believe It or Not! to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. But what exactly do these artifacts commemorate? For all their sturdiness—a typical panel weighs around three tons—these portions of the wall are unstable symbols, variously billed as historical artifacts, decommissioned weapons, war trophies, and even artworks. Over the past year, we’ve traveled across the country documenting more than fifty of these installations.

In the early 1990s, as the wall was being disassembled in Berlin, American collectors of all stripes—entrepreneurs, educators, politicians, and military officers—looked into acquiring their own “fragments of history.” To meet the demand, German logistics firms began offering large sections for foreign export. Within a year, eight panels had migrated to Fulton, Missouri. They mark the spot where, in 1946, Winston Churchill conjured the wall in a speech that warned of an “iron curtain descending over Europe.” It would be another fifteen years until the East German state connected various physical barriers into a true border, crafting Churchill’s metaphor out of concrete and rebar, guard towers and orders to “shoot on sight.” In Spartanburg, South Carolina, two panels decorate the front lawn of Menzel LP, a company founded by German immigrant Gerhard Menzel in 1965. His son imported the panels in the 1990s, and adorned each with a plaque facing the nearby highway. One reads “Ich bin ein Berliner,” and the other, “Tear down this wall.” When viewed from a distance, the two panels look like a brutalist petrol station.

What does this obsolete German barrier represent in the American landscape? “Tear down this wall,” either written on a plaque or played as an audio loop, accompanies many fragments, as though these words, uttered by an American president, were the spell that collapsed the wall, though it was actually two years between Reagan’s speech and the chain of events we now call the “fall” of the Berlin Wall. Encountering the quote beside three wall panels at the US military’s Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, as student soldiers file out of a building bearing the words “Near Eastern Languages,” it is hard to see the wall as anything other than symbolic justification for the United States’ next foreign intervention.

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